Vinoth Ramachandra

Author Archive

On 14 May 2022, ten black people were killed by an 18 year old white youth in a grocery store in Buffalo, New York. He is said to have been radicalised by Internet message boards which are an outlet for white-supremacist ideology. They promote what has come to be known as the Great Replacement Theory, a seemingly respectable academic proposition that white people in Western countries are being replaced by non-white immigrants with higher birth-rates. And it then slips into claiming that this openness to non-white foreigners is a conspiracy on the part of left-leaning political elites to win elections.  

The shooter who opened fire on a Muslim mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2019, killing 51 people, also subscribed to such a conspiracy theory. A recent YouGov poll in the US showed that 61% of Trump supporters and 53% of Fox News viewers believe it to be true; and the Fox News host Tucker Carlson had mentioned replacement theory more than 400 times on his show before the shooting.

Mainstream political discourse in the United States has been infected by such racist scaremongering over non-white immigrants since the nineteenth century. First it was the Chinese, then the Japanese, and in the 1920s and 30s Jews from Europe who were seen as bringing disease, alien cultures and – along with the growing native black population- diluting white racial “purity” and weakening the power of northern Europeans who were the true Americans. The eugenicist policies of the 1920s, designed to weed out undesirable elements in the population, were imitated by Nazi doctors and politicians in Germany and directly influenced Adolf Hitler’s own pseudoscientific, anti-Jewish conspiracy theory.

Since the Second World War, similar sentiments have, from time to time, shaped immigration rhetoric and government policy in Europe and Australia. Far-right nationalist movements have made deep inroads among mainstream parties and media, playing on declining birth rates among white populations and highlighting immigrant crimes.

Suddenly Europe has become “Christian” in the rhetoric of right-wing politicians who have never opened a Bible or stepped into a church worship service. Two days after the Buffalo massacre, Hungary’s prime minister Victor Orban claimed on television that he was fighting against the “the great European population exchange” which was a “suicidal attempt to replace the lack of European, Christian children with adults from other civilizations- migrants.”

The irony, of course, is that it was white European settlers in the Americas and the Pacific who brought disease that decimated indigenous populations. But ignorance of history is rife even in countries with high levels of Internet access.

I am currently in Karlsruhe, Germany, attending the 11th General Assembly of the World Council of Churches. It is my first such Assembly, though I am very familiar with the history of the WCC (founded in 1948) and the various debates, some more acrimonious than others, that have marked its successive gatherings.

I was invited to give the keynote address on the theme “Christ’s Love and Borders” at a pre-Assembly theological track for ecumenical theologians, and am participating in the rest of the Assembly as an observer. I feel a little out of place in the midst of impressively robed Patriarchs, Metropolitans, Archbishops and Bishops. It is a surprise to discover several African Independent Churches and also Pentecostal churches affiliated with the WCC. And the Roman Catholic Church, though not formally affiliated, has been vitally involved in much of the work of the WCC through its ecumenical representatives. If only such a spirit of mutual respect and co-operation would be translated into local church ministries when the delegates return to their respective nations!

Every national church delegation brings its own agenda to the table, wanting the WCC to make official statements on this or that issue. There is criticism that the war in Ukraine has been given far more prominence than other bloody conflicts raging outside Europe. The Palestinians want a resolution condemning Israel as an apartheid state. It is strongly opposed by the Germans, including the German President who addressed the Assembly on the opening day. Talking with Germans and other Europeans, I discover so much ignorance about the Israeli citizenship laws, let alone the numerous violations of international law by the state of Israel. It looks like the Palestinians will continue to suffer from German collective guilt over the Shoa. And all the denunciations of colonialism will ignore Israel (the last European colonizer) and the numerous internal colonialisms in the Global South.

Whatever the outcomes of such resolutions, I hope that the WCC will continue to serve the churches as a forum where different theological voices can be brought into conversation with each other; and that whenever it does address the wider world, it will do so with a message and sensibility that are profoundly Christian.

I admire Nancy Pelosi’s guts in standing up to China ever since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, even as I deplore Biden’s pusillanimity towards Israel and Saudi Arabia.

President Xi Jinping is following in the footsteps of Vladimir Putin. He has promised to “unify” his “motherland” and is seeking an unprecedented third term as leader of the Chinese Communist party in order to be remembered in history as the one who achieved it. This also recalls Hitler’s dream of “unifying” the German people who lived in Czechoslovakia and Austria.

Global capitalism was once believed to be the handmaid of liberal democracy. Open up trade and markets, and political freedoms will follow. That was the myth behind which European and American companies and their governments hid in the early 1990s when relocating all their manufacturing industries to China. They chose to ignore the fact that capitalism is morally promiscuous and can climb into bed with both the best and the worst of political regimes. But, even in the history of Western nations, it was the spread of adult suffrage and the maturing of parliamentary democracy that curbed the excesses of capitalism and protected men, women, and children from the worst forms of exploitation.

It can, of course, be argued –as the Slovenian communist philosopher Slavoj Zizek has- that today’s China is the ideal capitalist country in which the main task of the ruling Communist Party is to control the workers and prevent their self-organization and mobilization. The Party’s power is legitimized by its undercover deal with the new capitalists, which takes the form: “You stay out of politics, and we will keep the workers under control.” (Zizek, Living in the End Times, 2011).

