Vinoth Ramachandra

It has become fashionable of late, following Brexit and the U.S election fiasco, to bemoan the corruption of democracy and the triumph of “post-truth” politics. So I found it faintly humorous to discover recently these words from the great Greek sage Aristotle lamenting the state of Athens “nowadays” by comparison with “the old days”:

“Formerly, as is natural, every one would take his turn of service [in political office]; and then again, somebody else would look after his interests, just as he, while in office, had looked after theirs. But nowadays, for the sake of the material advantage which is to be gained from the public revenues and from office, men want to be always in office.”

While those of us in the Majority World have become perhaps too blasé about politicians who tell blatant lies to win votes or stay in power, many Americans naively assume that their Presidents never lied to their publics. Hence the view expressed by many non-Americans that they preferred Trump to win simply so that naïve Americans would wake up to the rottenness at the core of their political culture.

I am not so optimistic. To begin with, a Clinton victory should surely have been no less revelatory. There seems little difference, morally speaking, between Trump money and Clinton money; or between promoting Islamophobia and being in the pocket of Wall Street and the Zionist lobby. And why was advocating mass foeticide less reprehensible in the left-liberal media than advocating a ban on free trade deals? (It is Mexicans who have suffered most under NAFTA, but that fact was of no concern to either political camp).

I suspect that the reason Clinton won the overall vote was simply because many of those who voted for her were repelled by Trump. But the terrible choice faced by American voters- and a system that does not encourage multiple contestants- is unlikely to provoke serious soul-searching, apart from in a few liberal academic circles.

In his book Nationalism, first published in 1917, the Indian Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore went as far as to say “The nation is the greatest evil.” He boldly stated his “conviction”- formed in the context of the Indian independence struggle- that “my countrymen will gain truly their India by fighting against that education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity.”

Unfortunately the education that Tagore repudiates is alive and well in India today. Like their Tea Party Republican cousins in the US, Hindutva ideologues trade on mythological readings of Indian history and a search for national scapegoats. Hardly a day passes when the mainstream Indian TV and print media do not whip up frenzy over alleged Pakistani border violations in Kashmir. The Indian army is always innocent of atrocities. And any criticism of Indian government policy by students and human rights activists is labelled “sedition” by senior cabinet ministers. Christians in India, like their fellow Muslims, have been intimidated by Hindu nationalists who charge them with being agents of foreign powers. Patriotism has been reduced to the slanting of meaningless slogans (the Indian equivalents of “Make America Great Again”) while aping Western consumerist lifestyles.

Christians, wherever they live, need to cling fast to two paradoxical truths:

(a) The Incarnation declares that the “Word made flesh” within a locality, a context, a culture is no less than the Word that creates and sustains all creatures with his love.

So Christian political witness arises out of a Gospel that both affirms all cultures and nations and critiques/relativizes them at the same time. We do not have to choose between the cosmopolitan vision of Liberalism and the (historically) Conservative stress on tradition and the virtues necessary for citizenship. The Gospel unites and transcends.

(b) To fail to love (especially those who are different to us) is not to be fully alive; but to love truly and deeply will lead to death. If you cannot love you remain imprisoned in yourself. But if you do love, you will be seen as a threat by the structures of domination in your society and you will be killed. Or, be thrust out of your church.

That is what Advent teaches us.

The social sciences develop within a historical context which they influence even as they study.

This well-known “reflexivity” is often illustrated in the Indian context by referring to the British colonial practice of taking censuses. Census operations necessitated the drawing of sharp distinctions- of religion, caste, language, or whatever else the administrators had decided on as worthy of being counted.

The historian Sumit Sarkar notes that “Colonial modernity helped to tighten community bonds: it has less often been noticed, however, that it also stimulated forces that made them more fragile. What was coming into existence by the late-nineteenth-and early twentieth-century was a situation conducive to the growth of not one but many community-identities- religious, caste, linguistic-regional, anti-colonial ‘national’, class, gender, in interactive yet often conflictual relationships with each other.” (Beyond Nationalist Frames: Relocating Postmodernism, Hindutva, History)

The French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville’s observations of American social life in the 1820s has become a political classic. He was struck by the observation that the strong Puritan streak in early American religion meant that, since clerical authority was viewed with suspicion, every American was expected to form his own judgments, to aspire to self-sufficiency in thought and action.

