Power, Privilege and Pandemic
This talk is not about the merits of whether Britain should be in the European Union or not. That was settled in the Referendum and subsequently in the most recent General Election.
My central argument in this talk is that what underpinned the Brexit phenomenon was an unresolved set of religious and theological ideas that have helped to shape the national identity. Essential to the development of the populist thrust of British (more specifically English) nationalism1 is conflation of religion and economic and political expansion abroad, namely, the link between Christianity and empire.
My most popular tweet is ‘Brexit is the shingles to the chicken pox empire. One cannot understand the development of the Brexit phenomenon within, if one is not cognisant of the creation of empire and the process of colonialism beyond the shores of Britain. So my assessment, vis-avis the development of Brexit, commences with an assessment of the colonial context in which Christianity in Britain is deeply located with the construction of Black bodies in far away places from British shores.
The relationship between empire and colonialism, in many respects, remains the unacknowledged ‘elephant in the room’ in much academic theological discourse in the UK.
R.S. Sugirtharajah, the doyen of Postcolonial Biblical hermeneutics, once noted that the relationship between British Christianity and empire is one that has been suffused with a collusive sense of mutuality.2 For both the Christian faith and imperialism, and the regimes that connote the latter do so on the basis of presuming themselves to be superior to the phenomenological entities they seek to usurp or supplant. Speaking with particular attention to the question of empire, Sugirtharajah writes
Empires are basically about technically and militarily advantaged superior ‘races’ ruling over inferior and backward peoples. When imperial powers invade, the conquered are not permitted to be equal to the invaders. This was true of all empires, Roman to British and American. The basic assumption of superiority is never questioned in their writings.
The superiority of Britain is built upon a bedrock of Christian inspired notions of exceptionalism in which God has set apart the British, particularly, the English to occupy a special place in the economy of God’s Kingdom. One can see an element of this in the rhetoric of Britain’s greatest writer William Shakespeare, who in his play Richard II, written in 1595/6, a few years after the Spanish Armada of 1588, states in unambiguous tones, the import of the English when thinking in terms of their sense of exceptionalism. Shakespeare writes
This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle, This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, This other Eden, demi-paradise, This fortress built by Nature for herself Against infection and the hand of war, This happy breed of men, this little world, This precious stone set in the silver sea, Which serves it in the office of a wall Or as a moat defensive to a house, Against the envy of less happier lands, This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.3
The outworking of this exceptionalism was the desire to export the superiority of the British across the world. Empire and colonialism found much of its intellectual underscoring on the basis of White, Eurocentric supremacy, which marked the clear binary between notions of civilised and acceptable over and against uncivilised and transgressive. There are no prizes for guessing on which side of the divide Black people, for example, found themselves.
THE roots of Brexit lie in the growth of an English nationalism — which sees “us” as different from “them” — which really begins during the reign of Elizabeth I. The rise of English nationalism was based on notions of being different from, and better than, others. Underpinning it is a subterranean theology of election which identifies whiteness and Englishness as the defining symbol for the construct for righteousness, and as a signifier for religious acceptability. This theological underpinning of English nationalism feeds into the sense of privilege that has fashioned ideas of empire, the Church of England, and conservative politics.
Is it any wonder, then, that the trigger for the referendum vote emerged from the discontentment of English nationalism from within the Eurosceptical wing of the Conservative Party — and found subsequent support within the congregations of the Church of England?
The Brexit vote demonstrated the barely concealed exceptionalism and sense of entitlement of predominantly white English people. The clear xenophobia underpinning the Leave campaign reminded many of us that “true Britishness” equals whiteness, and that those who are deemed the “other” — be they “migrants” living in the UK or “foreigners” from Europe — are distinctly lessdeserving in the eyes of many white British people.
It can be argued that the romantic push for the nostalgia for the past (when Britain had the biggest empire the world has ever seen) is predicated on the intrinsic value of Britain’s being superior to others, often seen in terms of groups such as Britain First or groups on the political right who want to “Make Britain great again”.
