On the 4th March 2001 William Hague delivered his now infamous Foreign land speech to the Tory spring conference in Harrogate. Though his supporters were quick to deny that his remarks about Britain becoming a “foreign land” and the Conservative ’s pledge to, “give you back your country” had xenophobic overtones, it was naïve to think they would ever be taken otherwise – particularly as the speech took a hard line on the issues of immigration and asylum. So, despite previous half-hearted attempts by all parties to keep race off the agenda in the run up to the general election, the leader of the opposition’s speech opened the floodgates so wide that no amount of spin, backtracking, denial or declaration signing was able to prevent the resulting torrent.
And with his leader failing to take a clear stance, it was perhaps hardly surprising that John Townend, the Tory MP for Yorkshire East, felt he had license to make his own highly provocative views known about the Labour Party’s immigration policy creating a “mongrel race,” and undermining Britain’s “homogeneous white Anglo- Saxon society”. However, in the ensuing pressure from both within and beyond the Party to remove the party whip from his renegade backbencher, Hague, through stupidity or principle, resolutely refused to act. Instead he was left cutting a lonely figure at a hastily arranged press conference outside Conservative HQ, trying to play down his own gaffs and forcing an apology from John Townend for his. Meanwhile, Tony Blair strolled towards the election with Nelson Mandela at his side, an icon of the fight against racist ideals whilst Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook summed up Labour ’s vision for Britain in terms of a ‘chicken tikka massala’ society where east meets west and blends in perfect harmony.
But, is Robin Cook’s ‘tikka massala’ multiculturalism any better a vision for the future than Townend’s xenophobic ranting? In rejecting John Townend’s racist attitudes have we been mesmerised by a concept equally as sinister? Back in 1969, when Robin Cook was a young man, the band Blue Mink released their now classic hit, Melting Pot, a song with a sentimental but evocative vision of the future. Its lyrics inspired us to believe that global, racial harmony was to be achieved by mixing up the world ’s races, obliterating ethnic identity and creating a monotone world of “coffee coloured people”. 30 years later a city suit may have replaced the Afghan coat and much of the hair may have fallen from his head, but the hippy ideal hasn’t! Robin Cook is still singing the same song; it ’s just that he has exchanged the melting pot metaphor for a plate of curry. Does Labour’s definition of multiculturalism amount to anything more than a blurring of cultural distinctions into a postmodern stew of fragrant but indecipherable ingredients? The threat of Robin Cook’s ‘tikka massala’, one-size-fits-all society, is that rather celebrating and encouraging diversity, it actively seeks to quash the unique expression of who we are – and that ’s dangerous.
This ‘melting pot’ mentality towards multiculturalism, which always seeks to peddle the lowest common denominator, is already making its impact felt.
For instance, it ’s clear that whereas Government is increasingly ready to acknowledge the role of faith-groups in the provision of social welfare, there is also a growing inclination to bundle Christians, Jews, Hindus and Muslims together and pigeonhole them as the ‘faith sector’. This generic approach to faith-groups then attempts to downplay and dismiss all distinctions to the point where they are treated as irrelevant. But the truth is, such an approach is belittling and disempowering for everyone, be they Muslim, Jew or Christian. I am not motivated by some kind of nebulous, ‘believe anything you fancy’ faith. I do not have faith in faith and neither does a Muslim. I am motivated and inspired by my faith in Jesus, as a Muslim is by his faith in Allah.
To ignore this or seek to minimise it is both patronising and ignorant.
It is this same, ill-conceived, reductionist multiculturalism that is at the heart of one of the issues facing the Christian broadcasters in their bid to obtain a national broadcast licenses? The ideals of a multicultural society as seen through the eyes of Labour politicians have meant that they feel obliged to, as they put it, ‘enforce pluralism’. Thus,a recent White Paper on the subject of broadcasting makes it clear that in the future, Government policy would make the issuing of a national licence for the specific use of Christian, Muslim or Jewish programming untenable. Only stations who are willing to give airtime to broadcasting an insipid multi-faith cocktail will be eligible to apply for a licence. But surely this approach is a betrayal of the principle of pluralism not an endorsement of it? Genuine pluralism should offer a voice to everyone not remove it by adopting a policy that gags them?