This, of course, was unrealistic. The capacity to form independent judgements is something that one grows into during the course of a life. Individuality is formed though community and the practice of tradition, not in detachment from them. So, forbidden to follow custom or ecclesial authority, we look around to see what everybody else is thinking or doing. “The demand to be an individual,” observes Matthew Crawford in his recent book The World Beyond Your Head, “makes us feel anxious, and the remedy for this, ironically enough, is conformity. We become more deferential to public opinion.”

The founders of social polling such as George Gallup and Elmo Roper believed passionately that they were promoting democracy by constructing “rational citizens”. The supposedly “neutral” vocabularies of social science surveys thus structured new modes of self-understanding, prompting Americans to take a detached stance towards their own lives. This, ironically, led to the collectivisation and homogenization of the “public”, whether organized as a national polity or as demographic “communities”.

Sarah Igo tells the fascinating story of the birth of social surveys in The Averaged American. She observes that the Kinsey Reports on Americans’ sexual practices became objects of intense popular interest, maybe because they arrived (in 1948 and 1953) just as the received norms and mores were losing their authority. Everyone was left to her or his own devices. People were anxious to know if they were “normal”, where the only norms now available, were statistical: What’s the average? How many do it? The normative centre of gravity has shifted from parental or religious sources to the middle of a distribution.

Kinsey himself had once been an entomologist in a Midwestern university, and used this fact to present himself as a man of science who had turned from the study of beetles to human sexuality. He himself had unconventional sexual tastes, and it seems that his reports were attempts to reconcile these two aspects: liberation from sexual “hypocrisy” meant bringing everything out into the open. Igor writes that the “statistical reassurance” found by those who eagerly enrolled in the second survey was located in membership of “a community of potentially similar, though anonymous, others”. One could think of these as the first virtual communities. Kinsey’s data on homosexuality became a tool in the movement for gay rights, providing the epistemic foundation for gay identity politics. New links were forged between strangers, even as older bonds of family, locale and religion were eroded. One could leave the closet and find company in the box.

The format of the surveys structured a respondent’s identification with these anonymous others by way of categories such as professional, upper middle-class, black, etc. Igo notes that “individuals were coming to view themselves though the social scientific categories [Kinsey] and others had made available.” This gave birth to communities based on “sexuality”, ending isolation through the solace of numbers.

So emerged what Crawford labels “the stackable self” of identity politics.

The United States is one of the few countries that continues to use the dubious category of “race” in classifying its citizens. The Census Bureau is planning to add a new racial category for those from Middle Eastern/North African backgrounds. Given that most Americans equate Arab with Muslim, and with anti-Muslim rhetoric rife in some quarters of the media, Arabic-speaking Christians as well as Muslims are rightly fearful.

A white South African friend of mine told me how, during the apartheid era, whenever he was asked to enter his personal details on official forms he would write under “religion”, “none”; and under “race”, “Christian”.

I am indebted to the sociologist Les Back’s Academic Diary for some thought-provoking insights on academics from the late Palestinian-American literary critic and public intellectual Edward Said. In his 1993 Reith Lectures, Said commented: “The particular threat to the intellectual today, whether in the West or the non-Western world, is not the academy, nor the suburbs, nor the appalling commercialism of journalism and publishing houses, but rather an attitude that I will call professionalism.”

The professional academic tends to be obsessed with personal reputation, furthering one’s career, publishing as much as possible and in the most prestigious journals.

Said pointed to three dimensions to the damage that professionalism does to the life of the mind. The first is specialization. The specialist can ignore the burning issues of his day, and happily go on mining within a very narrow, intellectually constricted area without ever being troubled by the big moral and political questions.

Secondly, while specialists are hard workers, the work that they perform often has to do with rebutting and undermining others in their area of intellectual expertise. This can be a time-consuming business.

