Vinoth Ramachandra

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One of the more pleasant side-effects of the coronavirus-induced immobility is the opportunity to spend time re-visiting books and films one had forgotten.

The film Educating Rita (1983), with Julie Walters and Michael Caine, is one of those films I wish all university students could watch in their first year of studies. It would remind them of the privilege, let alone the responsibility, of acquiring knowledge. On the one hand, the story is a re-hash of the Pygmalion plot (immortalized in George Bernard Shaw’s play of the same name and the musical My Fair Lady): a vivacious, lower-class girl’s relationship with her staid, upper-class mentor. On the other hand, this is no sentimental romance. It is far funnier, more moving and intellectually stimulating than any precursor.

Rita is a 27-year old hairdresser whose husband and working-class family cannot understand her passion for a higher education. She refuses to have a baby until she has “discovered herself”, as she puts it, and therefore can choose her life’s path rather than be pushed along by social convention. She enrols in an Open University course in English literature and has, as her tutor, an alcoholic professor who is also a disillusioned poet, one who has lost all interest in teaching and whose life is falling apart. Rita’s own marriage breaks up as her husband, seeing Rita’s new-found love for Chekov and Shakespeare as a threat to his dreams of fatherhood, burns her books and walks away. There follows a mutually transforming, yet asexual (because this is not Hollywood), relationship between Rita and her professor.

Such a relationship- of a student changing a teacher and them learning together about life- is perhaps more likely to arise in the study of the Humanities (literature, philosophy, history, art, theology) than in the natural/ social sciences and professional disciplines, because the subject matter is less in the “control” of the teacher and invites personal reflection on the bigger issues of our common humanity. And, of course, the kind of relationship between Rita and her tutor is not possible in the large classrooms of the typical industrial-age university or the virtual classrooms of the current information-age.

There are many professors like Rita’s in our universities, including the most famous. Not only have excessive workloads, bored students, and increasing competition made university teaching lose its thrall for many, but the lack of a coherent worldview within which to discover the meaning and value of one’s subject has a corroding effect on morale.

In recent years, the more far-seeing university administrators and academics have promoted more inter-disciplinary courses and research programs, as most of the challenges facing humanity, from global warming to technology run amok and widening social inequities, require a multi-dimensional approach. Cultivating wisdom is what we need, in whatever profession, and not the mere accumulation of information.

Contrast this with Jerome Kagan (a former President of Harvard)’s dispirited observation: “Too often the undergraduate years resemble a bus tour through a beautiful countryside where the purpose is not to admire the scenery but to keep the tour on schedule. The new understanding was that college students were hotel guests choosing from a variety of intellectual diversions with no purpose other than career preparation directed by a diverse faculty of reasonably well-treated employees.”

This is why the current worldwide trend in university education of seeing learning and scholarship as merely a means to employment and economic growth, coupled with the shutting down or scaling back of Humanities departments, is disastrous. It destroys the possibility of any independent critique of government and corporate hegemony, as the Humanities are the soil in which independent, critical thought is most naturally nurtured. As universities become mere tuition factories, churning out products for the marketplace, they encourage a society of super-educated morons.

In such a crassly consumerist world, the acting profession will be deprived of actors like Julie Walters and Michael Caine, both of whom came from working-class homes. And working-class folk like Rita will never be able to afford a college education; but, once in college, there is a real possibility of their minds never being awakened but remaining self-enclosed. Yet, paradoxically, if change is to come to our universities, most likely it will not be from the ranks of the social elite, and even the elite universities which are bastions of the status quo, but from rare individuals like Rita who help others awaken to life with all its everyday joys and cruelties.

The current pandemic has seen a resurgence of online courses. This has been inevitable, but it has played into the hands of those who want to turn all universities into financially lucrative virtual spaces even in the post-pandemic age. However, both before and since the pandemic, the severe limitations of online learning were becoming apparent to perceptive observers in the academy. Sherry Turkle, the renowned sociologist of technology at MIT, quoted the director of a Columbia University study that compared online and face-to-face learning: “The most important thing [the study concluded] that helps students succeed in an online course is interpersonal interaction and support.” (Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age). “What makes the greatest impression in a college education,” writes Turkle, “is learning how to think like someone else, appreciating an intellectual personality, and thinking about what it might mean to have one of your own.” For that, person-to-person encounter is indispensable.

Furthermore, Professor Las Back, in his Academic Diary, raises the question, “In the age of Google Scholar, aren’t libraries at risk of becoming a bit of an anachronism? Reading matters comes to our screens faster than any book ever could. Why do we need a library when, with the right log-in, we have almost immediate access to the world library online?” He answers his own question thus: “All this misses the point of libraries because they provide not only a refuge but places of serendipity, where we discover routinely things we are not looking for.”

Stephen Spielberg’s film Lincoln (2012)- the most intellectually demanding of all his films- is set in the closing months of Abraham Lincoln’s life, when he is struggling to push through Congress a 13th Amendment to the US Constitution that would abolish slavery. There are fierce debates within his own cabinet as to whether the Amendment implies that “blacks are equal to whites” or whether “blacks are equal to whites before the law”. The moderates in his party favour the latter interpretation, while the radicals urge the former.