I shall return to China. But, first, a brief update on the latest turn in the self-destructive politics of Sri Lanka that I have been chronicling in recent weeks.

The new President, about whom I wrote two weeks ago on this Blog, has decided to govern under repressive Emergency Laws (a legacy of British colonialism!) which suspend constitutional safeguards of civil liberties and due process. He is aided and abetted by a dysfunctional, servile parliament. The leaders of the peaceful protest movement (which ousted the previous President and was admired the world over) are being hunted down and arbitrarily detained by the security forces. The activities of human rights groups are being curtailed. This stupidity is hardly likely to win friends among foreign governments willing to help Sri Lanka emerge from its economic nightmare- unless, of course, it is China.

However, I don’t agree with critics who want to blame China for the economic problems faced by countries such as Sri Lanka. Apart from Taiwan, China has limited military ambitions and is not driven by any political or religious ideology. Its goals are commercial. If poor nations have been borrowing heavily from China in unsustainable ways, it is because their politicians and bureaucrats have lacked economic competence, diplomatic skills and any sense of public accountability.

China has also exposed the hypocrisy and double standards of Western nations when it comes to the practice of human rights, contra the public rhetoric. Economic greed has always trumped human rights when it comes to American, French and British foreign policies. Even as Western banks and corporations enabled China to become a global economic powerhouse, their own nations’ economies were ensnared by China and their criticism of China’s human rights record was muted. Western universities, desperate for cash, have been wooing rich Chinese students and even lowering academic requirements in some cases in order to accommodate them. Moreover, Chinese political and military elites stash their wealth, just as do the Russian oligarchs, in Western cities and offshore tax havens such as Switzerland, Dubai and the British Virgin Islands. (See James Ball, “China’s Princelings Storing Riches in Caribbean Haven’, Guardian Weekly, 31 January 2014). The global financial system is complicit in much political evil.

Last month, in an unprecedented joint public appearance, the heads of both the FBI and Britain’s MI5 warned the West of China’s threat to their economic and military security. They claimed that China deployed cyber espionage to cheat and steal technologies “on a massive scale”, and with a computer “hacking programme larger than that of every other major country combined”.

Scrolling my old Blog posts, I came across this from 10 December 2011. It raises different security issues than those mentioned by the FBI and MI5, but much of it is still relevant:

“Is China the biggest threat to global security? It would seem so… for China’s domestic addictions and environmental problems have spilled over into the rest of the world. As its own forests, fields and mines struggle to satisfy an expanding national appetite, China is depleting Siberia’s forests and Mongolia’s ore deposits. To feed its growing livestock, China imports huge quantities of soya, much of it from Brazil, which has accelerated deforestation in the Amazon region. The high-protein, high-octane, junk-food lifestyle has consequences for global food security, climate change and South East Asia’s wildlife. Toxic dust from factories and deserts in Shanxi and Inner Mongolia drift across the Pacific to the West Coast of California. Dams and river diversion projects in Tibet and Yunnan are affecting millions of people living downstream in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Burma. Chinese cash and political support is accelerating the filthy extraction of oil from Canada’s tar sands and propping up evil regimes in resource-rich nations like Sudan, Zimbabwe and Burma.”

As I have also written elsewhere, in the context of my own country as well as others, despotic regimes deliver neither bread nor security in the long-term. They not only inflict fear on others, they live in constant fear themselves. They are desperate to cling to political office and the fortunes they have plundered. They know that losing power will expose them to imprisonment. So, in their paranoia, they lash out at everybody, even their own supporters. Thus every tyranny, for all its apparent invincibility, is unstable. It is only a matter of time before it splinters and disintegrates. But the tragedy is that so many innocent lives are blighted on the long road to freedom.

The crisis in Sri Lanka has now attracted global attention, and I gave some of the background to it in my post of 22 April. But, quite frankly, I quail when asked to explain to outsiders the suicidal bent in Sri Lankan politics. Our post-independence history is a succession of “lost opportunities”.

Yet, we are not the only relatively well-educated polity to elect to power megalomaniacal Presidents or Prime Ministers. And the political challenge we face today is somewhat similar to what my friends in the UK, for instance, face: How, in a constitutional democracy, do we remove an incumbent regime to which we gave a massive majority in the last parliamentary elections? The economic meltdown has belatedly opened the eyes of the electorate and put them now at odds with the people who still sit as their representatives in government.

On the 20th July, parliament votes to elect a replacement for the ousted President who was forced out by a popular uprising and fled our shores to Singapore. The acting President, only a little less popular, was elevated to the position of Prime Minister three months ago by his predecessor despite having received a meagre number of votes in the last general elections and being the only member of his own political party to sit in parliament. (His appointment was ratified by the former President’s servile parliamentary majority). Despite being a veteran politician, and having served six tenures as Prime Minister (a world record), he has not a single political accomplishment to his credit. Incompetent, but with a messiah-complex, he is determined to become the next President. And, given the dysfunctional nature of our parliament, will probably succeed.