The third and perhaps most damaging dimension has to do with political enticement through the conferring of honours or research grants with strings attached. This leads to timidity, a desire not to rock the boat or be too outspoken. Don’t do anything that might threaten the next invitation to give a conference keynote address or join an editorial board.

By contrast Said promoted a model of the intellectual as an amateur- the passionate dilettante or committed dabbler. The word “dilettante” today implies irresponsible flitting from one topic to another. But, etymologically, it stems from the Latin delectare, to “delight”. The passionate amateur dilettante engages in learning and communicating knowledge out of delight and a sense of responsibility. George Orwell once said that all who choose to write are political activists- they write because they want to change the world. However, making intellectual life a job has resulted in conformity and an aversion to risk-taking.

Such amateurism is, of course, impossible nowadays in the “hard sciences”. And Said’s principal targets are scholars in the social sciences and humanities. But how many scientists and engineering raise awkward questions about research priorities?

One can quibble with Said’s characterization, and the specialists among us will object (typically) that he paints with too broad a brush. Further, not all can be Renaissance Men/Women like Said himself. But such generalizations are often helpful in that they serve to highlight aspects of intellectual life that are too often swept under the carpet. We are too much in awe of people with academic qualifications and do not hold them accountable for what they do -or do not do- with their intellectual training.

Those of us who teach, preach and write not because we are paid to do so, but because of the “inner fire” in our bones that cannot be quenched (cf. Jer.20:9), and who feel insecure when in the company of professional scholars, can take heart from Said’s forthright comments!

I remember mentioning to an American biblical scholar that I have often written letters to newspapers not only in Sri Lanka, but even in the US and UK, on social and political issues that moved me deeply. Sometimes they were done at risk to my life, and many did not pass the local censor. He told me, with a self-satisfaction that shocked me, that he had never done this, as his vocation lay in teaching good biblical exegesis to future church pastors.

Perhaps I have an old-fashioned view of academic teaching. I expect a teacher to embody what he or she teaches, not least when it comes to the Bible and theology. I somehow cannot envisage how anybody can teach from the Gospels while being cautious about saying anything that might “offend” the donors to their institution; or to fail in exploring with their students what following Jesus entails in their global and local neighbourhoods.

For some years now I have declined all invitations to contribute to Christian dictionaries and encyclopaedias from publishing house in the US. I have given two reasons. First, since neither I nor my colleagues in the Majority World can afford these publications, they seem to be a form of “exploitation” of our scholarship. But, secondly, the American Church has more Bible dictionaries, commentaries and other academic resources than the rest of the World Church put together. Do they really need yet another mega-commentary on Romans, say, or another tome on Reformation Theology? Is it not, rather, simple obedience? And more amateur intellectuals who will speak with courage and wisdom into the burning issues of the day?

One burning issue is global warning (no pun intended!). Donald Trump calls climate change a “con job” and “a hoax” propagated by the Chinese to make American manufacturing non-competitive. In his manifesto, he promises to defend the coal industry by pulling out of the Paris agreement, stopping funds for the UN’s climate change work, and forbidding the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating carbon dioxide.

This clearly has consequences for those of us non-Americans who suffer the effects of the “American lifestyle”. It is an issue of global justice. Is it, then, unreasonable for us to expect Christian intellectuals in the U.S to speak up for us, and not just for their fellow-Americans, when addressing election issues in their universities, churches, national newspapers and social media?

Forty years ago, the exiled Russian dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn wondered in a BBC interview: “Why is it that societies with access to every kind of information suddenly plunge into lethargy, into a kind of mass blindness, a kind of voluntary self-deception?”

My favourite social philosopher Zygmunt Bauman has recently coined the term “liquid fear” to describe the diffuse and pervasive state of anxiety that is evident in Europe and the USA today.

Unlike the fear of concrete, specific dangers that has always been with humanity, today’s Western middle-classes (what Bauman labels the “precariat”, from the French précarité – being on shifting sand) live in a state of constant uncertainty on all fronts: from the precariousness of their marriages/sexual partnerships to fear of unemployment, terrorism, random acts of violence and not knowing when the next threat will be and from where it will come. The metaphor Bauman uses is that of walking in a minefield- we know the mines are there, but we don’t know where they are.