All talk of “equality” begs the question “equality in relation to what?” Clearly not all human beings are equal in their economic status, physical fitness, intellectual endowments or artistic abilities. And, in most societies and cultures untouched by the Judaeo-Christian tradition, human inequality has been taken for granted as a fact of life. It has never been seen as a problem that needs to be addressed. In traditional Greco-Roman philosophies, some are born to rule and others to be subservient. Those outside the civilization of Greece are “barbarians”, “savages”. In the dominant Hindu and Buddhist schools of thought, no less than in folk religious culture, inequality is the just outworking of the cosmic unfolding of karma and rebirth.

If, like the radical Republicans of Lincoln’s day, we urge that “blacks and whites are equal in their humanness”, we are invoking a concept of intrinsic human worth or dignity. This worth is independent of a person’s age, colour, origin or capacities. But, then, all who insist on “abortion on demand” or “euthanasia for the severely disabled” are denying such an equality, for the unborn yet developing human person and the incapacitated human adult are equal to us in their humanness.

It is because the notion of the intrinsic and equal worth of human persons, which undergirds equal respect before the law, is a difficult concept to justify on strictly secularist/naturalist grounds that this deeper question is side-stepped in the polarized discourse about equality in the Western media. But it is a question that needs to be raised, provided it does not deflect attention from the systemic/structural causes of racial and other forms of injustice that need to be addressed.

I have often commented in this Blog on the hypocrisy and one-sidedness that often attends talk about “equality” and “diversity” in the media and academic popularizers. There is a long history of “scientific racism”, encouraged by Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man which influenced nineteenth and early twentieth-century colonial government policies. It was Christians, both indigenous and foreign missionaries, who countered such arguments. This is rarely mentioned in undergraduate history-of-science courses.

Racist attitudes and violence are not confined to chauvinist “whites”. One of the police officers indicted in George Floyd’s murder was from a Laotian ethnic community. Afro-Caribbean friends tell me that they have often encountered more hostility, even contempt, among so-called “Asians” in the US and UK than among Caucasians. India and China are perhaps the most racist societies on earth, as any black student or visitor to these countries will testify. The Indian caste-system may have originated in notion of religious purity/impurity and even of occupation, but it is clearly linked to colour: the lower-castes and those outside the system altogether are the darker-skinned. Indian TV carries ads for face creams that promise to “make your skin fairer” and in all Bollywood films you will never find a dark-skinned hero or heroine, but only villains. Why are there no calls to ban such ads, and even outlaw Bollywood movies on Netflix?

At the height of the Charlottesville violence by “white supremacists” in July 2017, the New York Times published a tweet from Gen. Mark Milley, the chief of staff of the U.S Army, which stated: “The Army doesn’t tolerate racism, extremism, or hatred in our ranks. It’s against our values and everything we’ve stood for since 1775.” Really? The US army had separate black and white units well into the 1950s, with black units always led by white officers.

If city mayors and state governors in the US are going to expunge all memorials to Americans who were “pro-slavery” or “white supremacists”, they should begin with Thomas Jefferson and shut down the University of Virginia.

Jefferson himself was a hypocrite. He owned over 600 slaves at one time, despite claiming, famously, in the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence (1776) that it was a “self-evident truth” that “all men are created equal”. In Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson described blacks as intrinsically and permanently inferior to whites. He hid his affair with his enslaved house maid by whom he fathered at least six children and shunned all financial responsibility for them. He also advocated the idea of forced repatriation of blacks to Africa, arguing that it was far preferable to the mixing of races in the USA. As for his presidential orders regarding the harsh treatment of native Indian Americans, this too never appears in American popular histories.

Countering racism has also to go beyond confronting the ideology of racism. I may not believe in the ideology that says “whites are superior human beings to blacks”, but if I live within and benefit from a socio-economic-political system that has been constructed on such a premise, I share in the guilt of racism. In many countries, the entire criminal justice system, with its disproportionate sentencing of ethnic minorities, needs to be overhauled. And what about the hiring practices of elite universities, the non-registration of many voters, lack of access to healthcare, and other sources of social exclusion?

Racism, like sexism, is more about systemic injustice than personal attitudes. But personal attitudes also matter as they are what shape our informal social relations. Global media and national educational curricula are far from egalitarian in their agendas. A Martian who scans news media on the planet Earth will conclude that, whatever some national Constitutions may say, the lives of “celebrities” and super-rich oligarchs and tycoons are far more valuable than others.

Dismantling memorials to slave-owners and racist imperialists was long overdue. But dismantling unjust structures and stopping modern, rampant forms of slavery worldwide (human trafficking, bonded agricultural labour) is far more important. And why cannot American governors erect monuments in places where black folk were lynched by mobs or First Nations tribes massacred by US cavalry? And why are there no slavery museums in southern cities comparable to the Holocaust museum in Washington DC? These will not eradicate racism, of course, just as Germany’s acknowledgment of its past has not entirely eradicated neo-Nazism in that country. But it will go a long way towards dispelling the ignorance over history that undergirds fear and racist politics.

I am delighted to announce the publication of my new book Sarah’s Laughter, four months ahead of schedule.

Information about the book can be found HERE

I have waived my author royalties in order to make the book available, in both print and e-versions, to as many readers as possible, especially in the non-Western world. The book can be purchased from the above website, as well as from Kobo, Book Depository, Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble. (Both Langham and Book Depository ship free worldwide). The book was written for people who struggle with doubt, pain, the loss of hope, and the questions that pastors and theologians typically evade.

I am personally embarrassed to promote my own books, so would appreciate your help in doing so in the circles in which you move, whether they be churches, university groups, seminaries or parachurch organizations.

