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Supplements » Race, Culture and Religion (May 2001)
Race, Culture and Religion by David Holloway
At the end of April 2001 the issue of "race" was highlighted in the run-up to the General Election.
Robin Cook, the British Foreign Secretary was reported as claiming that chicken tikka massala was now "Britain's true national dish". The curry, he was saying, is not only the country's most popular food having displaced more traditional recipes such as roast beef. But it is also "the perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adapts external influences. Chicken tikka is an Indian dish. The massala sauce was added to satisfy the desire of a British people to have their meat served in gravy." These remarks, made at the Centre for the Open Society, were part of a Labour response to the suggestion by a Tory MP, John Townend, that mass immigration has undermined Anglo-Saxon society (John Townend has since apologized).
In part, for many in Britain sensitivity to the question of "race" is due to the history of racism in Europe over the last century and a half. It started with a French ethnologist and social thinker, Joseph-Arthur Gobineau (1816-1882) and his 1850s Essay on the Inequality of Human Races. Gobineau's theories are now discredited; but he claimed the superiority of the white race over all others and said the "Aryans" (i.e. the Germanic peoples) were the summit of civilization and this race must be kept pure and not be "mixed" with other races. Also emerging in the 1850s was the philosophy of the Englishman Charles Darwin. The Christian doctrine of creation had made all men and women equal before God. The Fatherhood of God indeed gave rise to the brotherhood of man. But deny God, as Darwin did in his macro-evolutionism, and you soon lose equality and brotherhood. In its place you have racism. The subtitle of his Origin of Species was "The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life" (and "races" included human races). In a letter written to W.Graham in 1881 Darwin spoke about "natural selection having done and doing more for the progress of civilization than you seem inclined to admit." He went on:
"Remember what risk the nations of Europe ran, not so many centuries ago of being overwhelmed by the Turks, and how ridiculous such an idea now is! The more civilized so-called Caucasian races have beaten the Turkish hollow in the struggle for existence. Looking to the world at no very distant date, what an endless number of the lower races will have been eliminated by the higher civilized races throughout the world."
In the 20th century the views of Gobineau and Darwin influenced Hitler. It is the horrors of Nazi Germany and Hitler's attack especially on the Jewish race together with memories of the Holocaust that rightly cause fears in Britain. In Mein Kampf Hitler summarized his racism as follows:
"Every manifestation of human culture, every product of art, science and technical skill, which we see before our eyes today, is almost exclusively the product of the Aryan alone who founded a superior type of humanity ... he is the Prometheus of mankind, from whose shining brow the divine spark of genius has at all times flashed forth."
These racist philosophies all reject God as the determinant of life and put nature "red in tooth and claw", and so biology, in his place. Reject God and your physical make-up is all you are left with. In the words of the atheist Nietzsche, who held that Darwin was "true but deadly", there was now "the lack of any cardinal distinction between man and animal". All this soon led to the worship of competition, power, and violence and the rejection of convention, ethics and faith. It justified nationalism, imperialism, militarism, dictatorship, the cult of the superman (or the Führer - the title Hitler gave himself) and the master race. In the light of Hitler it is not unreasonable for there to be an immediate reaction in Europe against a racism that denies the intrinsic equality of every individual whatever their genes or skin colour.
But to reject "right-wing" racism does not mean you must adopt an uncritical "left-wing" multi-culturalism. That is because, as has been said, "culture does not stem from people's genes or skin colour. Rather culture consists of society's institutionalised values, beliefs, and practices that are learned through human interaction, not biologically inherited"; and while some aspects of culture are good and to be enjoyed, some aspects of culture are bad and to be rejected. In the words of the Lausanne Covenant: "Because man is God's creature, some of his culture is rich in beauty and goodness. Because he is fallen, all of it is tainted with sin and some of it is demonic."
And there are evil aspects to cultures still in the world today. In some areas there are fewer than there were thanks to Christian missionaries. Because these missionaries saw a better way of living - living according to God's plan - often at great personal cost they told people about Jesus Christ and that better way. For example, James Chalmers (1841-1901), a Scottish missionary, pioneered evangelistic work in New Guinea. He helped transform a violent cannibalistic culture by preaching the gospel. He himself, in the end, was murdered by a small group of local people. But such is the post-modern anti-Christian version of multi-culturalism that in the week after Easter the BBC felt free to show a film of a descendant of Chalmers visiting Papua New Guinea (and his area of work) and "apologizing" for what he had done!
Of course, not all cultural activity is equal. A relevant example for today is clitoridectomy - an age-old cultural practice in parts of the world. It is popularly called "female circumcision". Minimally it involves the removal of a girl's clitoris. Frequently it involves much more genital mutilation so that she is incapable of ever experiencing sexual pleasure. A few immigrants to Britain still want this. In the same way as "racism" should be outlawed, so, surely, should clitoridectomy. A similar example was suttee - an age old cultural practice in India where a widow was burnt alive on her husband's funeral pyre. The British outlawed this in 1829 as being wrong. They were right to do so.
What about the ancient Aztecs of Mexico? They were a war-waging people who fought primarily to acquire prisoners needed for human sacrifices. All cultures contain what is wrong. This was certainly true of Britain in the 19th century. Why were Lord Shaftesbury's humanitarian reforms needed? Because there was much that was wrong in British public culture. There can be no-blanket "multi-culturalism". Yes, of course, cultural diversity is to be welcomed as adding social colour, but not if it is damaging or dangerous.
One of the confusions today is that race (or "ethnicity") is confused with religion. Religion, of course, is at the heart of most cultures. But in our own country today there are many Christians from non-British backgrounds and many British who are not Christian. And religion is now even being defined as "ethnicity". "Ethnic cleansing" is often the new term for religious repression. This is due to depictions of the former Yugoslavia where war between Orthodox, Roman Catholics and Muslims was regularly described as "ethnic".
This confusion means that arguing for the value of a multi-racial society is assumed to be arguing for a multi-faith society where questions of truth are excluded. Of course, that is not so. The Christian church is the most multi-racial of all societies, but it is a missionary society. It respects people of other faiths but it seeks to win them to Jesus Christ. The goal is not to have many Lords and many faiths, but one Lord and one faith (Ephesians 4.5). So, what in conclusion does the bible say about race, culture and religion?
First, heaven is going to be populated by "a great multitude that no-one can count, from every nation, tribe, people and language" (Rev 7.9). It is going to be multi-racial. Multi-racialism, in that sense, must be good.
Secondly, Paul when preaching in Athens affirmed the basic unity of the human race. There are no grounds for arguing, therefore, that there is an archetypal superior race. "From one man [God] made every nation of men" (Acts 17.26).
Thirdly, the bible teaches that there is "splendour" and "glory" in the different national cultures. Where it is good it should be celebrated. Revelation 21.24 speaks of the "splendour of the kings of the earth" and 21.26 speaks of "the glory and honour of the nations". In that sense there can be a right version of "multi-culturalism".
Fourthly, Jesus is the only way to God. Of course there must be rights for people of other faiths, but not the "multi-faithism" of today that eviscerates all truth claims. Paul concluded his address at Athens with these words (Acts 17.30-31):
"God ... now ... commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead."
Those who repent become part of God's new society - his church in which racial, national, social and sexual distinctions must be secondary, "for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3.28).