However, to blame a single family or political party for our national misery is naïve. Sri Lanka boasts a high literacy rate and a better-than-average educational system. It is home to all the major religious traditions. Yet religion, like politics, is amoral, its practice driven largely by self-interest, fear, superstition or wilful ignorance. Violence, dishonesty and corruption have become embedded in daily life.

Such corruption, taken to new heights by recent regimes, has cheated the poor, robbing them of their life-chances. It has crippled public health, education, public utilities and state institutions. Corruption on such a scale cannot be blamed solely on one family or party. It would not have been possible without the collusion of many in the business, banking, judicial, medical, IT and legal sectors.

The people who, since independence, been the primary foreign-exchange earners (tea estate workers, garment factory workers, rural poor sent abroad as housemaids and construction workers) have received little of what they have given to the nation. Foreign exchange has been siphoned off by the rich elites for the sake of education or employment abroad. Public hospitals and schools have steadily deteriorated in quality of services, while state funds have been diverted to private interests with political connections.

While wanting to attract foreign tourists, Sri Lanka’s politicians and business elites have routinely destroyed everything that tourists come for. We have felled our rainforests, polluted our rivers and beaches, built airports on the edge of wildlife sanctuaries, and wasted foreign exchange on other “white elephants” such as multi-lane highways and an inefficient national airline at the expense of developing eco-friendly rail services.

These are problems recognizable in many countries today. What the world’s media call economic or political crises are, at root, moral and cultural meltdowns. Widespread lying, for instance, makes it harder for voters to make good choices, since they either cannot trust traditional sources of knowledge or work with false information. There is plenty of data showing that societies with high levels of trust (sometimes, misleadingly, called “social capital”) have much higher levels of social well-being and political maturity than others.

Economics and business are also founded on trust and are parasitic on the basic honesty of the majority; and when this is lost or squandered, economies and businesses fail. All the more reason why our socio-political activism must transcend the narrow cultural perspectives of conservatism, liberalism or Marxism and work with a larger understanding of humanness and what constitutes human flourishing.

The global media spotlight on Sri Lanka will fade soon. Hopefully, the popular struggle by civil society movements, and not least the local churches, will continue. Calls by the IMF and Western states for “political stability” don’t go far enough. China and Russia have political stability. Do we want to be become like them? Yes, we need foreign investors in economic projects. But we also need support in helping build just and responsive political institutions. And foreign governments who recognize and repent of their own immoral complicity in the failure of states like ours.

I have often bemoaned the misleading rhetoric and double standards involved on both sides of the abortion debate in the US and elsewhere. My most recent foray was what I wrote a week before the last American presidential election (see “Re-Visiting ‘Public Reason’”, 25 October 2020).

The biggest tragedy is that rational “debate” is actually absent on both sides of the Atlantic. Liberal news media such as the BBC, for all their public posturing as balanced and rational voices, have whipped up frenzy over the U.S Supreme Court’s recent reversal of Roe vs Wade, irresponsibly referring to it as a “ban on abortion” and refusing to address the moral and legal complexity of the issue. This is the mirror-image of right-wing media such as Fox News. (I often feel like banging the heads of so-called conservatives and progressives in the U.S and pronouncing a “plague on both your houses”.) One longs for another Orwell to discipline our language in these days of insane politics!

Recall the late Zygmunt Bauman’s quip that, in postmodern ethics, Descartes’ cogito (“I think, therefore I am”) has been replaced by its neo-tribal version “I shout, therefore I am.” The one who shouts loudest, whether on social media or in the university, is the new moral leader. Paradoxically, tolerance is killed in the name of promoting tolerance, intellectual diversity suppressed in the name of valuing diversity.

I have, from time to time, argued on this Blog that the moral arguments against abortion should not ignore the legal challenge to protect both mother and child and ensure that poor women, in particular, are not victimized. The left-liberal chorus, on the other hand, needs to stop using such inane expressions as “the right to choose” and “reproductive rights” and accept that we are dealing here with the moral worth of two human persons at different stages of their human development. The fundamental right of a pregnant woman to understand what she carries in her womb, and the various options open to her, has been obfuscated (ironically) by many who claim to speak for such women.

I live in a country where abortion, on any grounds, is illegal. Despite this, abortions are performed routinely by some doctors as well as back-street quacks. Women are told that what they are undergoing is a “minor surgical operation” or “womb cleansing” or “menstrual regulation”. I don’t know any self-styled radical feminist who has openly confronted such deception of women by some in the medical profession.

As for the Republican lobby in the US, many of us are befuddled as to how a “pro-life” agenda re abortion can be combined with anti-gun control, anti-social welfare, and support for American militarism and the practice of torture and targeted assassinations by American allies (not least, Israel). Isn’t this a case of Orwellian “double-speak”?

If “guns don’t kill people, only people do”, why not apply the same logic to say that “abortion clinics don’t kill babies, only people do”- and, instead of banning them, persuade people not to go to such clinics by giving good reasons and providing alternatives in a civil manner?

