Johnston McMaster and Cathy Higgins Book Review: Signing the Covenant – But Which One?

WP_20121003There are always alternatives.

While events may look like they were inevitable after the fact, Johnston McMaster and Cathy Higgins’ book, Signing the Covenant – But Which One?, asks us to recognise that not only are other options always possible – but we should put our imaginations to work to conceive of them.

Signing the Covenant, published this year by Yes! Publications, is part history, part theology. It is aimed at a popular audience, and seeks to:

  • Understand the context in which the Ulster Covenant was conceived
  • Critique the “Covenant Theology” used by Ulster Protestants of the time to justify violence
  • Critique the “culture of violence” created in part by the “God and Guns” theologies both of Ulster Protestants, and Irish Catholics. For example, McMaster and Higgins read the Easter Proclamation as a religiously-infused, mirror image of the Ulster Covenant
  • Construct an alternative theological conception of covenant, based on a radical reading of what “covenant” means in the Hebrew Bible
  • Offer suggestions on how Christians today on the island of Ireland might utilise the resources of this Hebrew covenanting tradition to develop new, alternative covenants for a shared and peaceful future

McMaster and Higgins are both adjunct professors where I work: the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin at Belfast, as well as Senior Research Writers and Educators with the Ethical and Shared Remembering Project of the Junction in Derry/Londonderry.

Signing the Covenant reflects their many years of work as adult educators in the community, with chapters that could form the basis of a series of discussions for church or community groups.

What makes McMaster and Higgins’ work more than just a critique of Ulster Covenant theology and Ireland’s “God and Guns” culture of violence is their treatment of the Hebrew covenanting tradition, particularly their emphasis on its inclusivity and socio-economic aspects.

Indeed, McMaster and Higgins acknowledge that many church-going Protestants in Northern Ireland have been raised with the taken-for-granted assumption that Ulster’s Calvinist tradition – and the Ulster Covenant itself – reflects the values of the Hebrew covenanting tradition.

But for McMaster and Higgins, this is far from the case. Arguing that the Hebrew Bible and the scriptures of the early Jesus Movement (especially the Gospels) should be read in ‘the shadow of Empire,’ they reject all notions of a war-like God that ‘fights for’ his ‘chosen people.’

They present the resort to using God to justify violence as a distortion of the covenant, and understand passages such as the Psalms that urge God to inflict violence on their ‘enemies’ as the cries of lament of an oppressed people, rather than directives that will be carried out. They write (p. 61-62):

“A decontextualised reading of the Bible has not only led to violence, it has also led to distortion of God and social ethics. The biblical covenant was the radical Jewish alternative, both in its vision of a non-violent God and its alternative vision of human community. … at the very least covenant is anti-violence, or as the Hebrew prophet Hosea saw it, anti horses and chariots, the weaponry and war machine of his 8th century BCE. The dependency on such violence and weapons of violence, and the mystique built around them, he saw as a violation of the covenant. And that was 800 years before Jesus taught and lived radical, active non-violence in Roman-occupied Galilee! There is something not only very radical about the Jewish-Christian idea of covenant, but also something very subversive. It completely subverts and undermines all trust in horses and chariots, all dependency on God and guns, and all the sacred aura and mystique we invent around them, including the supreme sacrifice and bloodletting that is part of it.”

In the fourth and final chapter of Signing the Covenant, McMaster and Higgins urge readers to imagine how people on these islands might start thinking together about how to live out what they identify as “Covenant Values” (which they explain in some detail in the text):

  • Righteousness/Right Relations
  • Social Justice
  • Steadfast Love/Social Solidarity
  • Non-Violence
  • Inclusivity
  • Shalom/Well-Being

They devote considerable time to demonstrating that the Hebrew covenanting tradition was designed to keep the poor from becoming marginalised and economic systems from becoming unjust (for example, through “Jubilees” in which debts were forgiven and slaves set free).

The covenant’s concern for the disadvantaged should give us all pause for thought. What can this concern for the poor say to the Ulster Covenant’s concern about the ‘material well being’ (of, it might be suspected, one group over another)? What can it say about the current crisis in global capitalism, and the vast inequalities that have been created?

McMaster and Higgins see these covenant values as the basis for a “social ethics” that can transcend “the traditional party politics of Ireland, north and south” and “provide a solid foundation for the common good vision.”

This leaves me to ask:

Who on these islands is up to this sort of task?

Are the churches?

Christian activists?

Who might imagine compelling alternatives for a better future together?

There are limited numbers of the book available for purchase (£10) at the Irish School of Ecumenics at 683 Antrim Road, Belfast. Readers can also try contacting the Junction to check availability.

I will write a follow-up post if and when the book becomes available electronically.

Other posts on the Ulster Covenant:

What Can We Learn from the Winning Entry in the Orange Order Song Contest?

Alternative Covenants, Alternative Perspectives: More Reflections on the Ulster Covenant

Fr Martin Magill – In Joyful Hope: Lamenting our Divisions and Striving Towards a New Covenant

What’s Shared Eucharist Got to Do with the Ulster Covenant?

David Trimble and Michael McDowell on the Ulster Covenant

How will the Churches Remember the Ulster Covenant?

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