This week three news stories have flagged up the issue of racism in the UK.
- The high number of votes and the disproportionate media coverage for UKIP in European and Local elections, and for other extreme right wing parties in some countries in the EU.
- the comments of Belfast pastor James MacConnell about Islam which were endorsed by Northern Ireland's first minister, Peter Robinson, and are being investigated as a potential “hate crime” - at the same time as the UK's only politician of Chinese heritage announces she is leaving politics for fear of her personal safety.
- A survey which finds increasing levels of self confessed racism in Britain
So what does racism mean in Britain today, and how is the Christian church involved, and how should Christians respond?
The phenomenon of votes for UKIP is real, and has been extensively analysed in the political press. It may be a blip of a protest vote, it may be overplayed by the media and there a various political strategies on offer to counter it such as that of Stephen Beer of Christians on the Left or Owen Jones What is clear is that such votes are concentrated in areas where a solidly white "British" (do I mean English, Welsh, Scottish? ) predominantly working class group has become segregated from the mainstream of urban diversity, in communities where there is a nostalgia for old certainties, which is linked with an ideology of the blokeish whiteness that Nigel Farage embodies. These are the places where migration and the effects of globalisation came late. In London and the urban north west for example UKIP did pretty badly. In Essex which is full of white flight ex cockneys, in the small towns and villages of the East Anglia and the Midlands, and in some ex mining areas they harvested loads of votes.
It's fairly obvious that however we define it there is an element of xenophobia in this political tide. It may have specific local dynamics, and it's a more slippery kind of racism than the cruder earlier forms espoused by the BNP. In the current cultural climate it may be even counterproductive to describe such attitudes as racism, even more so to demonise such voters as racists. Yet it needs to be opposed from a Christian value base. Undoubtedly it is alarming that a proportion of conservative evangelical Christians seem to be turning to UKIP, on the basis that David Cameron and the Tories have betrayed the nation's Christian foundation by bringing in the legislation on same sex marriage, without weighing the fundamentally un-Christian ideology that drives the party.
Of course there is also distrust of the Westminster political elites....and will be as long as parliamentary candidates of all the main parties are Oxbridge / London types are parachuted in and accepted because there is such low levels of local participation in politics. This and the feeling that no party is really offering radical alternatives, let alone policies based on Christian values that makes many of us despair, or look to the Greens or just get on with the business of life and the work of the Kingdom in our own small corner. From Northumbria to Hodge Hill Birmingham there are Christian voices struggling with the choices before them yet knowing that saying or doing nothing will not be adequate for the present Kairos moment. Others write of The Contemporary Condition: The Dilemma of Electoral Politics and advise that Apathy, not rage, is the EU’s biggest threat
The controversy in Belfast highlights that is evident throughout western Europe at the moment that there is a widespread feeling that national cultures still matter and are seriously threatened. Northern Ireland is perhaps the extreme case in that religious identities allied with cultural nationalisms remain stronger there than perhaps anywhere else on the continent. Indeed it may be that it is only now after sixteen years of relative peace and reconciliation that the people of Ulster have had time to realise that Muslims are among them, and have different beliefs and cultures to both Catholics and Protestants. While Pastor MacConnell does not speak for all evangelical Christians in the province he certainly articulates a commonly held orthodox belief about the eternal destiny of Muslims and others who do not accept Christ. While he speaks tactlessly and perhaps offensively the suggestion that such words require police actionseems dangerously destructive of cherished rights to freedom of speech. One suspects that the attacks come more from secularist fundamentalists than from Muslims, who in my experience are well able to handle robust theological debate and controversy, often more graciously than many Christian leaders from Belfast.
The survey findings are also cause for alarm as they seem to indicate that levels of racism are rising, and that using racist language and discourse is becoming more acceptable. So how do we start to map the contours of racism in society and church in Britain today. Thirty years ago when I alongside other Christians, black, white, and of South Asian and mixed heritage were working together in Evangelical Christians for Racial justice we had a fairly simple message. God had made all people equal and racism, prejudice and discrimination was sinful. Christ had broken down the barriers, made shalom between men and women, Jews and Gentiles, slave and free so that we could all be one new humanity in Him. Today the context is more complex and confusing for a number of reasons. The key ones would seem to be the intersections in society where a number of overlapping social categories and a changing and slippery structure of discourse make it harder to navigate a single path. They are:
- white immigration from Europe – which means it is easier for people to say “I am against immigration, but I'm not racist”, and which no political party finds easy to challenge. There is also a new emphasis on national citizenship which confers entitlement to social and economic benefits, but which excludes and limits the rights of people from much of the world.
- the turn to religion .. especially the interaction with Islam. Across the world the shock of the attacks in New York in 2001 led to a polarisation between the West and the Muslim ummah in which a simplistic conflation of Islam with terrorism and barbaric feudalism was set against Western democracy and “Christian civilisation”. Although many faithful Christian and Muslims refused to be taken in by these definitions, and opposed the warmongers on both sides, it made it extremely difficult to articulate opposing theological views without getting drawn into the opposing camps which are largely determined by the correlation between faith, ethnicity and culture and which express themselves in racialised neo-colonialist discourses and their Islamic mirror image.