In a Blog post of 13 February 2020 I suggested that Western Christians should not seek to return their countries to the age of back-street abortions. Also, that if the dominant secular culture in North America and Europe sees “pro-life” rhetoric tied to a right-wing political agenda, it will only deepen the popular resentment towards Christians. I wrote: “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.”

As for politically conservative Christians in the U.S, they can become more winsome and credible by being consistently “pro-life” and also being more willing to learn from non-Christians as well as other Christians. And the place to begin is by switching off from their parochial media networks, shutting down their white sectarian colleges and seminaries, living in ethnically and religiously mixed neighbourhoods, and joining the mainstream of cultural and social life. That is how the rest of us live.

The British government is currently mired in a legal imbroglio over its plan to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda. The controversial plan has divided the public, and all the Bishops in the House of Lords have denounced it. I do not fully share the thinking of the Bishops and do not wish to wade into these muddy waters; but simply to draw attention to the way the language and assumptions in these debates are often misleading.

The common distinction made between “legal” and “illegal” asylum-seekers is spurious. An asylum seeker enters a legal process which determines whether or not s/he is to receive refugee status. A person fleeing for his/her life from a conflict zone or the secret police usually has neither the time nor the resources to apply for an entry visa at another country’s embassy; and, in any case, visa applications even for tourism or social visits to Western nations are tedious, expensive, and often humiliating. Under international law, all of us have a human right to exit our country of birth or residence. But there is no corresponding right of entry to another particular country. Therein lies the rub.

Rwanda’s attraction to the British government is that it has a better record than most in receiving and protecting refugees from other African countries. There are legal safeguards for refugees, including freedom of movement and the right to work. On the other hand, it has a high rate of unemployment and a dubious human rights record, and has also been accused of targeting Rwandan refugees who have fled abroad.

The British Home Secretary (herself born into an Indian family that came to the UK from Uganda in the 1970s) believes that such an immigration policy will deter “bogus” asylum-seekers from coming to Britain on boats. This may well turn out to be the case, but it is extremely doubtful whether Rwanda or any other African country has the means to determine who is “bogus” and who is not. (As for the unscrupulous profiteers from people smuggling, I have never understood why the British and French police and navies cannot get their act together and track these people.) And, as the case of Ukrainian refuges has shown, there is a strong element of racism here in who is welcome and who is not.

The large-scale displacement of persons has its origins in the First World War and the draconian measures Western nations installed, including the visa system and the carving out of national borders and colonial mandates in North Africa and the Middle East. A fair number of the conflicts raging today in the world have their origins in Western colonial histories. And, of course, global warming has created huge numbers of environmental refugees. In 2009, the G8 nations promised $100 billion a year in aid to poor nations to help build resilience against the disastrous effects of climate change. A mere trickle of that money has materialised. Today’s BBC carries a reminder of how poor nations continue to feel betrayed by the West (https://rb.gy/yeyrgo) in this regard.

So, can we honestly discuss the problem of asylum-seekers and refugees without attending to such betrayals and hypocrisies, widening economic exploitation and environmental devastation in the Global South- as well as the deluge of arms shipments from the West (and Russia and Israel) into conflict situations and the strengthening of repressive regimes around the world?

Surely, these problems are all inter-connected. The future wellbeing of humanity (and the non-human creation) depends on fresh initiatives in multilateral disarmament, the effective regulation of finance-dominated capitalism, more widespread electrification generated by renewable sources- and, above all, the injection of moral thinking into nationalist politics.

“Hope begins with the ruin of our expectations.”

Both in print and in talks, I have often quoted these words from the Sri Lankan theologian and ecumenical leader, Daniel Thambyrajah Niles (1908-1970). They were words that sustained me during the 30-year civil war this country experienced and, at the close of which, I began writing this Blog. And I continue to cling to them in the continuing darkness that envelopes us and other nations.

Many languages do not have a word for hope. And even in English we have a tendency to identify hope with optimism or simply our aspirations. We pin our hopes on programs, parties or politicians and so are continually disillusioned. Christian hope, unlike optimism or mere wishful thinking, is based on the paradoxical triumph of the cross of Christ and Easter promise. The God of the biblical narrative is a God of surprises, working in unexpected places and through unexpected people. The light of God’s mercy continues to shine in the midst of the darkness.

The end of the civil war in Sri Lanka heralded the deification of the then President and his opportunistic brothers (the Rajapakshe family). They fell from grace in 2015, but made a spectacular comeback in the presidential elections of 2019 and the parliamentary elections the following year, largely as a result of the Easter Sunday carnage which they turned into both anti-Muslim hysteria and promises of ensuring “national security”.

Some of us suspected that the attacks had been conceived by elements in military intelligence that had remained loyal to the ousted President’s brother, the former defence minister, and that the Islamist bombers were merely their tools. Evidence regarding this has been hitherto suppressed. But a gullible and largely docile public gave the Rajapakse family a two-thirds majority in parliament which they promptly used to emasculate parliament itself and turn the Presidency into a virtual dictatorship. The President, Prime Minster, Finance Minister and two other cabinet positions were all occupied by a single family. This was nepotism and gangsterism at its most farcical!

