Five Zoom-based conversations initiated by experts and religious leaders comprised the series on Dismantling Supremacies. The conversation series was as follows:

1. What is Supremacy -- intiated by Dr. Paul Knitter and Dr. Devaka Premawardhana

2. Religious Supremacy and Countering Violent Extremism -- initiated by Dr. Jeannine Hill-Fletcher and Dr. Aliyu Alhaji Rabiu

3. Race and Caste -- initiated by Ms. Brenda Russell and Dr. Baiju Markose

4. Exceptionalism: The Myth of Supremacy -- initiated by Dr. Sharon Welch and Bishop Munib Younan

5. Doctrine of Discovery and Colonizing the Mind -- initiated by Dr. Tink Tinker and Dr. Darshi Thoradeniya

A composite summary of the conversation follows.

Insights from Thursdays with OMNIA on Dismantling Supremacies -- October 2020

 

The purpose of this conversation

Supremacy, because it is so widespread and destructive, is one of the most challenging obstacles to the work of Interfaith Peacemaker Teams. This became clear following the Tuesday Talks in June and July, 2020.

Over-all conclusion

In the evaluation that followed the series, one participant said, “We learned a great deal about supremacies, but we didn’t dismantle any. ”Yet, the dismantling is already taking place in the Interfaith Peacemaker Teams. They resemble the “circles,” that Tink Tinker advocated from the American Indian traditions, rather than hierarchical “pyramids” advocated by supremacist systems.

 

Key learnings:

1.      The Supremacy Problem:

a.  Supremacy is naturally occurring phenomenon in human societies. When it is religious supremacy it increases in power. We need to be careful not to imbue naturally occurring supremacies with divine approval.

b.  Supremacy prevents religions from being authentic to their teachings. It is in the religion’s interest, for the sake of its own authenticity to dismantle supremacy.

c.  Both race and caste are legitimized by religion. Caste is the original sin of all forms of exclusion, and that includes patriarchy. Any methodology to address this, should refer to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or Babasahib Dr. B.R. Ambedkar who gave us the formula: educate, agitate and organize.

d.  A prominent psychologist introduced the idea of “moral exclusion.” There’s a boundary between those to whom we apply our moral values, and those who are outside the boundary. We don’t have to act according to our moral values towards those who are outside the boundary. When there is turmoil, the boundary contracts so there are more people who outside the boundary. Exclusion can result in violence. Everything from bystandership to genocide.

 

2.      The Problem with Interpretation:

a.  Some religious texts and traditions justify and promote supremacies. OMNIA has long  maintained that texts and traditions are contextually bound, and therefore are not as (or should not be as) authoritative as religious communities tend to believe.

b.  Values drive the hermeneutical process. It can draw out competition and grievance, and thereby become supremacist, or it can draw out compassion, love and care.

c.  In the US today, we have a secular religion of economics. Supremacy has led to African Americans and Hispanics receiving less economic wealth than Whites. What values should guide our interpretation of texts and traditions of the religion of economics so that it can apply to all in an anti-supremacist manner?

d.  We use the Bible’s story of liberation to fit our narrow nationalism. Joshua entered the promised land as if no other nations existed in historic Palestine and used the words of God to kill children, cattle, chicken, whatever they could find. Is this God, or human national exceptionalism? We have to deconstruct the books of Joshua and Judges. It is very dangerous when the idea of election and covenant are used by politicians and extremists to justify exceptionalism. Ambassador of Israel Dani Dayan, spoke like today’s settlers when he said that the biblical text is their deed. And they get support of the American administration because it’s a part of exceptionalism.

e. Christian Zionism is a heresy and is dangerous,not only for Christians but for Jews, Muslims and for humanity. They are anxious for Armageddon not for the love of Christ or love of humanity, but to be politically aligned with the theology of empire to promote colonialism and exceptionalism.

 

3.      The White Supremacy Problem:

a. The U.S. is still a White Christian nation. Is the White resistance to other peoples an economic resistance? People have the idea that God has promised White Christians this land flowing with milk and honey, with all its benefits, their homes, schools, neighborhoods. Integration, therefore, would compromise God’s promise.

b. There’s a form of exceptionalism and white identity that says "to belong is to dominate, and to be treated equally is a loss." Richard Spencer (White Nationalist speaker) spoke these chilling words atTexas A&M University: "White men conquered this continent, and that means that this continent belongs to White men."

c.  In Charlottesville in 2017 young White men violently chanted, “Jews will not replace us,” confirming that the White supremacy is a Christian supremacy. Jason Kellser who was among the Proud Boys said in 2017, “I want to stand up for White people. I want to stand up for western civilization. I want to stand up for men. I want to stand up for Christians.”

d. The Civil Rights movement was resisted by White citizens, even up to today. Even the era of post 1965 inclusion contains a strand of exclusion. The ideology of Christian supremacy underwrote legislation, in which Christian supremacy is used to disadvantage people of other faiths, people of color, and direct resources of land, wealth, citizenship, education etc. are directed to White Christians.