Interestingly, the Biblical writers know nothing of apologetics. In the face of innocent human suffering, they don’t defend God. They protest to God. And if the cause of that suffering is systemic injustice or political oppression, they confront those responsible. The Christian church has practised this two-fold response (albeit with glaring omissions and inconsistencies) throughout its history: lament to God and practical action on behalf of the victims. Even in the case of “natural evils” like viral pandemics and floods, I have often pointed out that the scale of suffering and death is greatly exacerbated by endemic corruption, political lethargy, economic inequality, and dangerous cultural and environmental practices.

In Sri Lanka, just as in some other countries, Covid-19 has played into the hands of autocratic regimes who have used the crisis to consolidate their hold on power. Constitutional safeguards have been dismantled, and the rule of law replaced by Presidential diktat. The President, a former army commander who assumed power in October last year, was inserting his army cronies into all government departments before the crisis hit. The current army commander was appointed as head of the task force to control the response to Covid-19.

The country was facing both economic ruin and the threat of military dictatorship, and so the pandemic served as a convenient scapegoat for economic mismanagement and as a pretext for growing control by the armed forces of civilian activities. Ironically, the largest clusters of the virus have been found among armed forces personnel. The absence of free and competent journalism, coupled with the takeover of major newspapers and TV stations by the regime, leaves the public largely ignorant of the slide into despotism.

Even as I write, riots are sweeping through several American cities. While rioting and looting are always inexcusable, they are perfectly understandable. Those who decry the violence must first acknowledge the violence of the racist system of law-enforcement in the US. The Brazilian educator Paolo Freire, in his seminal work Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970), pointed out that “Never in history has violence been initiated by the oppressed. How could they be the initiators, if they themselves are the result of violence? There would be no oppressed had there been no prior situation of violence to establish their subjugation.”

But he went on, in that same work, to caution: “‘When people are already dehumanized, due to the oppression they suffer, the process of their liberation must not employ the methods of dehumanization.”

Institutional racism and police brutality against coloured people long pre-date Trump, though the latter has emboldened white supremacists by his inflammatory rhetoric. Anyone familiar with Hollywood movies or the crime novels of writers like Walter Mosley know that routine police brutality is a feature of life that has rarely been questioned by whites:

“In the south if a black man killed a white man he was dead. If the police saw him on the street they shot first and asked questions… never. If he gave himself up he was killed in his cell. If the constable wasn’t a murdering man then a mob would come and lynch the poor son of a bitch. And failing all that, if a black man ever made it to trial and was convicted of killing a white man- even in self-defence, even if it was to save another white man- that convict would spend the rest of his days incarcerated. There would be no parole, no commutation of sentence, no extenuating circumstances, no time off for good behaviour.” (Walter Mosley, Cinnamon Kiss, Orion Books, 2006)

Racial segregation and a biased criminal justice system have not been confined to the American south. Ken Wytsma writes: “More African American adults are under correctional control today than were enslaved in 1850, ten years before the Civil War began, and more are unable to vote than in 1870, the year the Fifteenth Amendment was passed. Black men are imprisoned at six times the rate of white men; estimates indicate that black men have a one in three chance of going to prison in their lifetime.” (The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege, InterVarsity Press, 2017)

A revolutionary situation can be said to exist when an economic, political or military system is so oppressive that large numbers of people have in their hearts withdrawn consent from the system and from those who administer it. And lament (“This should not be”) is the first step in revolutionary change.

A good many of my white friends in the US (and elsewhere, I should add), with some outstanding exceptions, cannot grasp the severity of this situation. Their view of “sin” is individual, rather than structural and systemic. Because they themselves are not “racist” in their attitudes to others, they fail to empathize with the rage of those who suffer every day. So they continue to vote for politicians who simply tinker with the system rather than uproot it altogether. And they are more offended by the “tone” in which people protest than the situation which gives rise to such protest!

The German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemoller’s poignant lament is often quoted in these contexts of comfortable middle-class lethargy:

“First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out- because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the communists
and I did not speak out- because I was not a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out- because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me-
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.”

Much more on this in my book above!

One week before the Great Crash of October 1929- which precipitated the Great Depression- Irving Fisher of Yale University, perhaps the most distinguished US economist of his time, claimed that the American economy had attained a “permanently high plateau”. Three years later the national income had fallen by more than 50 per cent. No one, not a single economist, had seen it coming.

The usefulness of economics, observed that wittiest of economists, John Kenneth Galbraith, is that it provides employment for economists.

I gave the above example in my Blog post of 26 November 2011, in the aftermath of the so-called financial crisis of 2008-9. Nothing seems to have changed since. Will the Covid-19 crisis spell a similar return to “business as usual” on the part of politicians, bankers and economic “experts’; or will it lead to a radical overhaul of the world’s economic and financial systems and the shallow assumptions about human behaviour on which such systems have been built?

There is no doubt that the global spread of Covid-19 has exposed the lies, hypocrisies and fault-lines that run through many of our societies. If the virus had been confined to the non-Western world, it is unlikely to have become the #1 headline in the world’s media for days on end, as has been the case since first Europe, and then the US, became the epicentre of the pandemic. Just as a receding tide exposes the debris that we would rather not see, the virus has exposed the deep health and economic inequalities within rich nations, as well as between nations. Poor economies are on the brink of collapse. And it is the poor and vulnerable communities within the rich nations that have been disproportionately affected.