As I have pointed out in previous Blog posts, it is these fears that keep alive the totalitarian temptation. Just when the fear of fascism has receded in Europe, we find demagogues arising both there and in the USA asking the “precariat” to give them the political reins and, in return, they will restore law and order and make their nations “great” again. Such was the rhetoric that ushered Hitler, Mussolini and Franco into power.

Sadly, conservative sections of the Church also give into fear. Conspiracy theories abound in the American Christian media. I was shocked to learn recently that pseudo-scientific Christian institutions in the US involved in so-called “creation research” team up with Muslim fundamentalist preachers in Turkey- to oppose Darwinism! (This is seen by both as an organized conspiracy against “true religion”).

As for conservative evangelical groups in Europe, including in the organization with which I work, the shift of the centre of gravity of the Christian Church to the global South generates fear that “sound doctrine” (defined, of course, by Anglo-Saxons) is being sacrificed on the altar of social transformation by Asian, African and Latin American leaders. I myself have been the target of such accusations since the 1980s. I watch with a sad sense of irony as European Christians now begin to grapple with the issues of poverty, violence, multiculturalism and religious pluralism that we have been addressing for decades. Issues that they once thought were a “distraction” from “the Gospel”.

Bauman also makes the interesting observation that the condition of most refugees and migrants into Europe today- educated people who have lost their jobs, homes and social positions in their home countries- mirrors the very fears of the European “precariat”. The same forces of globalizing capitalism and terrorism, which Third World nations have long suffered from, have come home to roost.

Whenever a mass killing occurs on American or European soil, and the perpetrator (or perpetrators) happen to be Muslim, government leaders immediately make stern public pledges to root out “international terrorism”. This only reinforces the fictional narratives that terror group such as ISIS or al-Qa’ida wish to propagate about themselves. They want to be feared in the West; to be seen as well-armed, well-organized groups that reach deep into the heart of Western societies and wreak havoc on the streets of Western cities.

But the attacks we have seen, whether in Boston in 2013, San Bernardino in 2015, Orlando, Nice and Munich this year, don’t fit that scenario. Some of the perpetrators may have been self-declared admirers of jihadist groups, but the groups themselves don’t seem to have been aware of them until after the attacks took place. Then they seized on them for propaganda purposes.

These were criminal acts and should be treated as such by governments and the media. Invoking the spectre of “international terrorism” or “Islamist jihad” only serves to strengthen the hands of fascists at home and groups such as ISIS abroad. It makes them appear much stronger than they really are. Vowing to fight international terrorism, even destroying ISIS, will not prevent future acts of criminality on European or American soil. Banning assault weapons in the US will not prevent future attacks either, but it would help reduce the number of potential casualties. If, collectively, we focused on grief– mourning with the families of the victims- rather than promising revenge (on whom?), and started conversations about our deepest fears, from whence they arise, and what may lie behind the apparently senseless acts of home-grown violence, we may be able to quell the totalitarian temptation.

I would love to know if Church leaders and Christians working in the media, universities or government, are starting such conversations in their cities and nations?

I arrived in London the day after the results of the British referendum. I found many of my friends in a state of shock and dismay. The Brexit vote has revealed the deep fissures in British society- between London and the rest of the country, between economic classes, between urban and rural populations, between Scots and English, and even between generations (the young voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU).

The vast majority of non-Europeans are unaffected by what has happened here. But what has been most troubling- indeed horrifying- was the way the political campaign was fought. It mirrored the vicious obscurantism of the current American presidential campaign.

The “Remain” camp, led by the outgoing Prime Minister David Cameron, exaggerated the security threats and economic fall-out of leaving the EU. But the “Leave” camp, led by the ambitious Boris Johnson, traded on blatant lies which the tabloid media swallowed wholesale and sold its gullible readers. Lies such as: more than 60 per cent of British legislation emanates from Brussels; an invasion of Poles, Rumanians and Bulgarians (not to mention refugees from North Africa) who will be taking British jobs and enjoying social benefits (while neglecting to speak of the millions of Britons living in the rest of Europe and doing the same); the imminent entry of Turkey into the EU (unlikely, at least for another decade); the UK paying 350 million pounds a week to the EU (while neglecting to mention that more than half that returns in the form of rebates).

