Jesus of Nazareth did not declare himself head of a sovereign Zion. He did not instruct his followers to seize control of Jerusalem, killing anyone who resisted. Contrary to the hopes of his closest followers, he submitted to arrest by the occupying Roman authority and healed the only injury caused on his behalf. He then accepted an ignominious death – and his followers dispersed in disillusionment.
All of this is clear from the Gospel text. Yet, in the lifetime of this Irish Catholic (born in 1943), none of this has ever been explicated by any Irish Catholic prelate in a commentary on the 1916 Rising.
Tirelessly voluble on questions of procreation, our episcopal magisterium is silent on a critical national question: the identification of an unmandated seizure of political power by force with the event that founded the Christian tradition.
So, a "resurrectional" Easter event that shed the blood of others could indeed be an imitation of the passion and resurrection of Christ, as Patrick Pearse and others insisted – for all that we Irish Catholics have been taught by those who claim our conscience. Not, of course, that our magisterium has ever explicitly said so.
Everything is unarticulated in this context – even the clear difference between accepting a fatal blow delivered by others, and the ordering of a violent seizure of power.
So although Christian sacrifice as idealised in the Gospel is clearly distinct from any violent sacrifice that requires the involuntary death of another, we never hear of that distinction – even in the context of Catholicism’s central ritual, the Mass.
As though in commentary on this matter, a
movie arrived at the turn of the year to 2016, revealing at the end a starship at rest on the Irish island of Skellig Michael. A
heroine climbs a steep stone stairway to a vertiginous height and small stone cells – all built originally by Christian monks. Her story is also one of republican struggle against an evil empire, by humans channelling “the light side of the Force” against “the dark side”.
That dark side is always monstrous – led in this instance by a towering malignant figure. This is the always repeating trope of the action-hero movie genre, from the simple Popeye cartoon to the James Bond and Die Hard franchises.
Real heroes, and now real heroines too, have never any option but violence against an always brutal and always physically contrasting malignancy. Despite the starship, historians know that this repetitive movie plot endlessly recycles the foundation myth of the Babylonian empire, the story of the hero-god Marduk.
Founders of evil empires
We know also that republican heroes morph easily into founders of evil empires. That, oddly enough, is the genesis of the very empire that executed Jesus of Nazareth, as it was of the Napoleonic empire that humiliated a pope.
The Star Wars saga poses this very paradox – but how many of our clergy know that? How many of them have any interest in contrasting their Christian myth with that ancient Babylonian myth of redemptive violence so beloved by Hollywood – for the instruction of the teenagers who don't go to Mass because they can't see any point to it?
That Patrick Pearse had been totally captured by that pre-Christian myth is clear. For him too only physical force could cleanse Ireland from the disgrace of centuries of occupation by the Bluto of the British Empire. That this empire's violence had always been excused by the allegedly greater malignancy of Spain and France and then Germany – using the very same myth – passed him by.
Ireland has paid a high price for our Catholic magisterium's inchoate reaction to our own Constantinian moment of 1916. A hesitation to make critical distinctions contrasting the story of Jesus with those of Julius Caesar, Constantine, Napoleon I – and Britannia and Pearse and the Provos too – has delayed the clarification of the Irish Catholic mind. So Disney reigns here in 2016, while the Mass goes unattended by most of the heroes and heroines of tomorrow.
Seán Ó Conaill is a retired teacher of history living in Northern Ireland. He now comments on the dual crisis of Christianity and secularism, and is currently active in the Association of Catholics in Ireland (acireland.ie)