It was Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal that lifted the American economy our of economic ruin following the Great Depression. This was a massive program of government investment in public works which put people back into work; social security for farmers and the unemployed; pension and housing schemes for the elderly; and financial reforms of Wall Street such as the Glass-Steagall Act which separated the operations of high-street banks from merchant houses (an Act that was repealed in 1999 as a result of financial lobbying).

When Bernie Sanders, in his election campaign, proposed an updated version of the New Deal, he was uniformly derided by conservative economists and politicians. “Where will the money for all this come from?” they jeered. Even his fellow-Democrats, such as the archetypal establishment figure Joe Biden, spent so much TV time portraying a vitriolic caricature of Sanders as an angry, obdurate old man who posed a socialist threat to the US’s “thriving” economy. Similarly, in the UK, the Labour Party’s election manifesto, promising increased investment in the National Health Service, a return to free university education and an end to the austerity measures of the past decade, was ridiculed by Tory campaigners who again claimed to be on the side of economic “reality”.

As soon as Covid-19 sent waves of panic across the United States, Donald Trump and his cohorts rushed through a Bill injecting a staggering $2 trillion into the economy. A quarter of that, predictably, goes to the least needy (the wealthy corporations with sufficient assets to borrow without government aid) and less than ten per cent to public services. Nevertheless, “Spend, spend, spend!” seems to be the new socialist mantra of the Right. But nobody is asking the question they put to Sanders, “Where is this money coming from?”

Similarly, in the UK, by a grim irony, Boris Johnson contracted the virus, was treated by the very health service he had planned to sell off to American “investors”, and promptly halted his pre-election Brexit tirade against foreigners (Britain’s health service is heavily dependent on foreign-born doctors and nurses). Criticism of Labour’s “inefficient” plans to revive public services that had steadily been robbed of resources by successive conservative regimes is an embarrassment to the many voters who are now belatedly expressing thanks for a public health service that is the envy of the world.

So, where does money come from? In an earlier age, money was a commodity, a precious substance used in economic exchange. Today, money is a more abstract concept. In rich nations, money is largely credit. When you go to a bank and ask for a loan, the bank doesn’t first check its deposits and reserves to see if it has enough to lend. It is not deposits that generate loans, but loans that generate deposits. Money is created by private banks “out of thin air”. The main function of a Central Bank (like the Bank of England or the Federal Reserve in the US) is to set the interest rate- to determine how much private banks can charge for the money they create. So, when governments justify public austerity by claiming that public spending diverts money from the private sector, they show that they don’t understand money. Government borrowing creates money that did not exist before.

Covid-19 has also exposed how dependent we are on those on the “underside” of our societies. The people at the frontline of the fight to protect us from the pandemic are the very people whom we routinely ignore, sometimes even revile, and- if the hiTech companies have their way- will soon be replaced by robots: those involved in social care, nurses and hospital orderlies, janitors, sales assistants, garbage collectors, undertakers, mental health workers and migrant labourers on farms and in the food industry. The bankers, CEOs, and celebrities whom the mass media normally fawn over steal way in their private jets to their private estates where they can self-isolate in luxury.

Sanders’ political career is over, but the challenge that invigorated his two unsuccessful campaigns for the presidency – that governments must use wealth not to serve as Nanny to business elites but to help those people who actually need help – has to become central to economic and political thinking in the post-Covid world.

As I mentioned in my last post, the Covid-19 crisis should also shake us out of our nationalist biases and lethargy to realise the importance of working for the global common good. The same selfish inertia which has made governments pay only lip-service to the threat of global warming also lay behind those governments’ under-funding of institutions such as the WHO which has been warning us against pandemics like the present one for some time now.

When Greta Thunberg spoke at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in January 2020, she was rudely rebuffed and scorned by the US Treasury Secretary who told her to go to college and first get an education on how business runs. Who now needs to learn how business actually runs?

The novel coronavirus, now called SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19 is the illness it causes) was first identified in Wuhan, China, on late December 2019. Since then it has spread to every continent except Antarctica. The mortality rate appears to be higher than that of the seasonal flu in the northern hemisphere, but much depends on the available healthcare system, as well as a person’s age, and underlying health conditions.

Scientists aren’t certain where the virus originated, though they know that coronaviruses (which also include SARS and MERS) are passed between animals and humans. Research comparing the genetic sequence of SARS-CoV-2 with a viral database suggests it originated in bats. Since no bats were sold at the seafood market in Wuhan at the disease’s epicenter, researchers suggest an intermediate animal, possibly the pangolin (an endangered mammal) is responsible for the transmission to humans. There are currently no treatments for the disease, but labs are working on various types of treatments, including a vaccine.

The extreme measures taken by some governments- closing of borders, cancelling flights, shutting down schools, shops and restaurants- are understandable. But I cannot help wondering whether, in this case, the treatment may sometimes be worse than the disease. A narrowly nationalistic outlook (let’s protect our people) may endanger others elsewhere. Many poor, even in the rich world, live on daily wages. For many poor countries that depend heavily on tourism or the foreign labour market, a slowing of the economy will spell the collapse of their already fragile health systems, resulting in greater suffering and deaths not only from COVID-19. Surely, what is required is a globally co-ordinated response. And, in the USA, I can confidently predict that tens of thousands of people will die of gun-related random acts of violence this year. So why not take equally drastic measures to combat what many mental health specialists, teachers and parents have identified as a public health issue of epidemic proportions?