To quote the black British social commentator Gary Younge:
“Not everyone, or even most of the people, who voted leave, were driven by racism. But the leave campaign imbued racists with a confidence they have not enjoyed for many decades, and poured arsenic into the water supply of our national conversation.”4
The toxicity of the hostile climate on immigration was one that has helped to create a contemporary era in which white entitlement has reasserted itself, blaming migrants and minorities for the social ills that supposedly plague the nation.
It is my contention that the vote for Brexit was very much based on the presumption of white normality, and the belief that the needs of poor, disenfranchised white people would be better served if the numbers of poor minority-ethnic people and others from outside the UK were reduced. That so many poor white people believed such blandishments can be explained, in part, by my presumption that whiteness remains a site for privileged notions of belonging, and its concomitant identity is one embedded in paradigms buttressed by superiority and entitlement.
In our current era, Britain must purge ourselves of the noxious fumes of imperial grandeur that still continue to assault the senses of contemporary Britain; the church must also recover its prophetic stance as a critical voice that rejects the populist thrust of particularly White nationalism. John Hull, my doctoral supervisor and one of the most honest and critical decolonial scholars, has argued that British churches need to rediscover a prophetic edge in order to critique the inherent White nationalism that has underpinned Brexit and made it more than just a seemingly transparent democratic vote to remain within or leave the EU. Hull’s perceptive analysis is on the ongoing tension between the prophetic church with its roots in the Prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures and the imperially friendly church that colludes with rather than opposing oppressive, totalizing forms of White nationalism, underpinned by an unreconstructed theology of empire.
Hull, critiques imperial theology and recognises that the dangerous residues of this theological framework that has not gone away.
The theology of empire has outlived the empire. The empire has gone but its theology lingers on. Much of the modern church is like the Israelites, going into exile with a royal Kingdom theology. Faith has become a remnant, far from the glories of its greatest achievements.5
Hull points to the constant flourishing of a theology of resistance to the worst excesses of imperial theology. He recognises the radicalism of the early Methodist movement under John Wesley in the 18th century, the Christian socialism of Anglican social theology in the mid 19th century and the developments in contextual theologies of liberation from the global south in the latter part of the 20th century.
So where do we go from here? The major ethical and moral question, for me, has been the underlying issues and concerns that have arisen as a result of the referendum vote. We have seen a rise in racist attacks and xenophobia since 2016 and the underlying frameworks of Brexit has been the unexplored dimensions of Whiteness that have remained unresolved in the British psyche. The ways in which the Leave Campaign was able to tap into the latent fears of White people at the presence of non-White people was symptomatic of a nation that has still to come to terms with its multicultural, post Second World War heritage. Ironically, it was the areas that were more monochrome and ‘White’ that voted to Leave more so than multicultural ones in many of our larger urban conurbations in England.
So, the major theological and ethical challenge for the church post the EU referendum is how can the church be in solidarity with Black and minority ethnic people and vulnerable migrants, asylum seekers and refugees? Given that Brexit has emboldened groups on the political right like ‘Britain First’ and the English Defence League, the sharp challenge is, where is the church leadership that will face down the rise in White English nationalism?
This talk is a provocative challenge to confront the rising tide of xenophobia and the paucity of any prophetic response from church leaders in the UK to Brexit. I can see how it has proved difficult for Church leaders to critique the underlying xenophobia and racism of Brexit when the church itself is so deeply immersed in and is guilty of aiding and abetting the privileging of Whiteness and its accompanying forms of theological exceptionalism. So rather than challenge the scapegoating of migrants and the Windrush generation and their forbears, the church was largely ambivalent, until the blunt instrument of proposed deportation of largely elderly Black Caribbean people was threatened - and then belatedly the church spoke. The scandal of the attempted and actual deportation of the Windrush Generation could not have happened without the toxic environment against immigration and migrants enacted by the Conservative party in 2013, which fed into the subsequent vote in Brexit.
