About “Irish Slavery”

This is not a political column. A political column would say:

BLACK LIVES MATTER!

But I am not a liberal. Holding a sign is necessary, but not nearly enough.

This is a radical religion column.

At issue: There is a section of my ancestral group who makes a big deal about Irish people having been slaves in the U.S. This is not literally true. You can find details in history books, or you can talk with your grandparents, or Snopes.

What gets my goat are white liberals who are outraged that any white person should claim having been oppressed, or who are, in their opinion, exaggerating. As though degrees of hatred and suffering are a bickering point. Thereby ignoring the roots of oppression.

You probably know this: In 1847 a movement called “Irish Lives Matter” would have been revolutionary, and more than a little helpful. The British decided that Irish, being poor and Catholic, were not quite human, and so were free to send in military, steal land, create wealth during the famine, and then they, literally, drove carriages to their estates passing corpses and people dying on the roadsides. Irish lives did not matter. Not because they were Irish, but because the structure required our being crushed, as they were crushing black Africans.

One group of people recognized that Irish lives mattered. The Choctaw people of Oklahoma sent relief money to Ireland during the famine, just sixteen years after white people force-marched them on the Trail of Tears. (This year Irish people sent respirators to Native Americans ignored by our white supremacist government.)

Conservatives use the phrase “All lives matter,” as an excuse to ignore blatant systematic racism. Don’t let them usurp the truth of that statement.

With apologies for those of my ancestral group who see solely through the lens of their own experience, think a minute. Are some trying to downplay the oppression of blacks by displaying their own? Illogical, but probably.  Was there a time when the British should have been confronted with an “Irish Lives Matter” uprising? Yes.

When I see the face of an elder black woman who has battled through hardship and hatred, who has come up loving and strong, I see my grandmother’s face. In that moment, I do not care which woman suffered more. My body aches. What I do know is that  Black people are rising up again against injustice and everyone of us must join together to radically change a structure that depends on the crushing of Black people.

The lesson, as BLM has been trying to make clear, is that Black lives matter right now. The system that requires their oppression needs more than defunding. When that happens, no one need fear that they will be next, re: the wisdom of pastor Martin Niemoller.

These are the things I learned from my family, Jesus, Buddha, from Thich Nhat Hanh, the Choctaw nation, innumerable others who embody the universality of living things. The universality  of suffering, unnecessary suffering. Of the sacredness of social justice.

If you are are tempted to comment that Blacks suffered more, or Jews suffered more, or Native Peoples suffered more, or that group is exaggerating, or this group isn’t suffering as much as it did before, you’ve missed the point.

The impossibility of encompassing it all, comparing it all, doesn’t matter. When humans come together and say, “Never again,” we can rest. And tell each other our stories.

But I’m not holding my breath.

“Kindred Spirits” County Cork, Ireland
thanking Choctaw Nation for famine relief in 1847

[A version of this column appears in The Ashfield News , MA, July 2020.]

What Ever Happened to Hell?

A number of books have been written this century by people who have gone to heaven and returned: Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife, My Journey to Heaven: What I Saw and How It Changed My Life, Heaven Is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back ( The little boy later said he made the whole thing up. Sounds like he has a lot of repenting to do), Heaven Looks a Lot Like the Mall (This title tempted me, but turns out that, unlike the others in this genre, it’s fiction.)

For some reason books such as: Near Death Experiences in Hell: The True Stories of 10 People Who Went to Hell During their NDE, have not made it to the best seller lists. Hell is no longer as popular as Heaven. Not even in churches anymore, though Hell had been a mainstay for Christian churches for centuries.

I blame this shift in popularity on the lack of education in the humanities. Dante’s Inferno would keep anyone on the straight and narrow (literally). That being true, it is also true that Dante critics agree the images of the Inferno are far more engaging than the images of Paradiso. Likewise, Milton’s Paradise Lost stars an engaging Lucifer, the ultimate bad-boy hero.  Perhaps Robert De Nero or Jack Nickolson or, new-comer to the genre, Kevin Spacey could take a crack at Milton’s Satan. Heaven may be a nice place, but hell is riveting. Hell is a real guy thing; heaven is way too girly, like chic lit.

Read our Jonathan Edwards if you must: “…without a doubt the torments of hell are inconceivably great…” He goes on to praise God for hell because watching the torments of their fellows makes their own joy greater. What is more Christian than that?

Great literature is chock full of murder, lying, cheating, forbidden lust, battles, war, conflict of all kinds. All the things that land people in hell. In King Lear we watch the main character destroy himself because of his own tragic flaw. The audience longs to shout out to him, “No! Don’t banish her!” We watched it for the first time in 1606 and watch it still. Riveting. 

Though heaven has bypassed hell as the place to be, the tables are turning. Hell is entering more conversations, partly because people are increasingly able to create it for ourselves. A new hero, Greta Thunberg  is a voice crying in the wilderness foretelling fires, suffering, unending destruction. The visions are terrifying and frighteningly real. We love her.

In “Patheos” this July Chuck McKnight wrote that progressive Christians should be preaching hell more. “So maybe, rather than immediately rushing in to clarify what we think Jesus means by hell, we should instead take a look at what gets Jesus so worked up in the first place.

“The standard Evangelical teaching is that hell is a place for those who don’t believe in Jesus ….More often than not, biblical references to hell and judgment are in response to social evils carried out in the here and now.

“For example, Jesus preaches hell for those who harm children, he preaches hell for those who fail to welcome strangers or provide basic necessities for those in need, he preaches hell for those who hoard excessive wealth, and he really goes off on hypocritical religious leaders who use their faith as a mask to hide their own complicity in such things….”

Now those things are very riveting. Hellish even.   

                                             

from Leiden Special