This leads me to highlight a pandemic that is far more dangerous, in the long term, than COVID-19. It is the pandemic of racism and xenophobia that seems to be spreading at an alarming rate and has been responsible for the election of men like Trump, Putin, Johnson, Erdogan, Netanyahu, Modi, Rajapakse and others into positions of power. Much of this is fuelled by fear. COVID-19 has also brought out this fear, at the same time as others have worked tirelessly to care for victims and curtail its spread. In London, a Singaporean Chinese man was assaulted on the street and Chinese shops and restaurants boycotted. In Nairobi, even before the first case was reported, angry crowds attacked Chinese workers. Several incidents of this nature have happened elsewhere.

South Korea has been held up as a model of how countries should be responding to the crisis. But, alas, this is not transferrable to poorer nations. Instead of closing its border to China, the government employed widespread free testing, including drive-through test sites. Technology has aided the tracing of contacts, using GPS tracking. Rather than creating a total lockdown, they opted for physical distancing measures targeting transmission hot spots.

A South Korean friend of mine wrote to me recently:

“The cult called Shincheonji (meaning new heaven and earth) has been the epicenter of the epidemic. They have been using lies and deception in their outreach, and because of their secretive approaches, they didn’t want to be tracked down by the public health authorities which made the whole response extremely difficult. This bizarre case shows public responsibility of a religion. Several churches also became centres of virus infection on a smaller scale, and each case provoked public criticism. Hope we can learn our responsibility in the society through these cases.”

If indeed (and it is still a big “if”) the virus originated from close animal-human contact in public markets like in Wuhan, then it puts paid to the cultural relativist view that one must never challenge the cultural practices (including diets and dress styles) of others. (In any case, such an argument is impossible to practice consistently and is often self-serving).

Cultures and religious traditions must be open to criticism, especially when they endanger public goods. But this includes the intensive meat-eating culture of the USA which is promoted among the urban middle-classes of the global South and which involves not only the inhumane treatment of cattle and poultry, but massive rises in greenhouse emissions which also take their death toll on vulnerable populations.

Europe is currently the epicentre of COVID-19. European colonists, sailors and soldiers once spread European diseases to the peoples of South America and the South Pacific. And the misnamed “Spanish ’flu” of 1918-19 which originated in a military hospital in France was carried by debilitated French and British soldiers returning to their imperial territories. Fatality figures for that terrible pandemic range from 50 million to 100 million. We are nowhere near that with COVID-19.

All this should remind is that we belong to one world, and our destinies are bound up with one other. We cannot afford to think in narrow, nationalist categories that only generate fear of those who are different to us. If what happens in a market in China can affect us all, so does what happens in an American university laboratory or a London corporate board room.

Science cannot provide the antidote to fear, although it can go a long way towards dispelling lies and misinformation. But it’s “love that casts out fear” (1 John 4:18), the knowledge that we are loved unconditionally and that our worth as human beings does not rest on our colour, gender, age or achievements.

I have been spending the past two-and-a-half weeks in the USA, combining public speaking with visits to friends. I am again appalled at the dreadful quality of TV in this country, especially the parochial news media. No wonder that a prominent American evangelist, George Verwer, once told me, “You must remember that Americans are an ignorant people.”

Exaggeration, no doubt. But, still, a solid core of truth. Despite having many of the finest universities and research centres in the world, large swathes of the American public (including many who study and work in such institutions) remain ignorant of their own national history, the lives of their fellow-Americans outside their circle of family and friends, what is happening in the world beyond their shores, and how American policies promote injustice and suffering elsewhere. This applies, not least, to the depressing number of white American Christians who support politicians like Donald Trump.

I had the great fortune to listen last Sunday to Mark Noll, the eminent historian, as he spoke at a Sunday School class in his church on the topic of Christian involvement in US politics from the Civil War to the 1950s. Much of what he said was familiar to me; but I was intrigued by two stories he shared which may, I believe, be of contemporary relevance.

The “radical Republicans” of the late nineteenth-century, Noll observed, were the radical Democrats of today. They pushed through the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution, thus empowering black folk, while it was the Democrats who had not only supported slavery but wanted government to get off their backs. The strong black churches that emerged after the Civil War were all solidly Republican. In 1960, the two presidential candidates Kennedy and Nixon were urged by their advisors to reach out to the black community. Nixon refused, while Kennedy did. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s father, who had been a staunch Nixon supporter- because “blacks should vote for the party of Abe Lincoln”- switched sides. Ever since then blacks have been overwhelmingly Democrat.

The second story concerns the Temperance movement of the nineteenth century. This was largely the work of white women who recognised alcoholism as the source of many social evils, not least the male abuse of women and children. Francis Willard, founder of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in 1873 was a remarkable woman who combined evangelistic preaching with educational reform, lobbying for women’s voting rights and agitation against drink. As the century progressed, drunkenness was also seen as disrupting industrial production and efficiency.

In common with other evangelical Christians in the nineteenth and early years of the twentieth century, the WCTU and other temperance groups saw personal discipline and moral transformation as the way to social transformation. But their popular success made them overreach. Not only did some temperance advocates become more extremist, resorting to violence against bars and even pharmacies that sold alcohol, but they spread misinformation (e.g. that a single drink could make a man an alcoholic) and pushed for the federal prohibition of drink. When the latter was achieved in the 1920s, all it did was to drive liquor consumption underground and increase the power of the Mafia.