Then came Covid-19. Sri Lanka’s economy has depended heavily on tourism, tea, textiles and foreign remittances from workers abroad. All these were crippled by the pandemic. The crisis was exacerbated by economic mismanagement, political arrogance and rampant corruption. By the beginning of this year, foreign exchange reserves had all been squandered and the country was on the verge of bankruptcy. The regime did what it only knows to do: run with a begging bowl to China and India. These have not been sufficient to meet the severe shortages of medicines and medical equipment, food and fuel. The country has, for the first time in its history, defaulted on its external debt and is facing its worst economic crisis since independence from Britain in 1948.

The ray of hope is that the economic crisis has led to a political crisis. Deprivation has affected all levels of society and finally opened the eyes of Sri Lankan people to the way they have been colluding, some actively but the majority through passive subservience, with the country’s impoverishment. Public street protests, calling on the President to resign and all his brothers to get of out politics, have erupted all over the island. What is remarkable is the way, for the first time in my living memory, the protests have united people from all walks of life and all ethnic and religious communities.

We are experiencing our own Occupying movement and Arab Spring. And we can only pray that it will be more successful than the latter.

Ridding the government of the Rajapakses, coupled with constitutional changes to restore democratic accountability, will not by themselves rebuild this country. Over the past few decades, many public institutions have been stripped of people with the necessary competence and moral integrity. Highly educated professionals, whether judges, doctors, lawyers or academics have been exposed as shamefully kowtowing to the political regime, even benefitting from their corruption. Businesses and banks have also profited by being bedfellows with the Rajapakshe brothers. We need a deeper transformation in the moral culture of this country.

And, of course, there is the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism that has ruled this country since 1948 and which the Rajapakses embodied and entrenched. Unlike the religious philosophy called Buddhism which attracts many foreign tourists who seek in the East an alternative to the barren institutional Christianity of the West, Sinhala-Buddhism is a political ideology that undermines many of the moral tenets of Buddhism itself (just as the so-called Christian nationalism of Russia and the USA is the very antitheses of genuine Christianity). The Rajapakses and their political and business cronies fanned the flames of ethnic hatred, rejected human rights and regard for international law, and turned to shamans and astrologers for guidance in matters both public and personal.

Regime change is our immediate need. But it will only plunge us back into the mire if it does not also lead to a wide-ranging, forthright, moral questioning of how we have come to be where we are today.

Several followers of this Blog have asked me why I have not commented on the horrendous tragedy unfolding in Ukraine.

There are two principal reasons for my silence. The first is resistance to the seductive social media temptation to rush to comment on situations of which one is largely ignorant, let alone unable to change. Others closer to the ground realities, or far more knowledgeable than I am on Putin’s imperial ambitions, have flooded the news media with their “expert” analyses. Why add to the noise, unless one has something (fairly) fresh to say?

But, secondly, regular readers of this Blog would have observed that several of my repeated themes converge on what is happening in Europe today. For instance, there is the perennial double standard and selective outrage of global news media, Western governments (and, sadly, even Western Churches) when it comes to reporting on wars, conflicts and the plight of refugees. My last post was on the challenge that non-White theologies and perspectives pose to the racist underpinning of so much cultural and political life in North America and Europe.

Why does the war in Myanmar, for example, not register the same “news-worthiness” as Ukraine, despite the army there being as brutal as the Russians and guilty of so many war crimes? Why has Palestine, a country occupied by a foreign military power since 1967 (if not 1948), been forgotten- only to resurface in the media whenever a Jewish settler or soldier is killed? If Ukrainians were not blonde and blue-eyed, would their plight have occasioned the outpouring of compassion across Europe that is being celebrated in parts of the global media? And was there any political criticism, before the current war, of NATO’s military expansion and the short-sightedness of Western governments in relation to what may have been valid Russian fears?

It may be awkward, even offensive to many, to raise such questions. And the polarizing propensity of social media deter people further. Will what they say be used to belittle the suffering of Ukrainians, and even to blame it all on the West? Or, if I openly express my admiration for the courage of ordinary Russians, like the news editor Marina Ovsyannikova, who are standing up to the Russian propaganda machine at great risk to their lives, will this endanger the lives of the Russians whom I know?

Then there is the targeting of the assets of Russian oligarchs, companies and Putin’s henchmen. While this attracts huge media attention, it is unlikely to make much of a dent in their fortunes for the simple reason that much of the latter are hidden in the murky world of the “offshore” global financial system (of which I have had much to say on this Blog over the years). Russia has the world’s largest volume of dark money hidden abroad, about $1 trillion, both in absolute terms and as a percentage of its national GDP.

The Panama papers, followed by the Pandora Papers, exposed the staggering levels of wealth secreted away in tax havens and money laundering centres in the Caribbean (several of which are US or British protectorates) and the United Arab Emirates, not to mention anonymous, numbered bank accounts in other jurisdictions, including Europe and Southeast Asia. It is because Western corporations, politicians and the “super-rich”- and their equivalents in the rest of the world- benefit from this corrupt financial system that little or no action has been taken to clean it up and return wealth that has been siphoned away from poorer nations.