None of this is new. Cultural and national identity was just as big an issue for the people of Israel in Biblical times. Despite their awareness that they were God ’s chosen people they were also a people who felt vulnerable and fragile, a people with deep-rooted questions about their national identity.
The epic genealogies of 1 Chronicles, for instance, only serve to show a people searching for a sense of identity, keen to establish that they were indeed the rightful children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But this insecurity led to a nationalistic, brittle and shallow grasp of their God-given role to be a blessing to the nations of the world (see Genesis 12). Their misunderstanding of the purposes of God in declaring them ‘chosen ’ meant that they had become a people very difficult to influence, as the prophets found out to their cost. They took on an air of superiority that despised, suppressed and even at times dominated others. God ’s people had become racist!
Perhaps the people most famously despised by Israel were the Samaritans. They were mistrusted, regarded as inferior, thought to have little culture worth taking an interest in and universally shunned. There is little doubt that if John Townend had been a Jew in first century Palestine he would have had a thing or two to say about the presence of the Samaritans in Israel, accusing them of taking the jobs of the Israelites and undermining traditional culture. Into this situation Jesus’ revolutionary attitudes and teaching exploded!
Far from avoiding the Samaritans, Jesus intentionally sought them out. In John 4 he speaks to a Samaritan woman and drinks with her. In a few seconds he has delivered a hammer blow to the barriers of race, religion and gender. And even more strikingly, in Luke 10, Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan – even the title of which was an oxymoron to every self-respecting Jew. But Jesus’ story is one of the clearest anti-racist texts in all of scripture, suggesting that the Jewish people recognise that their true ‘neighbour’ was not one of their own but a member of the most despised minorities of their time.
Jesus ’challenge through these narratives, however, was not for the Jews to let go of the idea that they were a ‘chosen’ and therefore privileged people, but simply to realise that knowing they were a people of privilege gave them a God-given and overwhelming responsibility to embrace the stranger for who they were and share what they had with all.
In Matthew 28 Jesus sets out for his followers his radical agenda, or what we now know as the Great Commission. Their task was to go to all nations and make disciples. But the word ethnos, which Jesus uses here, is more accurately translated as ‘ethnic-group’, or even ‘tribe’, which defines people by language, customs, beliefs, morals and values not their country of residence. Jesus is calling his followers to take the issue of ethnicity seriously and to work with it and respect it rather than be blind to it. What ’s more, the intention of Jesus ’words is underlined in Acts 2 when, on receiving the Holy Spirit, the same disciples are given the ability to speak in tongues. These were not, however, heavenly languages, but rather, as the text clearly explains, the individual dialects or ‘mother tongues’ of those different groups of Jews gathered together in Jerusalem, to whom they were speaking on the Day of Pentecost. God ’s vision clearly takes ethnic diversity seriously and affirms, not obliterates, the obvious differences of those present.
Jesus’ intent was never to see a homogeneous society or Church. And when Paul later writes that there is now neither Jew nor Gentile (Galatians 3:28), he is not reinterpreting the teachings of Jesus in a subtle attempt to move towards a ‘tikka massala’ Church. Indeed, at the beginning of his letter he has already taken issue with Peter and the Jerusalem Church over their attempts to make the Gentiles adopt Jewish customs. Paul understood that the way forward was diversity under a shared vision – the bringing in of the Kingdom of God – not a bland uniformity. A multicultural vision more akin to a ‘fruit salad’, where the distinctions remain and are celebrated rather than being obliterated in a puree. The Church must be committed to a multi-culturalism that builds communities free from persecution, oppression and discrimination on the basis of people’s race, language or culture – communities where diversity is encouraged not squashed, where everyone is a first-class citizen.
As globalisation increases the need for a sense of identity at a localised level increases also. Research into church growth has shown that in the mega-cities, where more and more of the world’s population are now living, identity is maintained by holding onto ethnic diversity rather than attempting to wipe it out. The future is not orange, or coffee-coloured – it ’s black, white, brown, yellow and pink – it ’s diverse. Jesus’ message is timeless, as relevant to us and our political leaders today as it was to his first followers and the culture into which he first spoke 2000 years ago – affirm diversity! A true multicultural society does not set out to destroy difference, but to affirm and build on it. British people, from whatever cultural background should extend the privileges of living in this nation to their neighbour. And that means the minorities within our borders as well as legitimate asylum seekers from nations that deny the freedoms and privileges of a multicultural democracy.