Sermon preached by the Archdeacon of Tuam,
the Venerable Gary Hastings in
St Fin Barre’s Cathedral, Cork
on Sunday, 17th April, 2016
1916 Ardeaglais Chorcaigh 2016
Christ tells us that we are not to judge anyone. Judgement belongs to God alone. It is something to keep in mind as regards this commemoration of 1916. The people of 100 years ago are long gone. I don’t just mean the leaders of the Rising, or the rank and file involved, I mean the entire people of the island of Ireland at the time. And the British Government, the soldiers, the RIC, all the ordinary people, everyone touched by it. Millions of them. History can give only a glimpse of them. They were all very deep, complex people. There were pressures and influences on them at many different levels: society and family, religion and education, newspapers, songs and stories shaped their expectations, needs and wishes, their decisions. Our own life today is an equally complex web of influences all bearing on us at any one time. How can we begin to understand people who lived 100 years ago who were shaped by a very different cultural situation from us? We hardly understand how we tick ourselves, so we are not fit to judge even our nearest and dearest, never mind people we have only heard stories about. We may seek understanding, indeed we should, but not to judge; we can only try to see to the best of our ability, with kindness and compassion, what they were about, and why, and where they might have liked things to go.
Our view of the whole process of which 1916 was a part is obscured not just by the passage of time, but because it subsequently turns from story or history into myth. The word ‘myth’ in ordinary conversation means something untrue, something which doesn’t exist. But as a technical term, myths are narratives imbued with deep meaning above and beyond the story they tell. They are deeply influential on our thinking, on our lives. They are perceived as being an embodiment of Truth, and they contain instructions, attitudes we mirror, take unto ourselves. 1916 is one of many myths influencing our world. Myths aren’t all religious; myths are frequently political, or social ideologies, notions and fashions floating round in our culture.
To speak of myth in this context of this cathedral here today is important. The myth that created this wonderful building, that underlies our Christian faith, is the myth of Jesus Christ. That word is rarely used in Christianity because it sounds like a dismissive put down, but it’s not. The story of Christ, the Gospel, is imbued with meaning far beyond the events reported in it. So it is by right called a myth. It has influence on how people think and see the world, how they perceive others, and themselves. It lays out a Way of life, it is a source of hope, comfort and direction. While it is about the spiritual, the philosophical, the unseen, it is also solidly, squarely here and now in the real world of life and death, pain and pleasure, happiness and sorrow, politics, war, the internet and taxes.
—As with the myth of 1916. Philosophy, spirituality, life and death, pain and pleasure, politics, ideology, language, sport, culture, concepts of nation: much went into 1916 and much came from it. The myth of it has directed and driven thought and identity, intentions and wishes in this country for a hundred years. The 1916 myth is even a facet of the mind of Northern Unionism, if only at the level of reaction. My own people in Belfast may know very little historical detail about 1916, —but they know what they don’t like. The myth I was reared with has a different number. Not 1916. —1690, Derry, Aughrim and the Boyne. No Surrender. That myth also influences how people on this island think and see the world. There are many more myths out there, Progress, Science, Economics, other religious faiths, but also the global ‘Facebook/Twitter/Youtube/Internet’ cultural myth and identity growing in our lifetimes here and now, and going we’re not sure where yet. Lots of myths. Lots of calls on our loyalty, our hearts and minds, our pockets, our lives.
One important facet of Christ’s teaching, Christ’s gospel is that it provides a critique, a way of understanding the cultural soup in which we live and thus helps us see it as it really is. It gives us a critical faculty. All of us are reared within a culture, we swim in it like fish and mostly don’t notice it’s there. And our culture is full of currents and streams: opinions and ideas and influences and myths that affect us and move us. Christ lived in the culture of Roman occupied 1st century Palestine. But his gospel critique still works for our culture. The basis of it is that there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, no male or female. There’s just us. The important level of society is not the nations or institutions, the power structures, the armies and churches and parties. It is the personal level, the interaction between you and I. That relationship, Christ teaches, is to be one of love and compassion, of self giving and generosity, — and not as legally obliged outward behaviour, it is to come from the workings of our heart. We are to give and forgive, accept and serve others. Love God and love your neighbour as yourself. It is the yardstick we can put beside all the other myths of our culture to see how they shape up.
All myths should have a health warning on the side of them. They inspire people, drive them, move them. So they are a rich source of influence and power. Power is possibly the most toxic and intoxicant thing that humans have come up with. We love it too much. Ideologies or political parties and movements can be raised up on a great wave of mythical, subliminal belief. Just like a religious faith. And any myth can be perverted and misused. The power of the Christian Church before this, for example, has been a contradiction to the gentle gospel of Christ.
I think this country is coming to the stage in its history where it can begin to look more clearly at its founding beliefs. At the myths and stories that have fuelled the political movements that we see around us today. And I think we can begin to interrogate them as to what they contain that is for the long term good of the people, and what may be misused in the short term interests of those who merely wish to win.
So we have to be careful when we hear myths invoked. We need to stand back and ask, who wants power, and why? Did those leaders and idealists who died in 1916 envisage or intend the Ireland we have ended up with? The myth may appear simple and powerful, but the reality is always massively complex.
The myth of 1916, and the myth of 1690, strangely enough, are part of each other, and we must put them both under the spotlight of the gospel, and see how they shape up. Not to judge those who were involved back then, as I say, but to see what the worth of those myths is in our present day.
Christ’s gospel is not triumphalist, it does not seek power, to rule absolutely. The gospel is actually about not winning. It is about sharing, giving away, self giving, serving, for the sake of love and to seek the good of the other. As Christians that must be our priority.
We are in a new time. Neither 1690, nor 1916. We are not obliged to fight our ancestors’ battles forever. The battles we face are in a new situation, with a new culture, with the many needs and wants of the people of our time to be looked after. The world of the century past is full of hard, cruel lessons, at home and beyond. Let us commemorate them in order to contemplate them, to learn how to avoid them, heal them. We need to sift our myths and see what goodness and kindness and sense there may be in them, and see what serves the homeless, the refugee, the poor, the old and very young, the sick.
Christ said, ‘Let the dead bury their dead’. We must be very careful of people who say they speak with the voice of the dead, —the dead are silent. This is true in both church and politics.
The dead envy us. We have the chance of doing it well, doing it better, doing it now, fixing it, whatever it is, with kindness and compassion for all the people of this island but also in the wider perspective of the whole earth. The goalposts have been moved. Not all the myths of our past speak clearly to our present. Old simplistic nationalisms, old myths, Orange and Green, imperialist or revolutionary, have no answers to global warming, global greed, pitiless economics, shrinking resources, hunger, want, disease, war, massive inequality.
When we look hard and carefully at the myths that come down to us, we do not dishonour our past, or our people, who did their best in their place and time and lives. They belong to us and we to them. But Christ asks us to make choices and decisions based on love, not history, compassion not tradition. The obligation on us from the gospel is one of love. Christ gives us no alternatives. Go gcoinne Dia ar bhealach ár leasa sinn. Áiméan.