I live in a country that is experiencing its worst economic crisis in living memory. It stems from a combination of factors: economic mismanagement and incompetence, the collapse of tourism because of the Covid pandemic, corruption and a poor tax regime, heavy dependence on China which lends at excessive interest rates. The crisis is now exacerbated by the Ukrainian war, as fuel prices soar and trade with Ukraine and Russia (which, together, account for twenty per cent of all our tea exports) grinds to a halt. I am sure there are many other small countries facing similar plights, but which are rarely reported in the Western media which claim to be global media. Which international agency will track and freeze the illicit fortunes of the Sri Lankan politicians and businessmen that have been salted away in “offshore” tax havens? Will the Ukraine war be a wake-up call to the UN or the IMF to overhaul the banking system, strengthening transparency laws and closing all the existing loopholes? I doubt it.

Henry McNeal Turner, one of the early leaders of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in the USA stated in 1895 that “God is a Negro”.  This had the form of a provocative racist comment but was intended to subvert the taken-for-granted perspective of so many white people that God was White, that the interests, values and practices of Whites constituted normative Christianity. Turner challenged that incipient, and often naked, racism; the White Church had prostituted the Christian faith to notions of White supremacy and needed to recover the radical, prophetic logic of the gospel of Christ.

Black theology- to be distinguished from various African theologies- seeks to give voice to the experiences of Africans in North America, the Caribbean and Europe, many of whom are descendants of slaves. The North Atlantic slave trade and its aftermath (racial segregation, disenfranchisement, discrimination, racial profiling) are part of their cultural legacy. Black theology begins with that ongoing experience and asks how God is revealed within that experience and what insights and liberative practices emerge from it. Black people want to be known in their Blackness. For God meets us in our particularities.

In such a discourse, Black/White are spelt in upper case to signify not primarily skin colour but ethno-cultural realities. Unlike the earlier Enlightenment-influenced racism which was based on a dubious “race science”, ethno-cultural racism stems from unquestioned assumptions about the superiority and normalcy of White Euro-American standards of rationality, morality, political relevance or aesthetic excellence.

In a recent book, the Nigerian-born British journalist Chine McDonald observes: “In order to understand the internalised inferiority that exists among many Black men and women, it is important to revisit the ways in which Black bodies have been portrayed for centuries. From being likened to beasts closer to apes than humans, to bodies being seen as property and brutalised, to being put on display in European zoos, the Black body has often been seen as lacking in beauty. At times, as we have seen, it has been questioned whether or not Black people possess the imago Dei– whether we are made in the image of God.” (God is Not White, 2021)

I am often amused when many of my white friends, who are certainly not racists, tell me that they are “colour-blind”. They are unaware of their own colour. They have few non-white friends, don’t know their non-white neighbours, the vast majority of the books they read, the speakers they listen to, and the films they watch are all white. But these do not register on their consciousness unless somebody points it out.

When Caribbean migrants, many of them Christians, arrived in the UK on the ship Windrush in 1948, in response the UK government’s invitation to help re-build the country after the Second World War, they expected to be welcomed as sisters and brothers in the Christian churches. To their shock and amazement, they were largely ignored or shunned as “foreigners”. They were forced to form their own black churches. The story has not changed much in the last 70 years.

In Europe, no less than in the US, churches are mostly mono-ethnic and so propagate individualistic “gospels”. White church leaders may occasionally invite African or Asian leaders to their pulpits; but they make sure that what is going to be said is will not disturb them. When the Church is no longer a mosaic of cultures, where people come together to learn across differences and to enrich one another with their differences, the Church is no longer the sign of the kingdom of God, but just another religious club.

I once asked the head of an American organization whether he would help promote my books amongst his staff. He replied, first, that he was sadden by the fact that many of his staff did not read serious books. But he also said, “There are things in your books which we Americans find difficult to accept.” I was taken aback. All I could blurt out was, “There are things that Jesus says that I find difficult to accept.” Perhaps what I should have asked is, “Do we read authors who simply repeat and reinforce what we believe, or do we read in order to learn and be transformed?”

The organization I work with (IFES) was founded in 1947 at a meeting of international Christian leaders at Harvard University. Its “statement of faith” was drafted by a small group of white males from fairly privileged backgrounds. Unsurprisingly, its only statement about humanity is that we are “sinful”. However, that is not where the biblical narrative begins, and if questioned, the framers would undoubtedly have agreed that we are all creatures made in the image of God. But they were shaped by their narrow White Euro-American theological context where combatting a “liberal” denial of sin was what was considered paramount. Yet, today as well as then, to affirm that all people irrespective of sex, age, ethnicity, sexuality or intellectual ability are of intrinsic and equal worth is a revolutionary teaching, not least in bioethics and our racist, sexist and class/caste-ridden societies.

Fortunately, the centre of gravity of the Church, and of IFES, has shifted massively towards the global South. And IFES has produced a number of courageous non-Western leaders who have developed theologies that have sought to recover the central biblical affirmations of God’s “solidarity” with the poor and the oppressed and the call of the Gospel to justice and reconciliation, while at the same time exposing the limits and blind-spots of some popular “liberation theologies”.