 

4.      Religious Supremacy Problem:

a. The evangelistic nature of our religions, especially Islam and Christianity leads to supremacy. It is like selling aproduct. Sales people present their product as better than those of their competitors. Religious actors have learned to show people that they are holier than others in their relationship with God.

b. Christian theology affirming the supremacy of Jesus, as the one and only Son of God, or Islamic theology affirming Mohammad as the seal of the prophets are indicators of supremacy. We can lift up the teachings of these founders and show how they are not supremacist.

c. The Quran says: If God so willed, he would have made you one nation. But he made you different nations for a reason. This is why we have diversity. There was an incident that happened between a Christian and a Muslim. The Christian was saying that Jesus was better than Mohammed, and the Muslim was saying Mohammed was better than Jesus. When they asked Mohammad about this, he said, don’t make me above any of God’s prophets. We come from one family and we are one.

d. Caste system in India is structured supremacy legitimized by religion. The 3000 year-old system has relegated large swaths of the population to subservient status. Its a four-tiered system with Brahmins(priests) at the top, Kshatiryas (warriors) next, Vaishyas (traders) and Sudras (untouchables) at the bottom. This is affirmed and validated in many scriptural texts like the Laws of Manu and the Purusa Sukta in the Rig Veda. In the same way, race is legitimized in the US by reference to the Bible. “The curse of Ham” was the legitimacy for exploiting darker skinned people who were supposed to be inferior because it was God’s will.

e. Settlers to new world thought of themselves as monotheists coming into a land of polytheists and idol-worshippers. Therefore, it was ok to destroy them. The Joshua story is similar. It was ok to destroy the Caananites because they were polytheists. They left us this legacy, that its ok for us to destroy people who believe differently.

 

5.      Supremacist Laws

a. Bulls of Discovery gave huge pieces of the globe to European princes. These didn’t get called the Doctrine of Discovery until the US supreme court in 1823 gave a unanimous opinion.  Chief Justice John Marshall writing the majority opinion said, Its clear in international law, that whenever a Christian prince sends an emissary who first discovers a land, sets foot on a strange land, not yet owned by any other Christian prince – it is important to note that it’s a “Christian” prince, so really, we are talking about a Doctrine of Christian Discovery – never mind that the land was already inhabited, they have the right to claim that land for the Christian prince. Under that law John Marshall excuses the murder, genocide and theft of land perpetrated against American Indians.

b. With that begins International Law, which really meant Euro-Christian law, devised to adjudicate which Christian nations could occupy which indigenous lands around the world. The 1823 US Supreme court decision becomes precedent law in the British commonwealth adjudicating law in places like India, Sri Lanka, Australia, New Zealand, and much of Africa wherever the English colonists set foot in and claimed the land for their own.

c. The colonists invented a whole language of domination and it can be boiled down to three words: Rule of Law. This becomes a genocidal tool of control for indigenous peoples around the world. We experience this as a move to change the very worldview and structure of indigenous people. For instance, they took our land, the earth, and converted it legally to something the Euro-Christians called “property.” That’s a huge shift. It changes our spiritual relationship with the land, because now suddenly, land is not a spiritual resource, but is represented in a legal document you can own.

 

6.      The Purity System’s Impact on Black/Dalit Bodies

a.  One of the 8 pillars of Isabel Wilkerson is the purity/pollution system. Dalit bodies are polluted. They are dirty bodies, which, higher caste people can use, abuse and misuse. The same system exists in the case of race in the U.S. The religious, judiciary and government work together to create this injustice. Dalit women are being raped everyday in India and attacks on Dalit bodies has increased by 6% compared to last year.

b. Racism and castism are based on the practice of endogamy, the control of a female body. Castiarchy and patriarchy go hand-in-hand. Dismantling caste supremacy will result in dismantling patriarchy and sexism as well.

c. In Iran, Baha’is are seen as unclean. So, when they come into contact another human being, that person is expected to go and bathe in order to cleanse themselves.

d. They colonized people with dark skin. This is important, because Christianity in particular, has very strong symbols that say white is powerful and right, black and brown are not. That is included in the language and symbolism that is internalized. We cannot avoid talking about the issue of skin color because its front and center of this conversation.

