FAITH COMMUNITIES often make a valuable contribution to society. And opposing racism is an important aspect of acting justly. However it is important to be on guard against attempts – under the guise of respecting religious belief and opposing racism – to block the questioning of prejudice and harm towards minorities or women.
Examples include Indian far-right attempts to use a twisted version of Hinduism to justify mistreatment of minority religious and ethnic groups, Dalits and dissidents, while claiming that solidarity with such victims is Eurocentric and colonialist. Again, a draft ‘call’ for ‘Human Dignity’ at the 2022 Lambeth Conference of bishops makes out that those who affirm same-gender love and marriage are going against “the mind of the Anglican Communion”, backed by claims that this involves Western societies pushing their norms on the rest of the world. Some (though not all) senior clergy involved have promoted hostility to, and state violence against, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT+) people in their own countries. While there are varying views on sexuality, gender and numerous other topics among Anglicans, many are baffled by the notion that this issue is central to Christians today.
In reality, such efforts undermine anti-racism, deepen suffering among people of Global Majority heritage in an already unjust world, and tarnish religion. Taking such claims at face value may also benefit certain Western governments or corporations or white individuals in positions of leadership or influence, in dubious ways.
This is not to say that those using such ploys are always insincere or that they do not, in addition, encounter – or seek to tackle – genuine racism. People and situations are complex, while power and status can shift in different times and settings. All humans show both good and bad qualities and can be mistaken.
Humility and compassion are important, as well as a willingness to reflect and question at a deep level. Differences of opinion, experience and interest among all peoples, nations and faith groups should be recognised and attention paid to diverse perspectives, rather than assuming that ‘community leaders’ speak for all. This includes hearing dissenting voices and the experience of the poor and marginalised.
India’s hard right and international influence
Racism, alongside many other forms of injustice is deeply embedded across many societies, linked in part to the influence of colonialism and ongoing imbalances across the globe, as well as within societies. It can be hard to avoid being influenced by it, whether in blatant or subtle forms, from racial stereotyping to the assumption that global warming matters less if it is parts of Africa which are turned into deserts, or parts of Asia submerged. It may influence the thinking even of people of colour and ethnic minorities, who may internalise notions of inferiority or rebel in ways that ultimately deepen inequalities. It is helpful not to be defensive if accused of being biased in this or other ways. Yet claims that something is ‘racist’, ‘colonialist’ or similar may occasionally be mistaken or directed to dubious ends.
Sometimes companies or other organisations and individuals with a sizeable following use virtue-signalling (for instance a media statement or modest donation) about anti-racism or another good cause, while being exploitative or jeopardising the safety of employees, consumers or others. Misdirection may go further, if it is implied that colluding in some form of injustice shows respect for people of Global Majority heritage. There can be skilful targeting of messages at different audiences, for instance tradition-orientated, business-directed or those passionate about social justice.
Various factors may be at play in enabling less-than-holy alliances to misapply the praiseworthy principles of respect for religious belief and racial equality. These include guilt or shame at past behaviour or inherited gain, which may lead people uncritically to comply; bonding (for instance among upper or middle class men in leadership roles); seeking competitive advantage, conformity or avoiding attack, including on social media. Confusion about accountability may play a part: for instance those adept at power-games may argue that others should be held to account by them even for acting humanely and justly in their own communities, while they themselves should not be accountable for human rights or other abuses.
In recent years, a ‘Hindutva’ movement which misuses Hinduism in its own quest for power has caused great harm in India, especially since one of its members, Narendra Modi, became prime minister. Lynching, ethnic cleansing, undermining constitutional values, economically disastrous policies leaving many destitute, deadly mismanagement of the pandemic – the list is long. But the movement (which drew on Mussolini and Hitler for inspiration in the 1930s) now has considerable international influence and pseudo-respectability for a range of reasons: for instance, commercial prospects, strategic alliances or the chance of winning support among voters of Indian descent, as well as through pressure to comply.
