Vinoth Ramachandra

Learning Self-Criticism

Posted on: March 28, 2021

Every March, the United Nations Human Rights Council meets in Geneva and, among its other business, passes resolutions calling on the government of Sri Lanka to implement mechanisms to ensure greater political accountability and respect for human rights. The government, in turn, protests with cliches about “national sovereignty”, promises to comply, and repeatedly fails to honour its promises.

Much of the pressure (but not all) on the UNHRC stems from militant members of the Sri Lankan Tamil ethnic diaspora in the West. Their exclusive concern seems to be bringing the President and military generals before the international criminal court to face charges of war crimes, especially during the final days of the war (May 2009- incidentally, when my Blog was birthed). If they were genuinely concerned about justice, rather than vengeance, they should also seek the prosecution of those who had financially supported the Tamil Tiger guerrillas during the protracted conflict. For the Tamil Tigers violated all rules of military engagement in using non-combatants as human shields and engaging in suicide bombings, political assassinations and the conscription of children. Many of the Tamils who fled as refugees to the West were fleeing not only the brutality of the army but also that of the Tamil Tigers. Indeed, the de facto government in the north of the island that the latter set up during the last decade of the conflict was more oppressive than what was experienced in the south.

For those of us who chose to stay in Sri Lanka during those harrowing decades of bloody conflict, having to combat the hypocrisy and double standards on both sides was as depressing as challenging the simplistic view propagated by Western media who reduced it to an “ethnic conflict”, ignoring all the complexities. There were rich Tamils who, while selling or renting their mansions in Colombo to foreign embassies or international companies, went as political asylees to the US, UK or Australia claiming to suffer economic discrimination. They hailed the Tamil Tigers as “our boys and girls”, while educating their own boys and girls to elite schools and universities in the West. As so often happens in such conflicts, the people least affected are the ones who determine outcomes.

In my experience, it is rare to find among Asian diasporas in the West, advocates for human rights or economic justice- unless, of course, the victims happen to be from their own ethnic community. Many well-to-do Sri Lankans in the UK, both Sinhalese and Tamils, speak in disparaging ways of Afro-Caribbean Britons and East European migrant workers. They voted for Brexit, forgetting their own recent history.

This is why I view with some scepticism the righteous anger on the part of “Asians” in the USA as they become targets of white violence and hate-speech. Of course these acts have to be condemned publicly and unequivocally. But, when hundreds of black churches were burned every year by white supremacists, where were the Asian-Americans who protested in solidarity with their black brethren? Going further back, how many marched with Rev Martin Luther King and supported the Civil Rights Movement?

Tragically, the Asian-American ecclesiastical landscape is characterised by segregation and ethnocentrism, even though they may be predominantly English-speaking; and parents are typically horrified if their children choose to marry a dark-skinned person.

I have often stated on this Blog that India and China are probably the most racist countries in the world (although “race” is not a recognized socio-political category in either). Just look at the movies, TV advertisements, billboards, news anchors, quiz shows, pop stars and see if you can identify a single dark face that is not that of a villain! And, if you still doubt me, ask any African student in, or visitor to, these countries.

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, David Brooks interviewed a Christian theology professor on the distinctive Christian perspective on social justice. As the professor observed, there are rich resources which Christian theology and historical experience bring to the issue. When racism is seen as sin, and not just a social or political problem, we deal with it the way we do all sin: acknowledging it, confessing it, seeking forgiveness, changing direction (repentance) and (wherever possible) making restitution to those affected. 

I would add that we are all, in the Biblical light, both sinners and sinned-against, albeit to varying degrees.  This induces in us a certain self-critical humility: to address the sins in our own community even as we protest the sins committed against us.

Moreover, while social and political transformation involves systemic and institutional change, without a robust doctrine of the intrinsic and equal worth of every human person, coupled with a deeply relational view of such persons, all protest movements for change generate their own victims and new forms of oppression. This is happening with the “identity politics” and “culture wars” in North America which disfigure the contours of social justice.

If only we could isolate evil people like we do Covid-19 patients and inject them with drugs and vaccines! But, as the Russian Christian dissident and Nobel prize-winning author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn reminded us, “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” (The Gulag Archipelago)

3 Responses to "Learning Self-Criticism"

Thank you for this post. I sometimes wonder whether we as individuals and societies fear and avoid self-criticism? Bombarded by information and knowledge and confused by multiple ideologies and identities that are characteristic of postmodern society, it is challenging to engage in self-criticism. The plethora of ideologies encased in western liberal thinking encourages inclusivity to the extent that it could elevate us to a status of being beyond self-criticism. When I had conversations with some church members, as an international student in Brighton, I found the concept of personal sin was considered an almost alien & hackneyed concept. The Asian context is not better, but I wonder whether our inability to engage in self-criticism stems from a defensive stance and due to powerlessness rather than emerging from a stance of power? That’s why I felt your post so timely and balanced in that it refers to a broader need to self-criticise on an international level, the country, church and also for us as individuals.

Many Asians in the West belong to the top 5 per cent – so they cannot complain of “powerlessness”.

We can be politically/economically powerless, Avanka, but deeply secure in the love of Christ. This love is what enables us to overcome our fear of the “other”, as well as of criticism by others, and engage boldly, yet humbly, in society. We become a threat to others when we are trapped in a protective, embattled mind-set and shape our lives accordingly. The tragedy of so much white, as well as Asian-American, Christianity in the US today is that it is based on fear, not love.

Christian nationalism is a mirror-image of the Buddhist nationalism we face in Sri Lanka or Hindu nationalism in India.

I am sorry to hear of your experience in Brighton. Little wonder that the British Methodist church is on its last legs. If such is the theology that is being promoted, I will not mourn the demise of British Methodism.

Thought-provoking and rich in substance as ever, in a relatively brief reflection. Some very raw reflections on the Asian-diaspora. In fairness, there is a history of trade union and/or anti-racist solidarity in the UK that is interracial such as the famous Grunwick strikes. Southern Asians embedded in the anti-racist movement would identify with political ‘blackness’ and stand alongside those of African descent. I know a few in the current Labour movement.

Towards the end of the article and reading Avanka’s comments, what came to mind is self-awareness of which I think self-criticism is a subset. I feel self-awareness (distinguished from self-consciousness) is too rare, both in the church and society at large. It requires a level of honesty and introspection that is perhaps too frightening for many. It’s a quality I (imperfectly) try to cultivate and highly respect in others. It’s ironic as we Christians should set the example by being the most self-aware of all, if we take seriously one of the pillars of our faith; that is repentance.

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March 2021
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