Tuesday, 16 March 2021
How does Anglican mission
challenge injustice and
violence and pursue peace?
Diocesan Lenten Study Group:
Tuesday 16 March 2021
The Very Revd Niall Sloan, Dean of Limerick
The Five Marks of Mission agreed throughout the Anglican Communion are:
● The mission of the Church is the mission of Christ
● To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
● To teach, baptise and nurture new believers
● To respond to human need by loving service
● To transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation
● To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth
This evening, we are looking the fourth mark of mission:
To transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation.
For many years, I have been involved at different levels with a number of mission agencies on these islands.
I have visited mission projects around the world, including Romania, Egypt, South Africa, Namibia, Hong Kong and China.
For the past six years, I have been a trustee of one of the oldest Anglican missions, USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel).
I chose this fourth mark of mission this evening because of my own personal commitments in discipleship.
When I realised I was going through my first adult experience of Christian faith – experiencing the love and light of God in what I have described as my foundational existential experience – fifty years ago, I was only 19. I was inspired at that time by the example and witness of Gonville ffrench-Beytagh, the Dean of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Johannesburg.
Black people on a vigil on the steps of his cathedral were attacked by police with sjamboks or rhino whips, and the dean opened the cathedral doors, offering these victims of violence sanctuary in his cathedral.
It was mission: opening the doors of his cathedral to the world.
It was mission: demanding the transformation unjust structures of society, in this case the institutionalised racism of apartheid.
It was mission: challenging violence of every kind. Once we challenged violence of this kind, we have to challenge every form of violence, from domestic violence behind closed doors to global violence that threatens the nuclear annihilation of human existence.
It was mission: the pursuit of peace and reconciliation, between black and white, between oppressor and oppressed, through the end of a system that relies on systemic discrimination and violence, and has a vision of living together in harmony.
Later, I became involved in a number of groups involved in demands for justice, including the Anti-Apartheid Movement, and in campaigns for peace and disarmament, so that for many years I have been the president of Irish CND (Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament).
That is only by way of both a personal introduction and what might be called in business ‘a declaration of interest.’
But I am not here this evening trying to recruit, or to advocate one particular approach, campaign or mission agency. I am here this evening to help us to take a closer look at this fourth mark of mission.
Three aspects to consider:
So, this evening, there are three parts of the fourth mark of mission we are looking at:
1, To transform unjust structures of society,
2, to challenge violence of every kind and
3, pursue peace and reconciliation.
Let us take these three parts, one-by-one:
1, To transform unjust structures of society:
When I consider this call to mission, I find myself asking a number of questions, which we may discuss in our discussion section later on:
What are the unjust structures of society today?
Is there institutional violence in Ireland today?
Is it built-in to our economic, political and social structures?
An example of built-in structural injustice is provided this week in data from England’s mass vaccination programme, showing a 25 percentage point difference between vaccination rates in rich and poor areas just miles apart.
Who are the victims of these unjust structures?
Women? Ethnic minorities? Travellers? People marginalised because of their gender, sexuality, social class, education or lack of education, disability or different ability? The long-term unemployed? Adult children whose parents cannot afford to support them through third-level education? People in rural communities without access to appropriate public transport because ‘it does not pay’?
Long after the pandemic of Covid-19 has passed, the pandemic of racism is going to continue to infect our society. The rise of the far-right in Europe, and the four years of the Trump presidency in the US, have coincided with a new wave of anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial and violent attacks on synagogues.
What should be the response of the Church?
How do you feel about images the police response to the women’s protest on Clapham Common on Saturday night?
If the police do not seek to bring about justice, whose responsibility is it?
Is it part of the mission of the Church to point out those cases of structural injustice?
And, if so, what are the appropriate ways, beyond prayer, for individual Christians and for the Church to demand the transformation of those unjust structures, without being party political?
One of the abiding images of injustice in our societies today must be the police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd as he tries to say, ‘I can’t breathe.’
2, to challenge violence of every kind:
Injustice is directly related to violence, whether violence is used as a way of imposing injustice, or violence is used as a way of resisting injustice.
I felt this over the past few days as I watched on television news a chain or sequence of events unravel.
Male-on-female, or misogynistic violence, is so inbuilt into society that women have lost all that was achieved many years ago through the ‘Reclaim the Nigh’ marches.
A young woman, Sarah Everard was stalked and preyed, apparently by a policeman, the very embodiment of the public structures that should uphold justice and challenge violence; she was, it appears, the victim of his violence; and when women protested against these circumstances, they too appear to have become the victims of societal violence.
That may not be how things happened. But that is how it appears to have happened, particularly to women.