The challenge for the church is the necessity of affirming the importance of diversity and multiculturalism on the body politic of the nation. The Church in the UK has been one of the greatest beneficiaries of migration. And yet the Church leaders in England have been somewhat ambivalent in its response to Brexit and the vital role Black Christianity has played in revitalising the Christian faith in Britain. The growth of Black Christianity has occurred within White majority, Historic churches and through the growth and proliferation of Black majority Pentecostal churches. In terms of the former, Historic denominations like the Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Baptist and the United Reformed churches have all benefitted greatly from the growth in their numbers of Black members and attendees from Caribbean and more latterly from Sub-Saharan Africa. British Christianity would be in an immeasurably poorer state if Black people were not present in this country.
How many inner city churches within the White majority Historic traditions would exist if African and Caribbean people did not attend church? As I have stated, it would appear that many White Church leaders were more concerned about disaffected and disenchanted, predominantly, White working class people who largely do not go to their churches as opposed to supporting the marginalisation of Black people who have propped up inner cities churches after the White flight from such areas in the 1980s and early 90s.
The conflation of White privilege and entitlement alongside notions of election that are derived from a deep seated theology of exceptionalism that is buttressed and exacerbated by the triumphs of empire has seen many historic churches remain somewhat ambivalent at the increased significance of Black and minority ethnic people to the future mission and ministry of their churches. Given that British Christianity has been one of the greatest beneficiaries of post war migration from the Caribbean and Africa, one might have hoped for a greater resolve to oppose the very concept of Brexit, given the ways in which this phenomenon traduced the very multi-ethnic and multicultural paradigms that have benefited the church in Britain. It is my contention that the apparent ambivalence was a result of the continuing need to placate White sensibilities and the fragility of Whiteness that has little agency once it is shorn from its moorings of privilege, entitlement and superiority.
The crisis we face in the present era is a repeated one that is linked to the ethics of Christian practice. Since modernity, the Church and the followers of Jesus Christ have had to exercise their faith in a context of White normality. Most British churches supported the British empire and the growth of colonialism. The recent Coronavirus pandemic has revealed the systemic disparities in British society and across the world. The Covid 19 pandemic came on the back of post Brexit paralysis, where we have witnessed the rise of xenophobia, racism and anti-Semitism. We await the prophetic denunciation of White exceptionalism and the notion that non-White people should be scapegoated in our anti-immigration era. We need a prophetic theology that will challenge and overcome the toxicity of White exceptionalism that has been the platform that created the platform which led to Black Lives not mattering.
We need a change. And that change needs to start now!
This is comprised of extracts from Anthony G. Reddie Theologising Brexit: A Liberationist and Postcolonial Critique (London: Routledge, 2019) © Anthony G. Reddie
Professor Anthony G. Reddie is the Director of the Oxford Centre for Religion and Culture in Regent’s Park College, in the University of Oxford. He is also an Extraordinary Professor of Theological Ethics and a Research Fellow with the University of South Africa. He has a BA in History and a Ph.D. in Education (with theology) both degrees conferred by the University of Birmingham. He has written over 70 essays and articles on the interface between Black Theology and Practical Theology. He is the author and editor of 18 books. His latest book is entitled Theologizing Brexit: A Liberationist and Postcolonial Critique (Routledge, 2019).
This talk was broadcast on a live Webinar on Tuesday 23rd June 2020. Reproduced with the author's permission.
1 This distinction is developed more fully in the 4th essay/chapter in this book.
2 See R.S. Sugirtharajah Postcolonial Reconfigurations: An Alternative Way of Reading the Bible and Doing Theology (London: SCM press, 2003), pp.143-161. See R.S. Sugirtharajah Postcolonial Reconfigurations: An Alternative Way of Reading the Bible and Doing Theology (London: SCM press, 2003), p.147
3 See John of Gaunt's death-bed speech in Act 2, scene 1 where he prophesizes the downfall of an idealized England under the rule of Richard II. William Shakespeare Richard II. (Stratford: Arden Shakespeare Series, 2003).
5 John M. Hull Towards The Prophetic Church: A Study of Christian Mission (London: SCM Press, 2014), pp.199