Urban Ministry: Racism, Christianity and UKIP

So there was apparently an earthquake in politics a few days ago with UKIP making surges forward at both local and European elections.  Alongside this there were the, perhaps inevitable, charges of racism and general nuttiness which seem to have always dogged UKIP.

As someone who works in a majority Asian heritage area at the moment and who worked in a what might have been described as a white flight area for the four years prior to my current post, the questions of immigration and racism have been on my mind for a few years now.

It's worth saying that I think the issues are especially urban issues, although of course everyone has an opinion.  It seems to me that the tensions between different races, cultures and communities are played out in urban areas where different people groups often live close together.

So here are some of the things I've been thinking.

1. Communities are often very divided

Someone recently described the situation in towns like Rochdale and Blackburn as parallel communities divided along the lines of race, culture and religion.  I think that's helpful.  It's like there are two parallel worlds.  In this sense, the language of multiculturalism can be unhelpful.  Actually most people live in something of a mono-cultural ghetto with only occasional overlap.  In that context, the divide and the tensions between communities can be very significant and problematic.

That's not true everywhere in the UK.  My experience in big cities like Manchester and London suggests that at least for some parts of different communities (perhaps especially professional/middle class parts) they are much more likely to live, work and be educated across racial, religious and cultural divides.

2. It's not just racism that is the issue

Let me be clear, racism is a problem and racism is wrong.  Christians have a gospel that includes all races (e.g. Colossians 3:11).  Christians also probably recognise that because of sin racism is likely to be a problem for all of us and so we will want and need to check our hearts!

Having said that, there is more to it than that, especially as a Christian.  Within parallel communities there are parallel cultures and worldviews.  In my context, within an Asian community, for most people their worldview and culture are shaped by religion, in this case Islam.

Now having stated that there is no place for racism as Christians, the complexity is that there is a place for critique of culture and worldview and of course religion.  In contexts where race isn't an issue, we do that all the time.  For example, we might criticise the celebrity culture, or the drinking culture.  Or we might criticise the new atheists or Jehovah's Witnesses.

If that's true then it is likely that we will find in Asian Muslim communities (and other racially, culturally and religiously coherent communities) things to both celebrate and criticise and this isn't necessarily racism.  However, distinguishing whether racism is involved is very difficult.  For example, in Rochdale we have gone through a spate of child sex abuse cases that have gone to the national press.  The historic case is of the Rochdale MP Cyril Smith.  More recently, there was a case that involved a number of young Asian men.  Should we look to something about the Asian community for the latter or not?  If we do that, why do we not look to Cyril Smith's community?  Is it really nothing to do with community and are we actually just being racist when we look at the Asian community?  Or are we being racist because we are happy to critique one community and not another?

3. Lots of problems and not many solutions

This kind of context creates lots of problems over lots of different things.  It's the kind of thing you see in the press from time to time, but is actually a daily thing in these communities.  What do we think about burkas?  How do we celebrate Christmas or not?  Should halal food be marked? How do we deal with religious and non-religious schools? And so on.  Often there seem to be local issues as well (issues that are often hard to get to the facts about).  One community has been preferred over another, or one community is causing a problem for the other in some way.  Often these can be to do with really varied issues: healthcare, cars, litter, jobs, insurance, property etc.

It's also something at quite an emotional level.  On the one hand I see a lot of white British people unhappy and unable to respond to a fairly speedy transformation of the culture of their local geographical area.  This leads to the issues of white flight and ultimately an even more entrenched ghettoisation.  On the other hand, I remember sitting in a meeting with a majority of Asian Muslims who were visibly fearful over what might happen after the killing of Lee Rigby (who was from nearby Middleton).

My big concern over the period of time I've been observing these varied problems is the very limited response to the problems in the media, the political establishment and even the church.  The most common thing is to demonize a community.  The white British community are told they are racist.  The Asian British community are told they are extremists.  Neither is a very helpful approach!  Of course elements are racist and extremist and perhaps elements of all of us tend towards racism and extremism to a lesser or greater extent.  However, very little is suggested about addressing some of the problems.

When people do try to address the ghettoisation, the tendency is simply to tell people that we are all the same really (something I find pretty galling as vicar for example when this is said about our faiths).  The reality is everyone knows that this isn't true.  In general there is such a simplistic attitude that it is offensive and tends to entrench the problem.

4. A few (perhaps surprising) reasons to be glad for UKIP, even if you don't agree with them

UKIP are a funny party for Christians, but then so are all the political parties.  Are they racist?  I'm not sure.  Are they nutty?  Probably some are.  Do they stand for some good things?  Probably.  Do they stand for some bad things?  Probably.  Are they worse than the other parties?  Personally I find that pretty hard to quantify!

Let me also note that the UKIP vote isn't exclusively about situations like mine.  Actually the situations vary across the country and clearly there are very significant things about Europe.

However, there are a few reasons I am quite glad for the rise of UKIP.

  1. UKIP are not the BNP or EDL.  When I started in Blackburn it seemed like these extreme parties were on the rise and personally I was genuinely fearful that the BNP would get a hold. UKIP seem to have burst their bubble and that can only be a good thing. As a protest party I think UKIP are significantly preferable.
  2. Linked to this is that UKIP have provided a way for people to protest that they are not being listened to and their problems are not being addressed.  We might not like some of the language used or the attitudes expressed, but when around 25% of voters express a protest it highlights that there are problems that need to be more seriously addressed.
  3. UKIP's "earthquake" may bring the debate into the open a bit more.  I hope it does and that the debate can be conducted more intelligently in terms of addressing the issues.
For many those will not be good enough reasons and may indicate some lesser of two evils thinking. Fair enough.  Many will be cynical about the problems being addressed.  Fair enough.  But what about you and yours, will you take the time to think about it from the various points of view of people in the different situations.  Will you try to avoid labelling people (who you don't know!) and actually try and listen to what they're saying?

5. Some weaknesses in the churches' response

I see three types of response from Christians (there are probably more) which have varying degrees of weakness.
  1. Many Christians are applying the "we're all the same really " model, so let's just get along.  It is often with the best of intentions, but in the end it leads to a serious loss of evangelistic nerve and integrity, because at least at the faith level, we know we're not the same.
  2. Many Christians tell us what an exciting time it is to be in the UK when we can reach out to so many different people groups.  This is true and exciting, but in the parallel community context that is incredibly hard.  You're usually asking tiny struggling churches to embark on extremely tough mission with no resources.  We need to think much harder about this.  It also struggles to address many of the problems on the ground which I've mentioned above.  And finally it tends to forget people groups who need the outreach just as much, i.e. the alienated white British communities.
  3. Many Christians are talking about the need for welcoming immigrants and repenting for our failure to do this.  Again there is a lot of truth in this, but also a lot of issues (some the same as for number 2).  For example, what does it mean for a minority Christian community to "welcome" their majority Muslim neighbours?  How do we do it in this parallel community approach?
Now to be fair, there is loads of really good work on engaging properly and it's developing fast.  There isn't the space to summarise it here.  And of course the gospel community of Colossians 3:11 is the one place where the answer is truly found, so commitment to good gospel work is key.  At this point, my observation would be to try not to think simplistically about what is, at least in my eyes, a pretty complex situation.

Well that's quite a long starter.  Am I wildly off track?  What do you think?


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