Might there be an analogy with the “pro-life” movement in the US today? Neither personal discipline nor punitive laws, important as they are, can effect lasting social transformation. Cultures need to change and oppressive socio-economic structures dismantled. And Christians, instead of always trying to use the apparatus of the state to impose their vision of human well-being, need to take on the intellectual challenge of articulating that vision in meaningful and winsome ways to the wider public.

Even if (the unlikely) legal change does come, I hope it will not be a return to the age of back-street abortions. And if the dominant secular culture remains unconvinced, “pro-life” would be seen as tied to a right-wing political agenda and will only deepen the popular resentment towards Christians. We would have won a battle only to have lost the larger war. Christians should work for cultural change which would make abortion unthinkable, by most people and in most circumstances, whether or not it is illegal.

For many peoples around the world- in countries as diverse as Britain, India and Sri Lanka- the political landscape for the new decade is bleak. Racist nationalisms, right-wing economic fundamentalism, outdated left-wing rhetoric, and the corruption of public media have suffocated political culture. Collective moral imagination seems to have atrophied. The recent Madrid COP 25 summit showed, yet again, how governments pay only lip-service to tackling global warming. National interest, so narrowly conceived, always outweighs human rights and the global common good.

It has been left to non-state actors, mainly students and other young people (the so-called “millennials”) to champion publicly the rights of vulnerable peoples, whether women suffering domestic abuse in France (the Nous Toutes campaign), poor communities threatened by climate change (Greta Thunberg and her numerous followers), dissidents facing arbitrary detention and deportation (Hong Kong) or ethnic and religious minorities (India). In our digitized world, protesters in Ecuador and Chile, Sudan, Lebanon and Tunisia have been learning from each other as they stand up to tyranny or fight for more economic equality.

If these millennials can move beyond single-issue politics to embrace a broader vision of social and cultural transformation, grounded in a political narrative more expansive than mere self-interest, they may provide the seeds of hope for the new decade. But that is a big “If”.

The UN Declaration of Human Rights speaks of us being “members of a human family”. But the Declaration assumes that national states will be the protectors and promoters of those human rights. That has not been the case in the seven decades since the Declaration was written and accepted by the members of the UN. States, not least the permanent members of the Security Council, have been the biggest violaters of the natural rights that attach to every human person on the planet.

While the USA has postured itself as the global champion of human rights around the world, not only has it protected and armed to the teeth some of the biggest rogue regimes, but human rights language has had comparatively little purchase within its borders. Congress passes resolutions expressing solidarity with the protestors in Hong Kong, but turned a blind eye to the brutal suppression of the Occupying movement by the police in many American cities. It condemns the harsh repression of the Uighurs by the Chinese regime and of the Rohingiyas by the Burmese. But it totally ignores the massive cruelties of the American criminal justice system, with its racist biases, disproportionate sentencing, and permanent disenfranchisement and social stigmatization (in many American states) of those who have served a prison sentence.

In a perceptive essay, written some two decades ago, the social anthropologist Talal Asad compared the language invoked by the militant activist Malcolm X in the 1960s with that used by the Rev. Martin Luther King. In a famous speech criticising the civil rights movement, Malcolm X called on his fellow African Americans to resort to human rights as a way of transcending the limitations of the American state.

“We need to expand the civil-rights struggle to a higher level- to the level of human rights. Whenever you are in a civil-rights struggle, whether you know it or not, you are confining yourself to the jurisdiction of Uncle Sam. No one from the outside world can speak out in your behalf as long as your struggle is a civil-rights struggle. Civil rights come within the domestic affairs of this country. All of our African brothers and our Asian brothers and our Latin American brothers cannot open their mouths and interfere in the domestic affairs of the United States. And so long as it’s civil rights, this comes under the jurisdiction of Uncle Sam.”

“Human rights,” continued Malcolm X, “are something you were born with. They are your God-given rights. Human rights are the rights that are recognized by all nations of this earth. And any time anyone violates your human rights you can take them to the world court.” By expanding the civil-rights struggle to the level of human rights, Malcolm X held out the hope of bringing the plight of African Americans before the UN General Assembly and a world court.

This was never realised, of course; but as Talal Asad observes, the language is remarkable because of its faithful commitment, unlike so much Western liberal practice, to the conception of human rights. Such rights do not receive their legitimacy from states, although it is states that are their principal guarantors.

Although Malcom X’s appeal had little impact on American society and its political culture, another language that overlapped with human rights discourse was deployed by Martin Luther King to greater effect. This was the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Bible coupled with the popular founding narrative of the American nation. However sceptical King was of the supposedly “Christian” origins of the nation and the faith of its founders, he could still publicly draw on the language of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence and the narrative of liberation that went with them. Addressing fellow African Americans, he declared: “One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters they were in reality standing up for the best in the American dream and the most sacred values in our Judaeo-Christian heritage, and thus carrying our whole nation back to the great wells of democracy, which were dug deeply the founding fathers in the formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”

Unlike Malcolm X’s purely secular conception of legal justice, King’s political discourse envisioned the regeneration of the nation as a whole. He sought what he called the “Beloved Community”, a reconciliation that went beyond justice for his own people without bypassing it. While confronting the guilt of white oppression and repentance were necessary, the healing of relationships was the ultimate goal.

Needless to say, King’s vision also failed. But it had a greater initial impact because it embedded the language of rights in a larger narrative framework, one that struck chords in American society and stirred the consciences of a white Christian population that had lost its foundational identity.

