Heschel on Northern Ireland

OK! I’m not sure that Heschel ever had anything particular to say about the situation in Northern Ireland, but I have been intrigued by how he faced the issue of racism in the US. It has long been said that slavery is America’s original sin. Its impact is seen in the demography of inner city neighbourhoods, ongoing, everyday racism against black people, and even in the current election process and people’s lack of comfort (to say the least in some cases) with a black candidate. It is also seen in the again oft-quoted parable that 11am on a Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the American week.

We’re not ones to throw stones. We have our own issues, and sectarianism is perhaps our original sin. It stems from faulty theology on both sides and a lack of familiarity with one another in the stuff of daily life. 11am has also been the most visible expression of our separation here in Northern Ireland.

I’m intrigued by the lack of engagement by church people with outsiders in relation to faith and conflict, or faith and racism. I’ve said before on this blog that we have broadly neglected the work of MLK for instance, and I’m not sure I’ve ever heard sustained engagement with his theology in relation to the work of the church in situations of division.

So I was interested to see how Heschel treats the matter.

Consider this quotation in relation to the work of the prophets in Israel, from his book The Prophets,

Few are guilty, but all are responsible. If we admit that the individual is in some way conditioned or affected by the spirit of a society, an individual’s crime discloses society’s corruption.

In terms of polite NI religious society this is the equivalent of the booze-sodden tramp who slides into the back pew for a doze. We know he’s there, but we carry on regardless, sneaking glances over our shoulder every now and then to ensure he hasn’t stolen anything.

For Heschel, the prophets were radical and subversive, and the politics of their day, as in ours, had to have a spiritual dimension which served both to increase moral sensitivity and produce correct action. He writes in The Prophets,

The purpose of prophecy is to conquer callousness, to change the inner man as well as revolutionise history…the prophet hates the approximate, he shuns the middle of the road…The prophet is strange, one-sided, an unbearable extremist.

We produced no shortage of unbearable extremists, just not too many of the prophetic kind. We grew, and I fear continue to grow, increasingly callous towards those who are different – socially, religiously, ethnically – and if we’re not careful, our history will become our future too.

Finally, speaking at the first National Conference on Religion and Race, Heschel famously offered this wonderful piece of exegesis,

At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses. Moses’ words were: ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, let my people go that they may celebrate a feast to me.’ While Pharaoh retorted: ‘Who is the Lord, that I should heed this voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and moreover I will not let Israel go.’

The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The exodus began, but is far from being completed.

In fact it was easier for the Children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses.

Wow! That is explosive stuff. The application of that exegesis to NI society doesn’t need to be spelt out, even so, I’m not sure too many of us could say those words with appropriate alteration, from many pulpits here.

– it was easier for the Children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Catholic/Protestant [delete as appropriate] to
a) go to our school;
b) enter our pulpit/church;
c) work/play here
d) marry my son/daughter

And so we must admit that the Exodus is not yet complete . At least not here in NI.

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