The Leave campaign, in other words, openly exploited the racist elements in British society. It played to the jingoism prevalent among older Britons, evoking nostalgic fantasies of an island superpower. The glaring social inequalities in Britain, which understandably fuel deep resentment among the poorer communities, were blamed on the EU and not on the biased austerity programs of the ruling Tory party. Unemployment caused, not by European migrant workers or refugees, but rather by globalisation and robotisation were scarcely addressed. “Taking back control” and “Independence Day” were the popular sound-bites of Johnson and his merry band of little-Englanders. In an age of climate change, international terrorism and technological globalization, these are meaningless slogans.

I am not enamoured with the EU. Quite apart from its unaccountable bureaucracy, it is an inward-looking club bent on building a Fortress Europe and ignoring its responsibilities to the rest of the world. But it has proved to be more effective than its member-states in checking the unethical activities of transnational technology giants and countering right-wing movements in Europe. If a nation-state believes that leaving is better than staying and reforming it from within it needs to give reasons more ethical and compelling than the fear of foreigners. (Ironic that a country which colonized half the world still lives in fear of foreigners).

Britain boasts of being the cradle of democracy. It has developed liberal institutions that other nations have sought to emulate. All the more disturbing, therefore, when both Britain and the USA present to the rest of the world an image of electoral politics that seems to glorify selfishness, racism, intolerance and wilful ignorance. I can imagine the leaders of China or North Korea rubbing their hands in glee, and telling their citizens languishing in local prisons: “You want democracy? Look at what is happening in the US and UK- do you want such men to rule over you?”

A referendum works on the assumption that all voting citizens will be well-informed about the issue that is under dispute. It presupposes a mass media that is truth-seeking and not merely free. And on an issue as serious in its long-term ramifications as whether or not to remain in the EU, it is important that a two-thirds or three-fifths majority be sought rather than a simple majority. I am surprised that David Cameron did not consider this with his legal and constitutional advisors before he called for a referendum.

Isn’t it an illusion to think that we can have a democratic society based purely on constitutions and formal procedures, without paying any attention to the moral formation of individual citizens? The kind of people we are -and become- shapes the kind of society we have (though it is also true that the kind of society we live in shapes what we become).

Civility and moral integrity are the presuppositions of public life, not their product. For instance, the parties to an agreement must already have a sense of what is right, and a willingness to abide by it, even when it is in their own interests not to do so. A contract is no contract at all if it is kept only when it is convenient to do so. Also, if elected public officials cannot be trusted to be concerned with the common good, the louder voices in society will prevail.

The quest for good governance begins with a sense of moral outrage at the undeserved exclusion and humiliation of other human beings. Our moral sensibilities are nurtured principally through our families, schools, and religious communities and institutions. Where most families are dysfunctional, schools merely tuition-factories, universities servants of corporate interests, and religious institutions become inward-looking and self-serving, the roots of a well-functioning democracy wither.

In his justly acclaimed encyclical Laudato Si’ (subtitled “On Care for Our Common Home”) Pope Francis claimed that “many professionals, opinion makers, communications media and centres of power, being located in affluent urban areas, are far removed from the poor with little direct contact with their problems.”

This observation may partly explain why it is so often the case that media pundits and political soothsayers get it wrong when it comes to predicting election outcomes. The recent election of an ultra-right wing President in Austria has sent shock waves around the European Union. Donald Trump’s surging popularity among the white lower-middle classes in the USA has caught almost everybody by surprise. If left-wing politicians often incite class resentment, the right-wing thrives on fear: the fear of the stranger and foreigners, the fear of rising unemployment, the fear of changing cultural norms.

