October 4, 2010 / Perspective
Brett McCracken. Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2010. 255 …
The Other Journal (TOJ): Dr. Ramachandra, it is an honor to talk with you about your recent book Subverting Global Myths and about how your work might help us understand faithfulness in the current biopolitical landscape.
I want to start off with a basic question: Given your travels across the world and your experiences in both cultures of the West and the developing world, or majority world, would you please talk a bit about the myopia that you feel U.S. Christians suffer as it relates to the myths you discuss in your book? In other words, what myths or “collective deceptions” do you find particularly salient within the subculture of evangelical and mainline Protestant U.S. Christianity?
Vinoth Ramachandra (VR): The myths that I explore do not have to do primarily with Christian churches; they deal with what one reviewer called “liberal pieties.” However, many Christians, of all theological persuasions, do tend to share in the predominant myths of their societies. I know that U.S. Christianity, even in its evangelical expressions, is extremely diverse, so I am wary of making facile generalizations (as in the liberal media).
Myths often contain some grains of truth, but these truths are greatly exaggerated and countertruths are suppressed. For instance, think of the way that many American Christians have been brought up to think of the United States of America’s wealth as having been founded on the Protestant work ethic and free trade. Many American Christians are not only brought up on one-sided readings of their own history but are largely ignorant of the histories of other peoples. This was reflected in the sheer incomprehension that attended the 9/11 atrocities, and it is reflected today in the sudden disillusionment with the global financial system. Anyone who has followed U.S. foreign policy over the past fifty years or looked at the way global financial institutions operate from the perspective of the global poor would not have been surprised by recent events.
TOJ: Could you elaborate by giving us a few examples of U.S. foreign policy decisions over the past fifty years that have served to further alienate the global poor, particularly decisions that you find that those of us in the West are often ignorant to?
VR: I meant U.S. foreign policy in relation to alienation in the Islamic world. The way that the U.S. has armed and supported the most despotic regimes in the Middle East and Muslim-majority countries like Indonesia has been amply chronicled since 9/11. In my book, I trace the history of support even for Islamist “terrorist” groups.
As for the global poor, Western banks have supported corrupt politicians and businessmen in poor nations by allowing them to hide their ill-gotten wealth; and the U.S. and U.K. governments have created offshore tax havens that have robbed poor nations of the taxes of the rich (whether ill-gotten or not). The net financial flows in the global economy are not from the rich to the poor but the other way around. In my chapter “Myths of Science,” I mention how the regime of intellectual property rights often functions in a way that robs many poor communities of their entitlements. The United States has also pushed economic policies on poor nations (through what has come to be called the Washington Consensus—the U.S. Treasury, the International Monetary Fund [IMF], and the World Bank) that neither it nor any other Western nation has pursued, undermining social welfare and rural development.
TOJ: Barack Obama was recently elected president of the United States, a historic moment for the United States and for modern nation-states generally. National security was certainly an issue in this election for U.S. citizens—although that seems to have been eclipsed by fear of financial catastrophe.
Your book rightly points out that if we claim to be Christians, our categories of terrorism and security are problematic for numerous reasons. We have a new face to America, but our approaches to terrorism and security remain intact. How might a Christian understanding of human rights as gift help frame our understanding of terrorism and engaging global issues of violence, and what do you see as a way forward for the church in reimagining approaches to life and terrorism?
VR: I welcome Obama’s election as he was easily the best of all the available candidates from both parties. But I am not sure that he will be as good for the world as he is for the United States of America. I’ve adopted a “let’s wait and see” attitude. There is nothing I have read relating to his record as a congressman or in his pre-election speeches that gives me the confidence to believe that he thinks as a Christian rather than as an American. I point out in my book that thinking as a Christian involves stepping outside the bounds of nationalism and putting the global common good before a narrowly defined “American interest.” It’s what distinguishes a statesman from a mere politician. Maybe Obama will grow into a statesman. One certainly hopes so. But that would mean challenging American “exceptionalism,” that is, bringing the United States under international law, including recognizing the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court over American citizens, and signing global treaties [that range] from nuclear nonproliferation to restricting the trade in small arms.
