Wednesday, July 15, 2020

On earth, as in heaven

I’ve been doing plenty of reading and listening to podcasts around the issue of racism recently, from the perspective that it is a pervasive evil, but also seeking to understand the push-back I note among my family, friends, local church congregation, and the wider city where I live. This push-back is deeply rooted in cultural conservatism, which differs from political conservatism: it is possible to be politically socialist and culturally conservative (indeed, that might describe a majority of the population of Sunderland), and, moreover, advocates of cultural conservatism would argue that the Conservative party has capitulated to the Left on culture (for example, it was a Conservative government that legalised same-sex marriage). The key argument of cultural conservatives is ‘Take Back Control’.

I would contend that the Left is pretty much spot-on in its critique of the Right, but, mirroring it, fails to offer a genuine alternative. Those on the Left are right in claiming that power exists, and is often marshalled to oppress people (and so provides an ‘umbrella’ for such groups). The Right dissembles on this, presenting the myth of the heroic individual who, by virtue of their superior qualities, overcomes the struggles every human faces, and so demonstrates that they are best-qualified to guide nations. The Left, they argue, is ideologically committed to destruction. This is at best a half-truth, equating deconstruction with destruction and positions in their ‘logical’ extreme with a wide spectrum of thought and practice. But in general, the Left and the Right only play one another at their own game.

The argument, from both sides, goes like this. Thinkers and influencers on the Left realise that they cannot overthrow the Right by force, and so seek to do so by stealth, by subversion and resistance within cultural institutions. Seeking to take control. Thinkers and influencers on the Right recognise the success of this, that they have lost the culture war—that the Left has occupied and consolidated their hold over our places of education, the BBC, the Church of England, even the Conservative Party—and that they must now employ stealth, subversion and resistance in order to take back control. Winning the vote to leave the EU was a victory, but the war is far from won.

Take Back Control expresses a fundamental truth of the human heart, that we desire to be just a little bit above others.

When I look to scripture, I see a clear contrast.

A recognition of sin—of the fundamental breakdown of relationship and universal need for reconciliation—expressed at the personal level (as the Right emphasises) and the structural level (as the Left emphasises) of ‘powers and principalities’.

The choice of Jesus to empty himself and willingly take on the nature of a slave (Philippians 2) and the call on his followers to be of a like-mind.

The insight that those who fight to save their lives will lose that life, while those who lose their life will find life. For control is an illusion, with destructive consequences for ourselves and those around us.

The building of diverse communities of reconciliation that, for all their difficulties, are able to not only survive but flourish beyond the end of the world as they have known it, the great and regular cultural upheavals of history.

And in almost every case where taking control is spoken of, it is not control of a nation (the exception being the books of the Maccabees in the Apocrypha/Deuterocanon, which concerns taking back control from an occupying Empire) or over another person, but self-control.

Interestingly, much of what I have been reading on racism is concerned not with control of others, but with self-control. In How To Be An Anti-Racist, Ibram X.Kendi writes:

“The good news is that racist and antiracist are not fixed identities. We can be a racist one minute and an antiracist the next. What we say about race, what we do about race, in each moment, determines what—not who—we are.”

We should not be afraid to examine our own views, for the life of discipleship is a call to the habitual practice of repentance and belief, of turning from one perspective and embracing another. Not by coercion, but as ministers of reconciliation. This is not of the Left, as it is not of the Right; but of the wholly other kingdom of heaven, the loving active participation of God with humanity in this world.

UPDATE adding a conversation with a friend in response to the above:

‘Thank you, Andrew … I particularly appreciate your observation that “Take back control expresses a fundamental truth of the human heart, that we desire to be just a little bit above others.” I like how you frame this as a fundamental truth, not just a problem that some other people have. And it definitely resonates with some of the push back I have felt from some of my family and friends to expressing an anti-racist perspective—the fear of ‘where will it stop?’, rooted in the fear of becoming oppressed (or at least not in control).’

and my response:

‘I think you get at something really insightful here in rooting the desire to control in the fear of becoming oppressed or at least not in control. I think this is, in fact, a fear of humiliation, of being humiliated before others, which, albeit in different ways, stems from childhood experiences—of being bullied, for a variety of reasons. It is a matter of shame, and a life-long attempt to have control over shame. Again, I come back to Jesus, who put shame to scorn by choosing to humble himself; and who, through his being humiliated by people but vindicated by God, triumphs over shame and empowers us to triumph over shame by not only being our example but our promise of future hope.’

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