For instance in 2018, a well-organised campaign with powerful backers led the UK government to drop plans to outlaw discrimination on grounds of caste, despite evidence that this was widespread and damaging. Attempts to tackle this injustice had been dubbed a “colonial conspiracy” as well as supposedly unnecessary. Yet Dalit-led organisations in Britain and the South Asia Solidarity Group (largely made up of Indians and strongly anti-racist and anti-imperialist) had campaigned for change. The end result is that some UK residents of Global Majority heritage face yet more humiliation and disadvantage as people of colour, on top of racism class oppression and other forms of injustice.
Organisers and participants at a conference held at the University of Pennsylvania in 2021 on ‘Dismantling Global Hindutva’, faced harassment and threats. Among other claims, this was condemned as an attack on Hinduism from a Eurocentric and colonialist viewpoint – a gross misrepresentation, as groups such as Hindus for Human Rights have pointed out. Critics included ‘Coalition of Hindus of North America’, which urged universities to “hold their departments accountable for sponsoring bigotry and hatred against Hindus”, claiming that universities have “gaslighted our lived experiences” and “caused us mental trauma”. Indeed those in far-right nationalist movements may find their identity bound up with these in unhealthy ways, yet perhaps having one’s home bulldozed or a loved one burned to death is even more traumatic.
Distortions of ‘anti-racism’ and ‘anti-colonialism’ which would disproportionately curb free speech and other human rights for people of colour from ex-colonies, on matters which affect them, should be resisted.
Silencing or sidelining Christians seeking LGBT+ inclusion
In Christian churches, there has been much debate about whether same-sex partnership and marriage may sometimes be right, alongside other issues of LGBT+ inclusion, taking account of the Bible, tradition, reason and experience. Among theologians and churchgoers, especially where views and experiences can be freely shared, there has been a shift towards being affirming, despite strong resistance. Others may be uncertain or disapproving but not see this as being central.
Across the world, there were wide differences in pre-colonial times in attitudes and practices regarding same-sex love and gender diversity. Some Christians see a more welcoming stance as part of a drive to disentangle the essence of faith from Western norms and embrace love and justice for all (reflected, for instance, in ‘A cry for life: the spirituality of the Third World’ in 1992 and ongoing theological work in Africa. Others have a more ‘conservative’ stance; or even allied with repressive governments which have sought to turn scapegoat LGBT+ people for society’s ills, with phoney ‘anti-imperialism’ as a distraction from real imbalances of power.
People in the Anglican Communion disagree on sexuality and multiple other issues, from taking part in wars and meat-eating to what happens during the rite of Holy Communion. Also mainstream thinking on contraception, women’s roles and other matters has shifted considerably over the past century. Different provinces have significant autonomy and many respect the importance of conscientious choice at parish or personal level, albeit taking account of wider conversations among Christians, especially on issues not covered in historic Creeds.
Since the mid-twentieth century or earlier, resolutions at international Anglican conferences have repeatedly suggested taking account of developing biblical scholarship along with other advances in knowledge and upholding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Increasingly, provinces have been urged to listen to the marginalised and tackle injustice in church and society, though resolutions are only advisory. Since 1978, there have also been calls for deep study and dialogue on same-sex relationships, positively recognising the work underway in some provinces.
Senior clergy from across the globe who were strongly opposed to progress on this issue (and, in some instances, women bishops) formed an alliance. Many made it clear they would not look deeply at biblical or other evidence on such matters, listen to the marginalised or even uphold human rights: they themselves spoke for God and should be obeyed, not only in their own provinces but also internationally. It was claimed that greater inclusion, in the largely US-based Episcopal Church and elsewhere, was about Western domination. They were partly successful at the 1998 Lambeth Conference in undermining South African bishops who were leading work on sexuality, instead getting a resolution passed which labelled homosexual practice as “incompatible with Scripture” but contained a commitment to listening and love, condemned irrational fear of homosexuals and recognised that “we are not of one mind about homosexuality” .
In provinces where study and meaningful dialogue continued, opinion shifted towards affirmation. Some agreed that marriage of same-gender couples could be celebrated, including in the context of decolonising theology in Brazil.
