Johnston McMaster on Signing Up to the Covenant: An Alternative Vision for the Future

imageBeginning this year, (some) people in Northern Ireland are already planning to commemorate a series of historically divisive events, which occurred between 1912 and 1922. These events have the potential to open up old wounds and animosities and destabilise progress towards good relations and reconciliation.

Are there alternative ways of looking at these events? Can we talk about them together, and see others’ perspectives on them – even if we cannot agree? And can the churches offer any ethical insights into how we might think about these events?

Rev Dr Johnston McMaster has laid down a thought-provoking contribution to this process in his lecture on ‘Signing Up to the Covenant: An Alternative Vision for the Future.’

It was presented as the Centre for Contemporary Christianity’s Catherwood Lecture, Thursday 8 March, at Edgehill Theological College in Belfast. McMaster, a Methodist minister, lectures on my School’s Education for Reconciliation Continuing Education programme.

The lecture can be read in full here, and it is expected that the Centre for Contemporary Christianity will soon post audio of the lecture, as well as publish it as a booklet. The Chair of the Centre for Contemporary Christianity also said that there would be some discussion around Covenant on this weekend’s Sunday Sequence.

The lecture is wide-ranging, drawing on McMaster’s personal family history, historical events, and theological reflection rooted in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. For me, two broad points stand out as particular important:

The Relationship Between the Ulster Covenant (1912) and the Easter Proclamation (1916)

McMaster said that the two documents, ‘are a mirror image of each other, because they share five common themes together. True, Covenant and Proclamation represent two immovable objects on a collision course, but each is driven or propelled by the same five themes’:

  • God
  • Militarised Politics
  • Equal Citizenship
  • Civil and Religious Freedom
  • Self-determination

It is sobering that on all parts of this island, people have struggled to live up to the ideals of the last three themes, and that militarised politics and what I would call the appropriation – or even abuse – of God for people’s own purposes have been more dominant trends. As McMaster said:

God and guns were the inevitable part of the myth of redemptive violence and in Irish consciousness, or Unionist and Nationalist consciousness, reinforced it. The centrality of God and guns to both Covenant and Proclamation ought to raise huge ethical questions, and for a minority of Unionists and Nationalists, it was a big ethical issue. It was also an equally massive theological issue because what was this militarised God-image based on and could/can a militarised God, a God on either side or both sides, be ethical? Was the God of the Covenant and Proclamation ultimately a God of death, requiring the blood sacrifice of many for the cause of Ulster, Ireland or Empire? Is this the major ethical and theological question which people of faith need to face as never before in this decade of commemoration? Is this the decade to demythologise the myth and rescue God from guns, violence and militarism? Is this a decade, beginning this year, for a huge moral leap and transformation of consciousness in Ireland?

Reclaiming a Biblical Conception of Covenant

Ways in which Christians might reclaim a Biblical conception of ‘covenant’ occupied the bulk of McMaster’s lecture. This can be seen as an essentially theological project, one which simultaneously asserts that the way in which God was used to (violently) underwrite the Ulster Covenant (and well as the Easter Proclamation) was wrong, and yet is confident that the Biblical concept of covenant has much to offer a society looking to build a better future.

It is in developing these types of alternative theologies that the churches can take up the challenge of offering ethical insights on how we might think about our past – and our future – together.

McMaster said:

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, in Covenant, remembering is looking forward and imagining and implementing something different. It is what we are doing in every act of liturgy and worship, the Jews in Passover and Christians in the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper. Memory and hope are held together, inseparable. The liturgical short-hand for this is, ‘do this in memory or remembrance of me’, and ‘as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes’. Looking back and looking forward, memory and hope, and this ought to be at the heart of every act of worship. We remember and vision at the same time. We rehearse the memory of exodus, exile and the Jesus story, and in doing so we re-describe, reconfigure the world, differently. It is not, therefore, enough to simply remember or re-enact what we think happened in 1912 or 1916. We do remember, but in a way that embraces hope and looks forward, visioning a common good for all that is different. Memory and hope mean we are active history makers, making new and different history. And that is Covenant.

McMaster also identified six ‘core covenant values’:

  • steadfast love
  • justice
  • righteousness
  • inclusivity
  • non-violence
  • peace

He expanded on all six of these points, ultimately concluding that:

‘Covenant is essentially economic, alternative economics, alternative social-economic relations. It’s a vision of a different way of ordering and managing political and economic society. What we have in the Judeo-Christian Covenant is:

  • A vision for the present and the future, that it can change and be different
  • A vision in which memory and hope are inseparable and that releases us from the past into a different future
  • A different social vision shaped by core ethics and values
  • Practice of social solidarity and compassion
  • The just and neighbourly ordering of pubic power, resources and life
  • Radical inclusivity, a society in which none are diminished or left out
  • No appeal to, use of, or dependence on violence to control or change things
  • Total human and environmental well-being and flourishing
  • Economics ordered and managed as a moral economy
  • Just economics
  • Persistent commitment to the poor and vulnerable.

That is Covenant! Would my grandfather sign up to it? I can’t presume to know what he would do today. Would I sign up to it? Yes!

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