Many “liberation theologies” have romanticized the poor. They ignored the racist, sexist and homophobic prejudices that are just as prevalent in many poor communities as among the middle classes. Lacking the educational opportunities that rich kids have open to them, such prejudices are clearly less culpable; but, nevertheless, they have to be acknowledged and confronted. Fascists have long known how to exploit them for political advantage.

It is all the more tragic when Christians, whether in the USA or Brazil or Uganda or South Korea, support political candidates simply because the latter claim to be “born again”. On 6 May a Brazilian Supreme Court judge suspended Eduardo Cunha as speaker of the lower house of the Congress, citing his attempt to obstruct a probe into his alleged corruption. He is known as a “born-again Christian” and is head of a right-wing party. Despite facing criminal charges including bribery and hiding money in Swiss bank accounts, Cunha has survived months of attempts by prosecutors and a congressional ethics committee to see him brought to justice. Brazilians refer to him as a real-life Frank Underwood- the corrupt American politician in the popular TV series “House of Cards”. The ruling reflected concerns on the Supreme Court that with Dilma Rousseff suspended, Cunha would have moved up to first on the presidential succession list. Justice Zavaski said in his ruling “there is not the least doubt that the suspect does not meet the minimum personal requirements for fully exercising the functions of speaker of the chamber of deputies at this time.”

I returned last week from a very interesting gathering of hundreds of Christian university students and graduates in Kenya. This conference was part of the public launch of a national campaign against corruption called Hesabika (“Stand Up and Be Counted”) led by the indigenous Kenyan movement affiliated to the organization for which I work. Over 70 per cent of Kenya is identified as “Christian”; yet corruption, nepotism, and dishonesty is rife in public life.

I heard several laments from the podium over the (very un-African) separation of the “spiritual” and the “secular” in the lives of Christians. This is the product of years of Western evangelicalism (not least through popular “Christian TV” channels). But indifference towards politics has given way (just as in the USA since the 1980s) to active support for “born-again” politicians who have proved to be disastrous for their countries. Church leaders naively assume that putting “believers” into public office will automatically bring about a Christian politics. Yet non-Christians seem to follow more biblical values than do many such “believers”. Indeed, dictators generally love “born-again” pastors, for they know how to co-opt them into their patronage networks. Simply offer them state lands for putting up church buildings, public money for evangelistic crusades, laws curtailing the activity of Muslims, and banning homosexuality!

Political naiveté, of course, is not confined to such “born-again” pastors. Self-styled “liberal progressives” would do well to note that diversity for the sake of diversity does not translate into progressive politics. The kind of feminism that Hilary Clinton and her (mostly white, upwardly mobile) supporters espouse is out of touch with the different social realities that American women inhabit and so is blind to the wider structural issues of gender justice. The Bush administration, after all, included Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell: demonstrating that identity politics can be deployed by conservatives just as well as by progressives.

To return to where I began. Surely, church leaders everywhere should be publicly renouncing the politics of fear-mongering. They should, instead, be taking a cue from our Kenyan brethren and standing up (“Hesabika”) for a politics of justice, compassion and honesty.

Why cannot Christians of all nations and denominations unite around the Christian political values articulated in books such as Laudato Si’: viz. pursing a global common good, speaking up for the most exploited and excluded in our societies, unmasking corruption, showing hospitality to refugees, respecting the non-human creation, seeking economic justice above addictive consumerism, and protecting the civil and human rights of all people?

A new edition of my first full-length book Gods That Fail: Modern Idolatry and Christian Mission (1996) has just been published by Wipf & Stock. It is available both on the publisher’s website (http://wipfandstock.com/gods-that-fail-revised-edition.html) and on Amazon. The Kindle edition is also available from Amazon in the U.S., United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, France, Spain, Brazil, India, Japan, Italy, and Mexico. (If you are buying the hard copy, I prefer you choose the publisher rather than Amazon!)

The Table of Contents can also be found on the Wipf & Stock web page above.

While the book is addressed primarily to thoughtful Christians in “secular” spheres of work, pastors and non-Christians can also read it with profit.

My sequel to this- Subverting Global Myths (IVPAcademic and SPCK, 2008)is still in print.

Enjoy!

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