 

7.      Supremacy and Demographics:

a. In the US, Christianity is losing members. At the same time diversity of religion and ethnicity grows. The perceived loss of centrality strengthens identity, and we see a resurgence of White supremacy morphed from Christian supremacy.

b. Our colleagues in Nigeria have seen how religious supremacy mutates into extremism and have seen its devastating effects. United States participants need to be in dialogue with Nigerians to ask what lessons they have learned, as US faces a similar threat.

c. The confluence of nationality and religion isalso a problem: In Java there’s a saying that to be Javanese is to be Muslim. In the US we have a feeling that to be American is to be Christian. But there are Christians in Java, and Muslims in the US. National identity should be focused on celebrating our diversity.

 

8.      Supremacy and Governance:

aChristianity came to Bangladesh, a largely Hindu land almost 500 years ago. When Islam came, it expanded quickly and the country was Islamized. There were many good things about this. Emperor Akbar inculturalized Islamic values, blending Islam with Bengali culture. This became a humanism-based religion, called Din i Ilahi. It means in Persian, a lifestyle that is godly, (not associated with any particular tradition) together with cultural tradition. Today, when we say Bengali culture, it’s a culture based on humanism and interreligious cooperation. Based on Sufi values, it advocates tolerance. Its not a mixture or syncretism. The philosophy is to stand on the creator who has created all as human. This is what we follow in our Interfaith Peacemaker Teams.

b. Like the people of Gaza, the Tamil ethnic minority from Sri Lanka was under a 16 year economic ban during the war, and couldn’t travel from the Jaffna peninsula. Media has implanted in our minds that Gaza is all Islamic brotherhood, Hamas and Jihad Islami. Hamas does have a strong presence in Gaza but they are not the majority. They are a part of the Palestinian people. Like the Tamil people in Jaffna, the people in Gaza are in a humanitarian crisis. They get it from both sides: Egypt and Israel. The economy is in ruins. Even the govt. of Israel and even its right wing knows if they don’t find a solution to the occupation, it will blow up in their faces one day.

 

9.      The Colonized mind

a. The British colonizers were very clear aboutcolonizing the mind of the subjects. Thus school became the tool of governancethat shaped the ideology of generations to come. Christianity was introduced notonly so that they will think, view and understand the world like the colonialmasters, but more importantly to imagine the world like them. We can seecolonial projects in Latin America and the African continent. Edwardigenous people, languages, religions, cultures, were wipedout, destroyed and labeled as barbarian and uncivilized cultures by theEuropean colonizers.

b. Today, our language and cultures have become westernized. If we can go beyond that to unlearn what we learned, only then will we be able to find what is indigenous. The process is tough, because we don’t have the tools. Its hard to make sense of a particular word in use during the Portuguese period or the Rajarata civilization in Sri Lanka. Without “unlearning.” its impossible to imagine.

c. Decolonizing the mind is a life-time project. It has to happen with each person and with each community. The problem is that we are so deeply colonized that we come to think that what happens in the colonial world is the way the world is, and we have to deal with it. Even the word “law”is imposed on us. Its like peeling back an onion. Everytime I think I’ve got a handle on decolonizing my mind, somebody in the American Indian community will confront me and say, what you just said, isn’t that colonialist discourse?

d. The conquering of the indigenous people was done by the military and we glorify that to this day. The glorification of death and destruction is a part of the colonized mind.

e.  A part of the colonized mind are implicit biases. Good people, who don’t want to be racist, often get it wrong because they are not aware of their privilege. In this Covid-19 period we’ve heard racist approaches. In France some scientists said, when we come up with a vaccination we’ll test it on Africans first. This is racism.

f.  When we teach or write books for children, we need to examine our own colonized mind, and implicit biases so we don’t teach it to them. This criticism is necessary if we want to build a future of equality, that the other has equal human rights like me.

 

10.  Human Beings not Tribes

The Doctrine of Christian Discovery that destroyed American Indians in the United States, divided up Africa among Christian European nations in an 1890 Berlin conference. The word “Tribe” is the colonialist way of putting us down in our place. The natural governing unit is a community of people who share the same culture and speak the same language in a particular geographical place. The conference in 1890 divided up those communities so they have no hope of everhaving a political block that effects politics in the region in a meaningful way. We’ve got to stop talking about tribes and talk about ourselves as human beings.