I wonder whether the contemporary political challenge remains the same? How do we defend and promote human rights, not as abstract concepts and without resorting to merely legalistic language, but as imaginative visions that are embedded in counter-narratives that tap into the (largely religious) cultures of our respective nations?

My admiration for Bernie Sanders was badly dented last week by his faux pas: calling for population control by the world’s poor as a way of curbing climate change.

No doubt the poor need better health education and access to reliable contraceptives, but not because in this way we can control climate change caused by anthropogenic global warming. And, as Sanders well knows, if the poor raise large families it is because children are a means of livelihood. So talk of birth control cannot be divorced from addressing the root causes of endemic poverty. And climate change, rather than being caused by the poor, is becoming a major factor in perpetuating poverty in nations as much as in families.

Those people who suffer most from global warming and the resultant severe climatic events, are the ones least responsible for it. One-sixth of the world population is so poor that they produce no significant carbon emissions at all. Yet they are unfairly being blamed because their breeding rates are higher than those of the rich. The issue is not population but addictive consumption and unsustainable energy-generating practices by the rich.

Even though the rate of population growth in Bangladesh is 50 times that of Britain, every new British consumer uses up 45 times more fossil fuels than every Bangladeshi. Households in India earning less than $65 a month use a fifth of the electricity per head and one-seventh of the transport fuel of households earning $65 or more. Those who sleep on the street use almost nothing. The British environmental activist George Monbiot once pointed out that an owner of a super-yacht does more damage to the biosphere in 10 minutes of sailing than most Africans do in a lifetime.

The horrific destruction of the Amazon and other rain forests which are the “lungs” of the planet only sporadically make the world’s news headlines. Even as I write over 15,000 fires are raging in the Amazon forest alone. Governments in the region have failed to heed warnings by environmental groups over many years. Ignorant peasant cultivators fell forests to grow soya (sixty per cent of the soy farming in Brazil is funded by three American agribusinesses); and huge mining and logging conglomerates given carte blanche by the current far-right government in Brazil. These forests morally belong to humanity as a whole and not to any nation-state, but we have no mechanisms of global governance to enforce this.

For poor communities all over the developing world who are already struggling with inadequate wages, environmental degradation and poor infrastructure, the higher frequency of dramatic climatic events means less time for recovery and a faster spin on the downward spiral of poverty. Poor communities are already adapting to climate change. But they are not fully aware of the speed at which the climate is changing or how that will directly affect them. This is where outside actors can assist with developing their disaster preparedness.

Classical Christian teaching on sexual chastity is often mocked by liberal elites today, as it was in the days of the early church. But, while recognizing that a well-ordered marriage was preferably to a badly ordered celibacy, some of the greatest theologians of the church encouraged celibacy not as a virtue in itself, but because it brought to a halt the endless cycle of social reproduction. In his magisterial The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity, the eminent historian Peter Brown pointed out the radical challenge of celibacy to the taken-for-granted world of civic and class competition and dynastic continuities. (So this was a message of “no sex” addressed to the well-off, not the poor!) Consider, for example, the famous 4th-century Cappadocian brothers, Basil and Gregory Nyssen.

Both came from a high-born class of Cappadocians and knew acutely “the power of the ancient, civic urge to pile up wealth, to gather kinsmen, and to beget descendants.” Basil and Gregory knew what it was to struggle with such drives. It was to tame these, and only incidentally to tame the sexual urge, that Basil had given detailed rulings on the distribution of wealth, on the abandonment of marks of status, on uniform codes of dress that would mark his monastic ‘brotherhoods’. Gregory, for his part, lingered not on sexual temptation, but on the tragic root of pride, avarice, and family honour in the human condition since the fall. “Both believed that through the new, reformed social life of a monastic brotherhood, individuals set free from the demands of a family-based, conventional society could create a Christian society in miniature beside the city. The main effort of the ‘brotherhoods’ would be less to tame sexuality in the few… than to create an example of the husbanding of resources in the light of the needs of the poor. They wished to open the hearts of a small-town gentry so that the river of Christian charity might flow again, from the doors of the rich into the hovels of the destitute.”

Similarly, their (rough) contemporary John Chrysostom, tolled the death knell of the ancient city of Antioch in his powerful sermons. His aim was to rob the city “of its most tenacious myth- the myth that its citizens had a duty to contribute to the continued glory of their native Antioch by marrying. Instead, he repeatedly told his Christian audiences that their bodies belonged to themselves, and no longer to the city.”

Chrysostom’s great hope was the creation of new form of urban community through the reform of the Christian household. “The two great themes of sexuality and poverty, gravitated together, in the rhetoric of John and of many other Christians. Both spoke of a universal vulnerability of the body, to which all men and women were liable, independent of class and civic status.”

Christian men and women were urged, by John, to “extend the heightened awareness of their own bodies so as to embrace with compassion the bodies of others. They must learn to see the faceless poor as sharing bodies like their own- bodies at risk, bodies gnawed by the bite of famine, disease, and destitution, and subtly ravaged by the common catastrophe of lust.”

Here, then, are narratives of “Sex and the City” very different from the shallow fare served up by American TV for global consumption.

It is a week since the terrible bombings of hotels and churches in Sri Lanka and the ensuing heavy loss of life. The economy, too, will take a long time to recover, dependent as it is on tourism and foreign investments.

Questions of motivation in suicide attacks like this always defy rational explanation. And speculation has been suppressed by a blackout of all social media in the country.

