This week is Palm Sunday for many Christian-identifying people around the world, and I am holding the words “triumphant entry into Jerusalem,” as many texts describe this event, with the image of Jesus on a donkey’s colt, flanked by people waving palms and yew branches. Without the weight of tradition built up around this story, there is something absurd and beautiful about a figure who was always messing with expectations around representations of power.
Otherwise, I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about Irish history, and, in particular Northern Ireland and the Troubles. I do this because I am writing about a Catholic poet from Derry, but more because I want to understand the context I live in, and the differences between imaginative spaces in Ireland, the US and the UK (all places where I have lived). From a critical theory perspective, the US and the UK feel much more in sync, and there is something about how the resources accumulated by imperial powers include a space within which to construct the very frameworks to critique imperial power and begin one kind of process for healing. In other words, Ireland thinks a lot more about Britain thinks about Ireland. It might not have occurred to people outside of Ireland that the year of Brexit is exactly one hundred years after the year of Partition between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland — a history I can hardly claim to have a firm grasp of — it hardly occurred to heads of government that Ireland shares a land border with the UK, and that Brexit would threaten the peace that followed three decades of sectarian violence during the Troubles.
What does any of this have to do with theology and spiritual/religious practice? In a way, everything. In these places — and Ireland is one of many — where church power fused with state power for so long, and to such a damaging effect, it can feel now that there are no longer any available forms for spiritual/religious practice that aren’t prohibitively bound up with so much trauma that there’s no way they can ever be nourishing. So then, any kind of space for this practice, if it is to be nourishing, has to happen differently. I keep thinking that conversational spaces might just be the barest form of a relational spiritual practice. Here is a text I’ve thought about a lot this week, from one of my favorite conversation-havers, Pádraig Ó Tuama. He is talking to the Methodist historian and theologian Rev. Dr. Johnston McMaster, for the Corrymeela podcast. And here, Pádraig is asking something like “what is the role of church/ religion?” (the whole episode is worth listening to):
Rev. Dr. Johnston McMaster: … I think in the last lot of years, as we’ve seen the breakdown between church and state, religion and politics… I think we’ve witnessed the churches, generally – I’m talking generally now – going into flight. And I think they… we have come through the three decades and more of violence. But I think we too easily got to the end of that and thought: ‘the violence is over, back to business as usual’. There was no radical shift in theologies. There was no major working out a theology (for example) of social reconciliation. There was no kind of working through a whole radical public theology; a new public theology that would apply ethics to the big social, public questions of our time and generation. And I think, therefore, the problem for the churches is that they are theologically not fit for social reconciliation, or social peace, or common good. They don’t have the theology worked through, because there’s not been sufficient reflection. There’s not been a process of deconstruction, and then a process of reconstruction; there’s not been a shift of hermeneutic that allows theology, sacred text, foundational documents to be interpreted and read from a sociopolitical ethical perspective. And until we start to move much more along those lines, I think there will continue to be a diminution of the institutional forms of religion here…
I can easily see this question being relevant in the US and other contexts, as well. I would like to sit with this, specifically, with the question of who or what institution, if any, IS “fit for social reconciliation, social peace, or common good.” Can a religious institution do it? A state structure? At another point in the conversation, McMaster describes democracy as “the best form of governance that we have until we invent something else (and I don’t think it’s beyond the ingenuity of human beings to come up with another form of governance that may be better)” — and I wonder why it is still so difficult for Christian leaders to reckon with Indigenous forms of knowledge and community and governance. I don’t mean in some nostalgic, get-back-to-pre-colonial-purity sense, but as an acknowledgement that something went horribly wrong. I am obviously not suggesting there’s an answer to any of this, much less an answer that could come in an hour — and of course, answers are not the point.
Here’s a poem I think about a lot in relation to all of this.
Every once in a while
we need a
that will strip language,
make it hold for
a minute: just the
vessel with the
wine in it –
refusal to multiply,
and the single
And here’s the lectionary, for the lectionary-inclined.
Coffee Hour is a lightly facilitated, gently theological online space where you are welcome, no religious commitment assumed or expected. It happens every week at 1-2pm Irish time. The password changes (today it is: JohnstonMcMaster); the video conference link is always the same: https://meet.jit.si/CoffeeHourWithFriends2021