Potential Solutions:

1.       Contextuality:

Rather than appeal to religious texts and traditions to confirm their prejudices, religions should make contextuality the starting point for their theologies.

 2.     Self-criticism:

As the initiators of our conversation demonstrated, we recognize that self-criticism is a key ingredient in dismantling supremacy. We recognized that in some contexts this can be dangerous. But when we are able to be self-critical of our tradition not just among ourselves, but in the presence of others, that’s even more powerful. In a situation where a religious community is a minority (such as Christians in Bangladesh or Sri Lanka) this is more difficult. 

3.      Conversion:

We need a conversion (an unlearning and re-learning) from the understanding of the healthy self and society as singular, linear and teleological, to an understanding that is plural, changing, fluid and perhaps circular.

 4.      Contact/Friendship

a. Friendship makes a difference. One theoretical framework that IP Teams are based on is Gordon Allport’s Contact Theory, a mechanism that allows friendships across identities. This is also called “bridging social capital.”

b. In the US, the political divisiveness makes itdifficult. In Northeast Nigeria, in times past, the homes of Muslims and Christians were open to each other. This changed because of political manipulation including by religious elites. When it comes to election time Muslim candidates will call on Muslims to support them and Christians will do the same. There is also money that goes along with this. The Interfaith Peacemaker Teams go against this manipulation. We constantly encourage Muslims and Christians to vote for the best person.

 5.      Children’s Books/Education

Write children’s books about the future. How do we come to that future of peace with love, However, when we teach our children, we need to examine our in-built racist notions so we don’t teach it to them. This is necessary if we want to build a future of equality, so others  have equal human rights like me.

6.      A Circle, not a Pyramid

The legal shifts led to a shift in attitude, from a circle to a pyramid. A circle has egalitarian relationships and like OMNIA, includes All -- the four-leggeds, our flying relatives, and the other living beings like the mountains and the rivers and the streams are in that circle. We gave up on the equality of everybody in favor of the pyramid and the invention of the rule of law.

 

 Questions to take forward:

1.      How do we listen to the margins?

a. All of us can’t be ethnographers – but all of us can live ethnographically every day. That means listening to, and learning from those in the margins. But to do so, we cannot go with our privileged assumptions.

b. The ethnographer has to be prepared to shift his/her paradigm. We are conditioned by European ways of thinking, eg: Augustinian understanding of conversion which assumes a single direction of movement. The Makhua people of Mozambique have a circular motion: you convert and return. We also learn from the Makhua people that listening is an act of justice, and that escape is an act of resistance.

2.      Organizing Strategy

a.  Gandhi and Ambedkar didn’t see eye to eye. Gandhi’s call for reconciliation was to keep India as one was not accepted by Ambedkar since it didn’t provide a just reconciliation for the Dalits. When MLK Jr. visited India he met Gandhi. What if he met Ambedkar instead? How would the civil rights movement in the US have changed? What would that have done to the commitment to non-violence?

b.  Ambedkar realized how deeply aligned the caste system was with Hinduism, he got his people to convert to Buddhism in a mass conversion in the mid 1950s. That’s a critical pivot. Gandhi was very Hindu in his commitments and Ambedkar gave up on his Hindu commitments.

c.  Chandran Martin (a Dalit from India) said, I was excluded from the body of Brahma. The gospel which spoke to my fore-mothers and fore-fathers was that they could belong to the Body of Christ (Body of God). But there is a brokenness in the body of Christ. There is caste in the church. This is a sin and a scandal. Until the church confesses this as a sin and scandal we cannot be called the Body of Christ.

 

3.      Next Steps:

a.  Sensitize ourselves on the question of caste supremacy.

b.  De-essentialize caste identities. That is to say, setting aside caste programming consciously and intentionally.

c.  De-caste our religious philosophies and spiritualities that legitimize caste supremacy. Kelly Brown Douglas What Faith Got To Do With It: Black Bodies and White Souls and Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste

d.  Create Interfaith Peacemaker Teams which gives an opportunity for fresh democratic spaces.

