Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Muscular Christianity?

What with the hysteria over an Islamic cultural centre in New York and the constant video on rolling news of Islamic clerics encouraging jihad, we should stop for a moment and consider that other faiths aren't entirely free from heavily-armed clerics: plenty of rabbis have committed acts of terrorism or encouraged them - Meir Kahane springs to mind.

More important, in terms of numbers, are the Christians who've taken up arms, mostly against each other. In medieval times, a Bishop was expected to accompany his King onto the battlefield, and the struggles against 'heresy' often saw the clergy wielding the red-hot pokers and sharp implements. The English Civil War certainly saw a large number of preachers and pastors emerging from - or merging with - the Army of the Commonwealth. Militant Jesuits kept the True Faith alive in Protestant Britain and Ireland before liberation. Elsewhere, we've seen armed liberation priests in South America (stamped on by the Church but very successful politically).

So perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised at the news that a Catholic priest, James Chesney, was the IRA's Director of Operations in South Derry in the early 70s - a story which was covered up by the police, the UK government and the Catholic Church until today. The Catholic Church didn't support Irish freedom but became a fan of independent Ireland when the new state handed over control of all schools and most hospitals, with brilliant results, as you know.

Chesney, however, seems to have joined the IRA, as many young men did, in 1972 as a result of the apartheid style treatment of the Catholic community and in particular the slaughter of Bloody Sunday. Where he went wrong was to entirely lose his moral compass, as many did in those dark and morally confused times. Rather than leading his people in a self-defence against an oppressive state and their sectarian terrorist allies, he planned unforgivable atrocities, particularly the Claudy bombing, in which a child was killed amongst nine fatalities - none of them military or police officers.

We're a long way from the image of a spiritual leader invoking the doctrine of 'just war' or the ideologically committed warrior-priest. Instead, a man sworn to peace and understanding became a cold-blooded murderer, immersing himself in the technicalities of explosives and timers. He was no Republican hero, nor defender of the people. Just a killer.

What happened to him? The Church, under pressure from a UK government which didn't want to arrest him, moved him across the border, where he died at the age of 46 in 1980. I'd love to have heard his last confession…

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