The Potato Blight and Pastoral Theology


My wife is a certified pastoral counselor, so I sometimes get pulled in on CPE (Clinical Pastoral Training/Education) groups to lead a small training session. This weekend, I led one in Pastoral Theology. I utilize the definition for Pastoral Theology used by Margaret Whipp, in her book “SCM Guidebook: Pastoral Theology,”

PASTORAL THEOLOGY IS THE STUDY OF HOW AND WHY CHRISTIANS CARE.

Several times (too many times?) I made the statement that good pastoral care depends on good pastoral theology. I also made the statement that how we carry out pastoral care points to our pastoral theology. Thus, if we don’t have a reflected on pastoral theology, we will simply have a tacit (and typically bad) pastoral theology.

This seems a bit ridiculous, especially considering how busy people seem to be in Christian ministry who appear to have no time to worry about such unnecessary things as theology or theological reflection.

But I found a nice little example of tacit pastoral theology in a Youtube Video I watched from a strange source. The channel is “Tasting History” and the particular video is “Irish Stew from 1900 & the Irish Potato Famine.”

It is not a religious or theological channel. But it is quite relevant.

Starting around 1845, Potato Blight hit Ireland hard. People were starving and different people responded differently.

Charles Trevelyan. This man was placed in charge of the relief work by the British government for those starving in Ireland. In the youtube video (link above) it quotes Trevelyan as saying,

“The judgment of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated… The real evil which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse, and turbulent character of the people.” (Charles Trevelyan)

Admittedly, Trevelyan’s views reflected the views of many in power in England. Those in power commonly do see those without power as unworthy in some way… presumably because that implies that they with power have somehow earned their position. However, Trevelyan’s perspective does have an underlying theological perspective. Bad things are happening to the Irish because God wants bad things to happen to them. They have earned what they are getting. And to help people under the judgment of God is to work against God. This is a bit akin to what happened in the 1980s and 1990s when many saw the AIDs epidemic as a judgment of God against homosexuals (particularly). The thought of some was that to work on a cure was to undermine God’s good work.

So what was Trevelyan’s pastoral theology? It is hard to say, but by appearance it seems to be that Christians should care for those who appear to be cared for by God. In other words, we should provide care only for people who don’t require care. This may not be true. Perhaps he was simply an ethnic or religious bigot, and simply justified his prejudices with theological language. In the end, however, it doesn’t matter. In practice this was his theology within this specific context. Pastoral theology is highly contexstual.

Bible Societies. Tasting History noted that many Bible Societies (essentially parachurch mission organizations) provided food for the Irish who were starving…. BUT ONLY IF THEY CONVERT TO THE SOCIETY’S DENOMINATION. Since the vast majority of the Irish were staunchly (religiously and culturally) Roman Catholic, care was only given if people left the Roman Catholic Church.

So what is the pastoral theology here? Since conversion (at least change of denominational affiliation) was a prerequisite for receiving care, they were in essence saying, “Christians care for people only if they are like us Christians. If they are different, they can starve.” This sort of thing has happened a lot in Christian (and non-Christian) societies. There has been many times where the “Cross or the Sword” form of evangelism has been active going back to at least Charlemagne. Again, other groups have their own versions, such as the “Shahada or the Scimitar.” Essentially, the idea is that converting to our faith (or in some cases converting to our denominational perspective) is such an inherent eternal good, that pretty much any means to make that happen is a good thing.

Sometimes, it can go the opposite way a bit. As noted, my wife is a pastoral counselor. Usually, she counsels Christians. Sometimes, however, she counsels non-Christians. Some pastoral counselors say that one can only counsel Christians— for all others, the only thing one can do is Evangelize. That is quite a statement if one thinks about it. Probably, they don’t mean this. Probably what they mean is that Conversion to Christ is such a totally important and good thing, that any other good thing we might be able to do with and for this person pales in comparison. That seems a bit dubious. After all, if someone is suicidal and a Christian counselor talks that person out of committing suicide, that hardly pales in comparison to salvation. In fact, not being dead is an essential prerequisite to conversion. Regardless, it is likely that the refusal to help (except evangelize) a non-Christian is likely to be interpreted as “You have NOTHING to offer me that I presently see as valuable.”

This view tends to lend itself to the perspective of the “Ulterior Motive.” We don’t provide care because we love all people. We don’t do it because Jesus commanded us, and modeled it for us. Rather we do it, to get because we expected a quid pro quo. Quid pro quo can be initiated by either side. When a typhoon hit our area, a mission care provider came to the Philippines to provide resources for those hurt by the landslides. The local missionary he was working with began to plan out all of the places they would visit to help. However, the mission care provider had no interest in that list. He only wanted to go to places where there were churches tied to their denomination to provide care. If one of their churches wasn’t there, that was someone else’s problem. While I understand the logic of it, I still must say that it is a sub-Biblical perspective.

Society of Friends. The video noted that one group that did things differently was the Society of Friends (Quakers). There may have been others, but this is one that was singled out by the video. They gave based on the need of the people… regardless of anything else. This has a very different underlying pastoral theology— of how and why Christians provide care to others. In my mind, this is the one

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