Global warming is as much a human rights issue as an environmental one, as the lives of vulnerable human beings are threatened by American and other rich nations’ lifestyles. If the church is to recover credibility and integrity, it must take a consistent pro-life stance in the public square. Defending the moral worth of embryonic human beings cannot be divorced from, say, gun control, health care for the poor, rejecting torture, and the demilitarization of space.
TOJ: I suppose the dilemma in challenging American exceptionalism is essentially a narcissistic dilemma: If you let down your hegemonic hubris, you will most likely be injured, psychologically and otherwise. That said, those American citizens who are married to a providential role of America in the world, with a very sanitized view of U.S. policy and history, have much at stake in perpetuating such a myth in terms of identity. I don’t mean to dig too deep into issues of psychology or what might be considered the collective ego of the United States, but this idol will not die easily. What practical steps would you offer to me and to our readers in the United States in correcting our loyalties between cross and flag?
VR: A number of your own theologians, most notably Stanley Hauerwas and the late John Yoder, have written scathingly of the way most American Christians look to their nation, rather than Christ’s church, as the vehicle of global salvation. It’s essentially the same myth that held many well-meaning British Christians captive in the heyday of the British empire. But unlike the latter group, who lived in a time when information about the world and contact with non-European Christians was minimal, American Christians are the world’s biggest consumers of information technology, and there are churches comprising nonwhite Christians in every major city. You can get to know thoughtful non-Christians and thoughtful Christians from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, or China right on your doorstep. It is also important have friends among Americans who come from poorer economic circumstances so that you look at your society through their eyes. And you can read histories and theologies written by people in the non-Western world.
TOJ: Who are some key authors and key texts that you would recommend for theologies and histories that North Americans can read to benefit from different vantage points?
VR: The list is so vast, I don’t know where to begin!
For the Palestinian situation, the works of Edward Said and Robert Fisk, a British journalist who has long been covering the Middle East, are readily available. More widely, the writings of John Pilger, Noam Chomsky, and George Monbiot are indispensable because they present views that often contradict the dominant media images and voices. For global histories, Christopher Bayly’s work is probably the best. As for theological works, there are countless books and essays written in the two-thirds world, many of which are available in English or English translations in North America. Writers such as Gustavo Gutiérrez, René Padilla, Samuel Escobar, David Bosch, John de Gruchy, Michael Amaladoss, Melba Maggay, and Carver Yu engage with socioeconomic and political challenges from their own societies but in a way that is most relevant to American Christians too.
TOJ: When you talked about terrorism in the chapter “Myths of Terrorism,” you spoke about selective reporting from the press. That is, suicide bombings get quite a bit of press, but the retaliations of various kinds that often inflict civilian casualties don’t get treated with the same attention to the horror of that destruction. Could you talk about this phenomenon and if you have seen the church resist this through ecumenical practices?
VR: In my own political context, Sri Lanka, the National Christian Council and, at times, the Roman Catholic Bishops Conference have exposed and condemned the atrocities committed by both sides. Because we don’t have a free media, their statements have been carried by only a small section of the press (very rarely on TV or radio). However, they have been able to exert some pressure, through international agencies and foreign embassies, on the government as well as the insurgents to respect civilian lives.
This is an ongoing and difficult issue, difficult not because it cannot be practiced, but because both sides have adopted such a self-righteous posture that they cannot see how their own actions are recruiting more people to their opponents’ cause. Within churches, too, many Christians are blinded by the official rhetoric of a “war on terrorism,” and even those who have seen through this rhetoric are fearful of speaking out as they risk imprisonment under the repressive anti-terror legislation. The comments I make in my book about Sri Lanka could get me into trouble if the book were to fall into the hands of hard-liners in the government. This risk that writers such as myself have to take is rarely appreciated by readers in the West. These are not armchair issues for us!
TOJ: In your chapter “Myths of Terrorism,” you that note not many people ask the basic question: “Whose liberty is sacrificed and for whose security?“1
And in your chapter “Myths of Religious Violence,” you point out that “Many Western observers forget that non-Western Christians often bear the brunt of such violence.” You go on to say that a majority of the 76 worst Christian martyrdom situations in the past two millennia have occurred in the last century, “including eight of the fifteen with over a million martyrs each, occurred in the twentieth century.”2
The suffering of Christian brothers and sisters is striking, and it frames the question of whose terrorism and liberties we value in a stark light. How might a less parochial insularity for Western Christians aid in faithfully resisting these myths?