While Black theology rightly begins with the Black experience, it becomes open to self-destruction when it turns dogmatic and (in the words of one of its fathers, the American James Cone) it “knows no authority more binding than the experience of oppression itself. This alone must be the ultimate authority in religious matters.” Why should the raw reality of oppression be of theological concern, unless we believe – on the basis of other authorities- that oppression is incompatible with the worship of a God who hates injustice and is outraged at such a state of affairs? And why should an action that oppresses the weak and helpless be a compelling, indeed conclusive, reason against performing it? It is difficult to account for such a moral stance within a purely naturalist view of our human existence.

It is only when our particularities, our contextual theologies, engage one another respectfully and critically within the wider Body of Christ, that our moral and theological horizons expand. Otherwise we remain imprisoned within either a bland universal rhetoric (“We are colour-blind”, “All Lives Matter”, etc) or polarizing culture wars.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean–neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you CAN make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master- that’s all.”

– Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass (1872)

I was reminded of this well-known exchange when a friend showed me the cover of this week’s Economist celebrating the spread of assisted dying legislation. The latter claims the “right” of terminally ill patients to demand from doctors help in killing themselves. Doctors then have a legal obligation to honour such a right.

It changes the meaning of “medical care”, turning doctors into partners in intentional killing.

A foreigner observing current Western public culture is struck by the glaring contradictions on display. Individual autonomy or “choice” is elevated to an absolute status when issues such as abortion, assisted suicide or gender and sexuality are discussed. We are regarded as solitary monads whose lives and developmental capacities are self-generated and self-possessed, and the choices we make do not affect others. Hence the putative “right to take one’s own life” or the “right to design my baby” or “the right to decide my sexual identity”.

At the same time, some celebrity scientists and popular science journalists never tire of intoning that free-will is an illusion, the “autonomous self” a myth. We are all at the mercy of our neurones or genes. In the oft-quoted words of the late Francis Crick, “‘You’, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.” (The Astonishing Hypothesis, 2000). While smuggling in a naturalist metaphysics, neurological or genetic reductionism is proclaimed as the scientific acid that dissolves all metaphysics. Of course, the purveyors of such narratives exempt themselves from such determinism. They do not really believe it themselves; for if they did, they cannot logically take credit for their discoveries. We would have to hand over their Nobel awards, royalties and salaries to their genes and brain structures.

However, both the rhetoric of “choice” and that of naturalist determinism stand side-by-side within the contemporary Western medical profession, and the contradiction is blithely ignored.

Moreover, the advertising industry spends billions of dollars devising clever videos, slogans and sound bites that manipulate the choices consumers make. And we have learned from feminism that in a patriarchal society women’s choices are rarely free and well-informed, but  shaped by men’s expectations, definitions and decrees.

The toxic polarization that is called “culture wars” in North America is spreading globally via social media. Eschewing respectful dialogue and argument, both sides seek power over the other through legislation. After all, if something is legal, the general public assumes it must be right. Legal rights can even be proclaimed as if they were universal human rights.

Behind the talk of respecting “diversity” and “inclusiveness” in a growing number of Western countries, a selective filter operates. Sexual identities and practices are regarded as fluid, amoral, defended either on the grounds of “freedom of choice” or “this is who I am”. Objections to men claiming to be women are dismissed as “transphobia”, but a white man presenting himself as a coloured would be ridiculed, even prosecuted. Polyamorous relations are okay, but polygamy is not.

In both the US and UK, economic class remains the most powerful determinant of a child’s educational attainment or taking to street crime, but class resists all deconstruction. The rich and the poor within nations are physically and socially segregated. The poor and the disabled are largely invisible and inaudible. Social “inclusiveness” doesn’t often apply to them. (Pressure to abort disabled fetuses is the other side of the “inclusive society”).

Further, even as talk of “inclusiveness” and “equality” reigns supreme within these nations, so does the barrier of nationality. Observe the way nationalistic mind-sets have been so apparent during the Covid pandemic and the COP26 summit.

So, suppose that I were to claim: “I have a right to a British or American identity because I speak English better than most of the inhabitants of these nations and my Sri Lankan identity was not chosen but imposed on me at birth.” Would such a rights-claim be recognized? Clearly not. But why not, if I’m as uncomfortable in my Sri Lankan identity even as another may be uncomfortable in her female body?

Postmodernism has indeed lent a voice to some humiliated and marginalized groups, and for that we should be grateful. But in its more extreme manifestations, it undermines every effort at global resistance to the status quo by replacing the transformation of the material conditions in which people live with language-correction, and mocking notions of objective knowledge and moral truths that transcend culture and context.

COP26 has reminded us that for most of the world’s human and non-human inhabitants, a “right to acquire resources necessary to live” is more fundamental than an alleged “right to die in the way I choose”. Those European Christians who encouraged the former right were the architects of human rights charters, the builders of national welfare states and health services, and pioneers in palliative care and the Hospice movement. Human dignity and inter-dependence were not prised apart, but seen as mutually constitutive. Chipping away steadily at its (predominantly) Judaeo-Christian moral heritage has thus left late modern Western culture oscillating between a Greco-Roman fatalism and a naked, Nietzschean will-to-power.

Either way, Humpty Dumpty’s conclusion is a foretaste of things to come.