Such a blackout was sensible in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy as a measure to prevent anti-Muslim violence which has been a feature of Sri Lankan society in recent years (see my Blog post of 17 March 2018- ‘“Religious Violence” Sri Lanka-Style’- and the warnings I issued to the authorities in a newspaper article).

But the longer it continues, along with the sweeping emergency powers under which any criticism in print publications of the government and security forces is forbidden, the greater the danger to the political health of the nation. We fear a return to the dark days of authoritarian rule and the suppression of valid criticism. And, given an understandable zeal to redeem themselves, the security forces (now armed with powers to detain suspects without following due process) are likely to over-reach.

So the less I say the better.

As Israelis go to the polls, the world needs to remember that Israel is not a democracy by any modern understanding of that term. It officially declares itself to be a “Jews-only” state. Arab Israelis are second-class citizens; and as for the indigenous Palestinians, they are a beleaguered and oppressed population in their own land.

So Israel is no more a democracy than South Africa was under apartheid.

Theodore Herzl, the Austrian journalist often credited with the label “founder of the Zionist movement”, was rightly concerned that assimilation and sporadic persecution were destroying Jewish culture in Europe. The Jews need a “home” where they could preserve their traditional way of life. Herzl was not thinking of Palestine as the Jewish “home”- for Judaism had for the past two millennia reconfigured itself around the study of the Torah rather than the Land and Temple. He initially toyed with the idea of Uganda as a safe haven.

It was “dispensationalist” Christians in the US and UK following the teachings of John Nelson Darby, Henry Irving, the Moody Bible Institute- and later- the Texan Cyrus Scofield’s commentary on the Bible, who influenced the Zionist movement and the British colonial authorities to settle the Jews in Palestine. Wrenching Old Testament texts out of their historical contexts, they taught that the return of Jews to Palestine was foretold in biblical prophecy and would usher in the parousia, or “return” of Christ.

The creation of a Jewish state in 1948 witnessed what today would be called “ethnic cleansing”: from December 1947 till the early 1950s, a well-organized military campaign by the Jewish minority (numbering 660,000 out of a population of two million) destroyed five hundred Palestinian villages and eleven urban neighbourhoods, expelled seven hundred thousand people and massacred those who refused to give up their homes. Those expelled became permanent refugees, unable to return to their ancestral lands. But Jews anywhere in the world who have no Semitic ancestry and no ancient claim on the land are able to migrate to Israel and are granted automatic citizenship. (See Ghada Karmi and Eugene Cortran, eds., The Palestinian Exodus, 1948-1988)

This is what Palestinians remember as Nakbah– catastrophe. And if all moral persons should be horrified by attempts at Holocaust-denial, should we not also be horrified by Nakbah-denial by the Israel state and pro-Israeli academics and church pastors?

Israel continues to flout international laws with impunity (for instance, erecting permanent structures on lands seized by invasion). It does so because it enjoys the diplomatic and military protection of the United States.

The military occupation of Palestine encroaches on every area of peoples lives: restrictions on travel, high youth unemployment, poor healthcare and educational facilities, forcible annexation of houses and land.

More Jews live outside Israel than within it, and many are outspoken critics of the Zionist project. There are also courageous rabbis and human rights activists within Israel who are opposed to the abuses heaped on the Palestinian people by the Israeli army and right-wing Jewish colonists. So to be anti-Zionist is not to be anti-Jewish.

There is a single ray of light in the tragic history of Anglo-American Christian involvement in the affairs of Palestine. Henry King was the President of Oberlin college, a Christian liberal arts school in Ohio which was the first college in the US to admit women and also played a leading role in the abolitionist movement. King was a personal friend of President Woodrow Wilson. After the First World War he served with the YMCA in Paris. At the Versailles Peace conference in 1919, Wilson asked King to head a commission of enquiry to ascertain the aspirations of the indigenous Arabs in Palestine. Wilson knew that the British and French were eager to seize hold of the remnants of the Ottoman empire. In the Wilsonian vision of breaking up empires, the Arabs, too, were entitled to liberation and the independence denied them by four centuries of imperial rule under the Turks.

What became the King-Crane commission discovered that the majority of Palestinians were fearful of a Zionist presence and a British or French mandate. They wanted either independence or to be part of a Greater-Syrian Arab state. The King-Crane report troubled the governments in London and Paris. The report was shelved when Wilson became seriously ill and collapsed later that year. With it died the liberal vision of national self-determination.

This was the first and last time that any attempt was made, as one historian puts it, “to build a new Middle East according to the aspirations of the local population rather than those of Washington and its allies.”

I tell my British and American Christian friends that they can never be part of the solution to the Palestinian crisis until they recognize that they have been a huge part of the problem. And fundamentalist Christian preachers in the so-called American Bible Belt continue to be the problem as they refuse to accept any other reading of “biblical prophecy”, and spread misleading Zionist historiography around the world through the Internet and TV channels. There are many churches in Asia and Africa that have imbibed such views without ever examining Scripture as to what is being said is actually there (for example there is not a single reference to the land in the entire New Testament).

Ignorance of history has to be countered with historical facts. Bad theology has to be challenged with good theology. The Christian theologians of Palestine have come up with a Kairos theological statement similar to the seminal Kairos document of South Africa in 1985 that countered Afrikaaner state theology and mobilized the Church against apartheid. I commend it to you:

http://www.kairospalestine.ps/index.php/about-us/kairos-palestine-document


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