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Reactionary extremists are co-opting religion  

22 March 2019

The Church must resist the distortion of its faith by xenophobic and sectarian movements, argues James Walters

“WERE/ARE you a Christian?” the Christchurch shooter asked himself in his lengthy, ranting manifesto, The Great Replacement. “That’s complicated. When I know I will tell you,” was his answer.

One might want to say that it is very uncomplicated: that a Christian could not and would not commit such an evil murderous act. Yet the relationship between faith and the growing voices of extremist, populist, and racist conflict is certainly complicated, and the part that religion is playing in reactionary movements around the world needs unpacking.

Some say that religion is irrelevant. Western liberals tend to argue that Islamophobia (or prejudice against any non-Christian religious group) is really just a new cloak for racism. And yet radical sectarian world-views are a growing presence in all the world’s faith traditions, including Hindu Nationalists, extremist Israeli settlers, and the more familiar Jihadi-Islamists.

Some might argue that these are distortions of intrinsically peaceful religions. But, at the very least, religious language is being co-opted by hate-fuelled sectarian movements, online and around the world. Brenton Tarrant’s quoting of Pope Urban II, his historical allusion to “the rightful Christian ownership of Constantinople”, and references to the contemporary “slaughter of Christian Europeans” means that Christians cannot dodge the question whether their own religion is caught up in this, too.

This is not an isolated case. Populist politicians across Europe, including Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Marine Le Pen in France, and Matteo Salvini in Italy, are increasingly employing Christian rhetoric and symbolism (Comment, 25 January). Even in the UK, a post on the Britain First website draws, like Tarrant’s manifesto, on Crusader history, arguing that “without the unifying common faith of Christianity, Europe would now be a Muslim continent.”

THE purpose of confronting the way in which the Christian faith is implicated in the Christchurch attack is not to blame ourselves, any more than ordinary Muslims should be blamed for IS. On the contrary, research by Tobias Cremer at Cambridge University suggests that church attendance among Western Europeans is strongly correlated with the rejection of populist xenophobic politics.

But Christians have a responsibility to challenge this mapping of religious divisions on to the fault-lines of today’s conflicts — national, cultural, racial, and ecological.

The Church of England can meet this challenge in three ways.

The first is a renewed engagement with grass-roots interfaith work. Yazid Said has argued for an approach to interfaith dialogue which rejects superficial “sameness” and is oriented towards “mutual challenge” (Comment, 1 March). In my book Loving Your Neighbour in an Age of Religious Conflict, I endorse that view, suggesting that local and national interfaith relationships should be characterised by the twin themes of persuasion and curiosity. We want to persuade others, in word and action, that we have something important to say, and that Jesus Christ has relevance to every human life. But, conversely, we must be open to and curious about learning about faith traditions that are demonised and stereotyped, particularly on social media.

Those kinds of interfaith conversations of mutual challenge can take place only within the context of friendship and solidarity. It is to be hoped that something good will spring from last Friday’s horror: a new willingness to reach out across faith communities as the basis for deepened interfaith encounter in the future. Many Anglicans, clergy and lay, attended prayers at mosques for the first time last Friday as an act of solidarity with their neighbours. We must not wait for the next atrocity to make a return visit.

SECOND, to resist the distortion of the Christian faith into racialised, tribal politics, the Church needs a vibrant theological life to resource its understanding of, and proclamation of, the gospel. While Tarrant’s white-nationalist rhetoric is at the extreme end of the spectrum, we need to be honest that the temptations to demonise others and retreat into tribes are present in our congregations, and in our own hearts. We need to go deeper and deeper ourselves into the meaning of the gospel of inclusion.

And, third, as the Church confronts this strange identification with Christianity among growing numbers who clearly have not grasped (or have perhaps rejected) its meaning, no one should be written off as beyond redemption. The Church’s evangelistic challenge is not just to the apathetically agnostic, but also to the zealously misguided.

What is needed is an attractive witness to the Christian life which calls people who are susceptible to sectarian ideology away from their defensiveness and fear to join in the building up of the common good, in a religiously fragmented age.

Canon James Walters is director of the LSE Faith Centre and the author of Loving Your Neighbour in an Age of Religious Conflict, published by Jessica Kingsley at £16.99 (Church Times Bookshop £15.29).

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