- hybridity of cultures and the mixed heritage younger generation.. In our post-modern culture with rapid global communications, and pick and mix consumer choice fusion of cultures, in music, food, sport and tourism sometimes give the impression that the world is one big happy family. There are enough young people of mixed ethnic heritage to sustain the myth of the liberal melting pot, but which may obscure persistent racialised and structural disadvantage.
- the breakthrough of an ethnic minority elite... the election of President Obama, and the emergence of BME voices in politics, the professions, the media and entertainment, and even as an Archbishop of the church of England, give the impression that there are no longer any racial glass ceilings to be broken through, and that talent will always rise. While these success stories are welcome they do not tell the whole story – in some spheres such as football, business and the police there remains much ambivalence and much work to be done in the struggle for equal opportunity and racial justice. Yasmin Alibhai Brown argues that if Stephen Lawrence if he were alive today, would be living in both a better and worse world and I think her case is persuasive.
- gender politics and the new mysogyny.. The mood music for the rise of UKIP, who seemed somewhat more attractive to “blokes” than to women, includes a melodic theme which is a reaction to the perceived march of feminism. The outrageous style of Jeremy Clarkson (recently lambasted, but comfortably surviving after his use of the taboo “N” word), epitomises this culture. At its extreme there is a growing objectification and demeaning of woman, a rise in mysogyny and the persistence and toleration of domestic violence and rape. The church in Britain is not immune, as despite the numerical majority of females in its pews, it has struggled to come to terms with women in ministry and leadership, and in some sections continues to view them as second class and subordinate persons. The intersections of racial and gender disadvantage remain problematic in society and church.
- growing economic inequality and the demonisation of the poor. In a context of growing inequality and significant destitution that is driving millions of people towards food banks and soup kitchens provided largely by generous Christians, it is not surprising that voters swing to the right and find scapegoats among outsiders. UKIP backed as it is by wealthy capitalists who have benefited from from three decades of neo-liberal economic policy, are happy to see this happen. Government and the right wing media have persistently focussed on themes of welfare dependency, scroungers and benefit fraud and the notion of broken Britain. Blame has been heaped on the failures and sins of individuals while structural causes of economic and social change have been denied. The culture of the CHAV has been stereotyped, mocked and vilified, while the churches, never strong among the white working class, have mostly fled to the suburbs, or at best gone on fishing trips and rescued a few souls. There is an implicit racial dimension here too in that the vast majority of such people live on social housing estates which are mono-cultural white working class enclaves, on the edges of provincial towns and cities. Such people and such estates have huge needs, but have been given little voice. It is no surprise if many of them turn against the “others” who are newcomers and seem to be competing for their jobs and homes and services, despite the fact that such others may be facing similar injustice originating from the same sources.
- globalisation and the London effect.. The failure of UKIP to make inroads in the capital underline the fact that London is different. Prosperous and booming when the rest of Britain remains in economic struggle, well connected as a global political, financial and communications hub, when other parts of the country such as Cornwall and Cumbria remain in isolated poverty. And above all super-diverse, where the global diaspora of myriad tongues jostle together on the tube, while most of the rest of the UK is 95% white British or split into increasingly segregated ghetto communities. The church in London is different too, with thriving and growing Christian communities of every conceivable variety, some as mixed as their local population, others fragmented into ethnic enclaves. Although some people lament that they rarely hear English spoken in London, the majority of Londoners revel in the diverse vibrancy of the city, go about the business of making their fortunes, and even see it as a foretaste of the heavenly city that is to come. While poverty and racism is by no means absent there, the grand narrative, which is told and retold by the powerful discourse manufacturers who are based there, is one of a proud and flourishing metropolis. This perhaps more than anything else is the basis of the resentment and disconnect that is felt by many in the North of England, and the peripheral nations of the UK, especially Scotland. And doubly so by people who are marginalised on account of their ethnicity, their religion or their poverty.
And yet in this complex and confusing society that we have tried to map - across the country it is clear that people who are “other” than White British continue to have poorer life chances, and are more likely to encounter hostility, suspicion and violence. Communities are geographically segregated from each other and friendships and meaningful communication between them are relatively rare. Christian churches remain to a large extent selective by culture, social class and ethnicity, and Black and minority Christians, despite their evident faithfulness often remain marginal to the decision making bodies. And there are few Christian voices, Black or White, who are willing to make clear prophetic statements that God is not pleased with the directions our society is going. Too many voices are willing as in the time of Jeremiah to say “peace, peace where there is no Shalom”.
So what should Christians be doing?
In 1993 when the first BNP councillor was elected on the Isle of Dogs in Tower Hamlets, the churches were in the forefront of a political mobilisation of the local community, Bengali and white which ensured that he was not re-elected. In South Africa during the 27 years Mandela was in jail it was (some of) the churches led by Desmond Tutu that carried forward the struggle against apartheid. In the USA in the 1950's and 1960s it was (some of) the Christian believers under the leadership of Martin Luther King who staged the boycotts and the marches that led to desegregation and civil rights for all.
Does the resurgent racism in politics in the UK today present a similar kairos moment for the church? And if so where is the public leadership fitted for “such a time as this”?