VR: This insularity, indeed self-centeredness, is universal and not peculiar to Americans! But I think it is particularly tragic when encountered among otherwise well-educated Christian publics, as in the United States. For instance, many people are unaware that there are more Palestinian Christians in Israel than there are messianic Jews, but the sufferings of the former are ignored by the tens of thousands of Christians from the richer nations of the world who make regular pilgrimages to what is called the Holy Land.
In India, Hindu extremist mobs routinely massacre tribal and other poor Christians, but these are ignored in the Western and even Indian media, and the Indian social elites are unconcerned. It is only when the rich are targeted, and especially by Muslim gunmen (as in the recent Mumbai luxury hotel attacks) that the media go into a frenzy and the elites protest governmental inaction. It is important that Western Christians speak out—for example, in letters to influential newspapers and blog sites—against all such abuses of human rights, not only when vulnerable Christians suffer, but even—and especially—when Muslims become targets of hatred by the socially powerful.
TOJ: You conclude your chapter “Myths of Human Rights” by saying that “[. . .] a rigorous argument for human rights (as in a Christian theological perspective) will radically expose the hypocrisies and double standards of those powerful nations whose domestic and foreign policies run counter to their lip service to universal norms.”3 Given your aforementioned admonition that we Christians must advocate for Muslims and Christians who are exploited by the socially powerful, what do you make of the Israeli attacks on Gaza and the corresponding coverage in the news? Where do you see the hypocrisies and double standards of powerful Westerners as they apply to this situation?
VR: Both the outgoing American president and the secretary of state placed blame disproportionately on Hamas. The incoming president has been silent so far. Hundreds of rockets from Hamas militants killed one Israeli over a period of six months. On a single day, Israeli bombing killed over three hundred Palestinians. That is how the equation always works out. More than one hundred tons of explosives have been dropped on an enclave crowded with 1.5 million people. If this is not terror, then what is?
Moreover, Israel launched its strikes against Gaza on a Saturday morning when the streets were crowded with shoppers. The targets were not the training camps of Hamas’s military wing but police stations. In attempting to destroy the entire administrative infrastructure in Gaza, Israel is alienating all those who want a moderate Palestinian state. Israel’s policies of blockade and shock-and-awe are ensuring greater support for Hamas, which is a political movement and not merely a guerilla army, just as the same approach strengthened Hezbollah’s status in Lebanon. This is exactly the wrong way to go about wooing Arabs away from supporting Hamas. Clearly, Israeli leaders are drunk with a sense of their military superiority but have little political acumen. They are experts at dealing with symptoms while ignoring causes.
TOJ: Finally, I want to ask you in a more personal way about Christian faithfulness. Would you please leave our readers with a few words about faithfulness, especially in our increasingly modern global context, by touching on your own personal convictions as your researched and wrote Subverting Global Myths?
VR: My fundamental conviction remains the absolute lordship of the crucified and risen Jesus Christ over every area of life. My second conviction is that we cannot bear credible witness to this truth without entering, imaginatively, into the pain of those who suffer the consequences of the worship of lords other than Jesus Christ. Such false lords—idols, ideologies—need to be unmasked in every age. I try to use my speaking and writing gifts to do that, but I find myself coveting other gifts—music, novel writing, filmmaking—which may be more effective in this present age. I have discovered that it is by embracing the suffering of others—in my case, remaining in a war-torn, poverty-stricken nation rather than seeking security in the rich West—that one is given insights and sensitivities that may elude others. Another conviction is that faithfulness to Christ requires constant openness to others, even our fiercest anti-Christian critics, to see how our own faith and lifestyle may themselves be redolent with idolatry. The biggest objections to Christians and Christianity are ethical, not intellectual. I have little time for the kind of apologetics that is divorced from ethics and political life.
1. Vinoth Ramachandra, Subverting Global Myths (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 52.
2. Ibid, 81.
3. Ibid, 125.
Chris Keller is Founding Editor of The Other Journal and a psychotherapist in Seattle, Washington.
Vinoth Ramachandra is an Anglican lay-theologian, writer, teacher, and human rights advocate. He combines multiple interests in his international work with IFES, a global partnership of over 150 university-level Christian movements. He holds a BS and a PhD in Nuclear Engineering from the University of London.