The 2022 Lambeth Conference was promoted as being focused on prayer and discussion, avoiding resolutions, which might be divisive. At very short notice, a set of ‘Calls’ was issued, on which bishops were supposed to vote (either to accept or as requiring further discernment).These included a call on ‘Human Dignity’, making many valuable points: for instance, that “acts and attitudes against the dignity of God’s children are sin”, including “The legacies of colonialism, the trans-Atlantic slave trade” and “oppression of LGBTQ persons”. Also “Any Christian commitment to human dignity must celebrate the rich diversities of contextual theologies.” Yet it also claimed that “It is the mind of the Anglican Communion as a whole that same gender marriage is not permissible. Lambeth Resolution I.10 (1998) states that the ‘legitimising or blessing of same sex unions’ cannot be advised.”
It is clearly untrue that there was a ‘common mind’ even 24 years ago. And the theology seemed self-contradictory (or to imply that unequal treatment need not be probed too deeply, provided people were told they were ‘spiritually equal’ or similar, an approach common in the colonial and apartheid eras). But to fail to say ‘yes’ also meant not agreeing to what was good and anti-racist in the statement. Meanwhile leaders of the Global South Fellowship of Anglican Churches had set out their demand that their own interpretation of Scripture should have authority over all Anglicans and claimed that Western societies had been “pushing their moral ‘norms’ unto the rest of the world.” Controversy intensified when one of the bishops involved in the drafting group for that ‘call’ revealed that the group had not been consulted.
In the Church of England, led by the Archbishop of Canterbury – whose role also includes chairing the Lambeth Conference – many felt especially betrayed. They had taken part in ‘Living in Love and Faith’, the latest phase of a process of study and dialogue lasting nearly 55 years, during which grassroots attitudes and theologians’ views had shifted greatly. Yet repeatedly, findings and recommendations which would have led to greater inclusion had been disregarded or watered down. Those strongly against affirmation, though relatively few, were powerful and most bishops were reluctant to stand up to them (except on their most unrealistic demands, such as excommunicating numerous LGBT+ people, families and friends). A Lambeth Conference decision looked all too convenient an excuse for yet again ignoring the moral case for allowing freedom of conscience on same-gender unions.
Amidst hurt, anger and questions about who had inserted this divisive clause, Bishop Tim Thornton, Chair of the Lambeth Calls Subgroup, issued a statement on 25 July. This stated that “The drafting group for the Call on Human Dignity will be making some revisions” and that there would be a choice to vote against a call – though dropping voting altogether would have been preferable. Though amended wording published the next day was considerably better, trust had been badly damaged. Yet solidarity, care and commitment to justice were also powerfully expressed. For instance, the Episcopal Church presiding bishop Michael Curry, (who is African American) wrote, “I offer this message of love to all my LGBTQ+ siblings: We have worked hard to become a church where, as the old African slaves used to sing, ‘There is plenty good room, plenty good room,’ for all of God’s children. We are all The Episcopal Church, and we will not compromise who we are, our connections, or our love.”
Upholding genuine anti-racism
Often open racism is harnessed by movements which roll back rights for other minorities or women. But occasionally anti-racism is misappropriated for oppressive ends (cynically or in good faith), sometimes linked to religion or belief. In reality, this can promote racism, for example by undermining ethical commitment to justice for all or diverting attention from (or trying to justify) measures which really do disproportionately harm people of Global Majority heritage. It can also be implied that only white people, or those under their influence, are morally sensitive enough to recognise that certain inequalities are unkind and unjust. And solidarity in seeking a more compassionate and equal world is disrupted.
Humility and empathy, as well as courage, can be valuable in disentangling oppressive from anti-oppressive practices, along with resistance to the notion that powerful humans can usurp the place of the Divine. Seeking justice, while vitally important, is not always straightforward.
© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and respected commentator on welfare and other issues. She is author of the book Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church (Ekklesia, 2016) and has been involved in seeking greater inclusion. She wrote on ‘Health or Wealth?’ in Feast or Famine? (DLT, 2017). Her latest articles can be found here. Archived articles (pre-2020) are here.