What has artificial/machine intelligence (AI) to do with environmental destruction and global warming?

What goes into the making of such systems?

The language of “cloud computing”, “virtual reality” and “cyberspace” has inured us into thinking that the web and AI systems are floating in an ethereal, other-worldly sphere that is divorced from physical bodies and their natural environments.

In previous posts I have written about how AI is not as artificial or intelligent as many imagine it to be. It is part of an extractive late-modern capitalist economy that strip-mines the Internet for all our personal data, just as strip-mining for coal and mineral resources were the foundation of early-modern capitalism, and then feeding this mass data into devices that manipulate and manage us in ways more powerful than all earlier methods of surveillance and social control. Data is the new Capital. Also, like nineteenth-century robber barons, AI development is largely in the hands of a few hi-tech giants in the US and China, who wield concentrated, unaccountable power.

The giddy “hype” that attended the dawn of the Information Age has now been replaced by sober soul-searching by the more reflective practitioners in the field. With regard to AI, the racist, sexist and other biases inherent in training data sets and many algorithms have been exposed. Employees of Amazon, Google and Facebook have publicly complained about the dehumanizing nature of much work in these companies, and -given their scale of operations- the difficulty of regulating them. They are asking the basic questions: Who is making these AI systems and why? What are the effects on the planet as well as on “ordinary” peoples’ lives?

One such prophetic voice is Kate Crawford’s new, deeply-researched book Atlas of AI: Power, Politics and the Planetary Costs of Artificial Intelligence. “Exploitative forms of work exist at all stages of the AI pipeline,” Crawford notes, “from the mining sector…to the software side, where distributed workforces are paid pennies per microtask…. Workers do the repetitive tasks that backstop claims of AI magic-but they rarely receive credit for making the systems function.”

Her fascinating tour of the world of AI begins with a reminder that strip-mining is more than a metaphor for the plundering of our data on the Internet: it literally is what supports the development of AI. For instance, all our smart phones and laptop computers depend on lithium in their batteries, and lithium reserves will disappear within the next twenty years.

The “cloud” takes up a vast amount of land. The world’s largest data farm is in Langfang, China, and covers 6.3 million square feet, the equivalent of 110 football fields. The obsessive drive to collect ever-larger data sets in order to “train” machine language algorithms means that the computing industry is carbon intensive and could make up 14 percent of all greenhouse emissions by 2040- about half of the entire transportation sector worldwide. Researchers from the University of Massachusetts Amherst calculated that the carbon emissions required to build and train a single natural language processing system was about five times the lifetime emissions of the average American car.

For an interview with Kate Crawford on her book, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hfGxh2_Jkds

So, we tend to forget that, like everything else humans do, our “virtual” communications are not ethereal but embedded in physical objects: power stations, data centres, undersea cables, overhead satellites, batteries and cooling systems. Inside every wind turbine, smart phone, medical scanner and electric car are minerals known as rare earths.

This small group of 17 elements is in extraordinary demand, but the supply is limited to China and Australia. Extracting rare earths is a difficult and dirty business, typically involving the use of sulphuric and hydrofluoric acids and the production of vast amounts of highly toxic waste. Gold is also an element common in smartphones, primarily to make connectors. But gold mining is a major cause of deforestation in the Peruvian Amazon. Extraction of gold from the earth also generates waste rich in cyanide and mercury, two highly toxic substances that can contaminate drinking water and fish, with serious implications for human health.

It is unlikely that AI systems or smart phones will feature on the agenda of the COP26 conference next month on climate change.

It is not only the environmental costs of our device-dependence that we forget. Jaron Lanier, one of the pioneers of virtual reality, laments the fact that “People degrade themselves in order to make machines seem smart all the time.”

He observes: “We have repeatedly demonstrated our species’ bottomless ability to lower our standards to make information technology look good… The attribution of intelligence to machines, crowds of fragments, or other nerd deities obscures more than it illuminates. When people are told that a computer is intelligent, they become prone to changing themselves in order to make the computer appear to work better, instead of demanding that the computer be changed to become more useful.  People already tend to defer to computers, blaming themselves when a digital device or online service is hard to use. Treating computers as intelligent, autonomous entities ends up standing the process of engineering on its head. We can’t afford to respect our own designs so much.” (You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, 2010)

There is nothing new in the way engineers take the most advanced machines of their day as models and analogies for human functioning. But there is a short (though calamitous) step from modelling to identification. We then imagine that machines which help us perform certain functions have those functions themselves. When we speak of “clocks telling the time”, what we mean is just that they enable us (conscious human persons) to tell the time. The philosopher Raymond Tallis refers to the “fallacy of the displaced epithet”. Walking sticks don’t actually walk, and running shoes don’t run. The same applies to “radar searching for aircraft”, “telescopes discovering black holes” or “smart phones remembering our appointments”: they do not literally search, discover or remember. If there were no conscious human persons using these prosthetic tools, these activities would not happen.

The lesson: pay attention to language, and ask questions about technology- for every benefit to some, who bears the costs?


Categories

Archives

October 2022
M T W T F S S
 12
3456789
10111213141516
17181920212223
24252627282930
31