Tucked away at the end of this blog is the revolutionary dynamite that was inspired by an article in the Guardian Review on Saturday 18 May 2019. Angela Saini, author of Superior: The Return of Race Science, wrote about the far-right and anti-immigrant groups that have once more become visible and powerful across Europe and the US.
Following the holocaust perpetrated in the Second World War, eugenics - race science - had become taboo. In 1985 Barry Mehler, a Jewish historian, looked into what happened after the war to eugenicists who had collaborated with the Nazis during the conflict. He saw a parallel between the growing far-right network of intellectuals and the rapid, devastating way in which eugenics research had been used in Nazi Germany. He became terrified with the possibility that the brutal atrocities of the past could happen once again, anxious that political stability in even the strongest democracies sits on a precipice. He would, I think, be far more alarmed at the political success of far right movements today.
Saini has been investigating the current growth of intellectual racism, encountering networks, including academics at the world’s leading universities, who seek to shape public debate around race and immigration, gently nudging into acceptability the view that “foreigners” are by their very nature a threat because they are fundamentally different. Some describe themselves as “race realists.” They believe there are innate biological differences between population groups, making entire nations naturally smarter than others. For them these “biological facts” neatly explain the course of history and modern day inequality.
Initially racial classification was quite arbitrary. In the 18th century, European scientists sifted people into human types, inventing such categories as Caucasian. In the 19th century, a European scientist was unexceptional in thinking that white people were biologically superior to everyone else, just as he (inevitably) might assume that women were intellectually inferior. The power hierarchy had white men of European descent sitting at the top. It was they who wrote the scientific story of the human species around this assumption.
It was only towards the end of the 20th century that genetic data revealed that the human variation we see is not a matter of hard types but small and subtle gradations, each local community blending into the next. As much as 95% of the genetic difference in our species sits within the major population groups, not between them. We are all, every one of us, a product of ancient and recent migration. We have always been in the melting pot together.
We are now experiencing a much more threatening environment than Mehler was investigating three decades ago. Ideas that were taboo in the aftermath of the Second World War are gaining a foothold under the banner of “academic freedom” and “diversity of opinion”. There is a backlash against greater efforts to promote racial equality in multicultural societies. Powerful forces on the right are funding research into studying human differences with the goal of establishing those differences as a basis of inequalities.
A common theme among today’s “race realists” is their belief that because biological race differences exist, diversity and equal opportunity programmes – designed to make society fairer – are doomed to fail.
I was born in 1945 and grew up in the post-war culture described by Mehler. The holocaust was never mentioned. I was a member of the British society into which the Empire Windrush arrived when Britain was actively encouraging immigration from the Caribbean. By the time I was ordained in 1979 London had become a multi-racial and increasingly multi-cultural society. Human rights were part of the landscape. I was committed as a Christian to campaigns for equality; for immigrants, for women, and later for LGBTI+ people. That was four decades ago.
A Revolution in Christian Vision
The article by Angela Saini about the rise of far right movements and the backlash against racial equality has alerted me to the dangers faced by the Christian church today and by LGBTI+ movements campaigning for equality.
Our ambition and the language we use is no longer adequate to the reactionary forces gathering strength in many parts of our fragile planet. Ideas that have been current, to advocate for an “inclusive” church or “welcoming and open” congregations or a “diverse” church are no longer sufficiently radical or revolutionary. I campaigned for twenty years under the banner of Changing Attitude, but simply changing people’s attitudes is no longer adequate to the task.
A visionary, prophetic revolution in Christian thinking and practice is required. Liberal Christianity is failing to respond to the rise of the far right and the prejudice and discrimination that is integral to the ambitions of those on the right.
The danger lies not only in those developing a racist agenda of white superiority and purity but in the way that it is too easy for the liberal centre to unthinkingly hold discriminatory, prejudiced ideas about other people. Such ideas are justified in the church by academics and theologians and holders of senior office who belong to one of the various tribal groups in the Church of England.
A church that is inclusive, welcoming and open, diverse, flying a rainbow flag, is making a strong statement and sending out a significant message, but this is no longer enough, not adequate to the changing social and political landscape. Churches and congregations and clergy that decline to identify as inclusive and resist the label help to maintain a culture in which discrimination and prejudice continues. It may be at a “mild” level of prejudice but it is prejudice all the same and therefore not Christian according to my revealed understanding of God and Jesus.
God’s seamless, unconditional, infinite, intimate love
A backlash against racial and gender and sexual equality is taking place – supported in Trump’s America by millions of so-called orthodox, traditional Christians. What is required to counter these reactionary movements is the development of awareness training and education to form a Christian vision of creation and evolution and the universe we find ourselves inhabiting in which God’s seamless, unconditional, infinite, intimate love is the defining value – the only vision that can ultimately transcend and transform prejudice and discrimination.
Our philosophy, theology, vision, and practice as Christians is fundamental to the transformation of our human communities, local and global, sacred and secular.
My church, the Church of England, is itself in a decadent state, the recent suspension of a bishop a rare example of action being taken in a church that is systemically riddled with abuse.
The Christian church will continue to decline if it fails to reinvent and recreate itself in response to the changes in society that are inevitably infecting her members. The evolution of science, astronomy, particle physics, globalisation, instant communication, social networks, the climate crisis, and species extinction are affecting the constructs of Christian faith and the majority of faith leaders have no idea what is happening, let alone reflecting on the crises of our times and evolving their spiritual depths in response.
Only a seamless vision of creation, evolution, Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus the risen Christ, son of God, can hope to radically transform our relationship with our planet, the universe, our brothers and sisters in every continent of every race and gender and sexuality, overcoming our addiction to the defence of prejudice and difference.