Perceptions or ‘optics’ are always important. And men need to see this from a women’s perspective, and an issue not just for some men to deal with but for all men to face up to.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, in his response to this horrific sequence of events, has been to condemn the sin of male violence and abuse, as to call for repentance and action.
‘Testimony after testimony from women over recent days have shown us something we have known and ignored for far too long: the profound impact of the sin of male violence, intimidation, harassment, sexism and abuse carried out against women,’ he said.
‘It is these sins – and the culture that perpetuates and condones them – that need our urgent repentance, our fervent prayer, and our resolute action as men.’
The perceptions of personal violence may be represented this week in the image of Patsy Stevenson being held down by police officers on Clapham Common.
Violence is endemic in our society, from violence behind closed doors, to the threats of nuclear Doomsday. It is a chain of responses and attitudes that are intimately linked in an ever-deepening spiral, vortex or cascade.
The Jesuit theologian Father Richard McSorley said it 45 years ago (1976): ‘The taproot of violence in our society today is our intention to use nuclear weapons. Once we have agreed to that, all other evil is minor in comparison. Until we squarely face the question of our consent to use nuclear weapons, any hope of large-scale improvement of public morality is doomed to failure.’
There is a multiplicity of responses. But the problem is so great that I believe we must be open to a variety of responses, because no one, single response is going to provide a solution.
Personally, I am a pacifist, as a response in discipleship. But both my father and grandfather were in the army, and I recognise and respect that there are other, valid responses for Christians.
I make a point of observing Remembrance Sunday with dignity and respect; I have deep respect for military chaplains; I have often found more common ground than most could expect with people in the military; and, in the past, I have encouraged some students to consider training for army chaplaincy.
One of those common points of agreement is that war is not so much a failure of armies or the military. Too often, the truth is, war is the failure of politicians to listen to the military and to act on the advice of diplomats.
3, Pursue peace and reconciliation:
The Roman historian and politician Tacitus is often quoted for saying: ‘They make a desert and call it peace.’ Writing in The Agricola, he wrote ca 98 AD:
‘These plunderers of the world [the Romans], after exhausting the land by their devastations, are rifling the ocean: stimulated by avarice, if their enemy be rich; by ambition, if poor; unsatiated by the East and by the West: the only people who behold wealth and indigence with equal avidity. To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace.’
The absence of war is essential for peace, but it does not pursue or create peace.
The great 17th century Jewish theologian Baruch Spinoza wrote in 1670: ‘Peace is not an absence of war, it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice.’
In the 20th century, Albert Einstein said something similar: ‘Peace is not merely the absence of war but the presence of justice, of law, of order – in short, of government.’
We could say that in Northern Ireland for almost quarter of a century we have the absence of violence, but we still have to see a genuine pursuit of peace and reconciliation.
So, the Anglican Communion is neither original nor creative in linking challenging injustice and ending violence with the pursuit of peace and reconciliation.
Questions for Discussion
1, What are the inbuilt injustices in Irish society today?
2, How must men respond to violence against women today?
3, Do we have peace in Northern Ireland, or the absence of violence?
4, Is there such a thing as a ‘Just War’?
5, How ought we respond as the Church and as Christians to these questions?
I want to close with an image from the current military coup and protests in Myanmar.
In the city of Myitkyina in northern Myanmar, on Sunday 28 February, Sister Ann Roza Nu Tawng knelt before a group of armed riot police and troops with her hands up in the air.
She then got up in tears, appealing to the forces not to shoot.
Sister Ann Roza was working at a clinic when she heard shots being fired at the protesters.
‘I was running towards where they were beating the protesters. It was happening in front of this clinic. It was like a war,’ she said. ‘I thought it would be better that I die instead of lots of people.’
‘I was crying out loud. My throat was in pain, too. My intention was to help people escape and be free to protest and to stop the security forces,’ she explained.
‘I asked them not to continue arresting the people. I was begging them. At that time, I was not afraid,’ she said.
Sister Ann Roza said the people were defenceless in the face of the military.
‘They are supposed to protect us, but our people have to defend themselves. It’s not safe. They (the security forces) arrest and beat those who they don’t like. They kill them,’ she said. ‘There’s no one to protect Myanmar people. People have to defend themselves and help each other.’
The image of her standing in front of police has been compared to the image from Tiananmen Square in 1989 during a crackdown against protesters of a man stopping a column of Chinese tanks with his body.
But it also a powerful image of women and the Church speaking out against violence and injustice and for peace.
One of the Collects at Morning Prayer prays:
O God, the author of peace and lover of concord, to know you is eternal life, and to serve you is perfect freedom.
Defend us in all assaults of our enemies,
that we, surely trusting in your protection,
may not fear the power of any adversaries;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Next week: Tuesday 23 March 2021: ‘To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth,’ Canon Jim Stephens (Tralee).