 

4.      Education/Communication

a. The Engagement Scholarship Consortium --  colleges within the United States and two internationals including American University of Nigeria. These colleges changed their mission to teaching, research and mutually beneficial community engagement. They are trying to create not just students who have an experience of service learning, but work within multi-racial, cross-cultural teams, working within communities that have cultural and racial differences and the idea is working together to solve basic problems. If this model works, how do we help scale it so larger groups of people are able to interact with people who are different from themselves?

b. People steeped in Christian nationalism and exceptionalism don’t understand this conversation. Only 1% of the people go to college. People like that make up the bulk of the electorate in the US. How do we reach them?

c. History is important. But we mustn’t become consumers of Euro-Christian colonialist history. They won, and therefore they wrote the history. Our job is to take those histories apart, and write them from our perspective. We’ve got to do the critical analysis ourselves and come up with a much more powerful understanding so that the next generation, our children and grandchildren will know much more clearly how they’ve come to be,who they are and what they are.

 5.      Decolonizing the Mind

Policies such as California’s land and water stewardship are critical. But hammering out a political policy of ecojustice is impossible in the Euro-Christian climate of temporality, progress, development, where land has been turned into private property. There’s got to be a worldview shift, beginning with an ideological shift away from anthropocentrism, where we will begin to see the earth around us and all the living beings of the earth in relationship with us. The Indian ideal in the collateral egalitarianism worldview is harmony and balance, not progress. How do we establish this again today? Until we can get everybody on that page, we are going to see ecological devastation. If Christians want to be serious about this, we need to look deeply at the colonization of the Euro-Christian mind, and begin to look to indigenous people for other models of being in the world. It’s a whole other way of being, and not a tweak here or there.

6.      How to deal with Money?

Social transformation requires partnerships with the private sector, banking etc. to financially support such movements. But as soon as you get money it changes the relationship and the mission. For this reason, American Indian organizations will not receive any money from the US government. Yet it remains a complex question. We need money to do the important work that we feel called to do, but don’t want to compromise our calling or mission.

7.      Neo-Colonialism

To what extent can we unlearn and decolonize in the 21st century? Right now in Sri Lanka, we are being jostled between geo-political powers. These things signal a neo-colonialism or a new imperialism. We must look at the present reality as it moves us to the future.

 


 

Bibliography

Works cited bythe initiators and participants during the Thursdays with OMNIA sessions

 

Paul Knitter (ed), The Myth of Religious Superiority:Multi-Faith Explorations of Religious Pluralism (Orbis Books: 2005)

Rita M. Gross, Religious Diversity-What's the Problem?:Buddhist Advice for Flourishing with Religious Diversity (CascadeBooks: 2014)

Devaka Premawardhana, Faith in Flux: Pentecostalism andMobility in Rural Mozambique (University of Pennsylvania Press: 2018)

Jeannine Hill-Fletcher, The Sin of White Supremacy: Christianity,Racism, and Religious Diversity in America Paperback (Orbis Books:2017)

Robert P. Jones, The End of White Christian America (Simonand Schuster: 2016).

Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Origins of our Discontents (RandomHouse: 2020)

Malcolm Gladwell, Talking to Strangers: What We ShouldKnow About the People We Don't Know (Little, Brown and Companh:2019)

Documentary "Driving While Black" chronicles thenational history of this phenomenon: https://www.pbs.org/video/driving-while-black-race-space-and-mobility-in-america-achvfr/

Ralph D. Abernathy, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down: AnAutobiography (Lawrence Hill Books, 2010)

Jemar Tisby, The Color of Compromise: The Truth about theAmerican Church’s Complicity in Racism (Zondervan, 2020)

Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: MassIncarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press: 2012)

“Article 15” is a movie on the Indian caste system & howwoman exploited by it.

Stephanie Jones-Rogers, They Were Her Property: WhiteWomen as Lave Owners in the American South, (Yale University Press: 2019).  

Sathianadan Clarke, Dalits and Christianity: SubalternReligion and Liberation Theology in India (Oxford University Press, 1998)

Robert O. Smith, More Desired than Our Owne Salvation:The Roots of Christian Zionism (Oxford University Press, 2013)

George “Tink” Tinker, American Indian Liberation: ATheology of Sovereignty (Orbis Books, 2008)

 

 

Shanta Premawardhana

President

Shanta Premawardhana is president of OMNIA Institute for Contextual Leadership. Prior to OMNIA, he served as the Director for Interreligious Dialogue and Cooperation at the World Council of Churches in Geneva, Switzerland. He was also the Associate General Secretary for Interfaith Relations at the National Council of Churches, USA. While serving as pastor of Ellis Avenue Church in Chicago, he engaged in community organizing in the Southside of Chicago. He is an emeritus trustee of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, National Council of Churches, USA, and Common Cause Illinois. He earned his Ph.D. at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

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