The (eventual) death-throes of identity politics

Added about 4 months ago by John Barnett

GUEST BLOG: As part of our March focus on unity in diversity John Barnett, author of Christian and Sikh: A Practical Theology of Multiple Religious Participation, encourages us to have hope that we are moving towards a future of greater acceptance of diversity.

One of the very few hopeful things about President Putin’s attack on Ukraine is that he does not feel confident telling the Russian people what is going on. This stands in sharp contrast toAuthor Photo another evil, the resurgence of discriminatory populism which often uses identity issues – race, religion, nationality, gender and sexuality – to attract followers. In the process it develops a constituency energised by anger and fear of various groups of “the other”, where diversity is a threat and unity a mask for social control. This may start with dog-whistle politics, deniable encouragement of racist and other discriminatory attitudes, but if sufficiently well-received can lead on to open discrimination and persecution.

It is tempting to conclude that we are living through a world-wide and apparently irreversible shift toward crude hatemongering, but a book written twelve years ago both explained the upsurge of the divisiveness we are now seeing and gave reason for long-term confidence that it will not last. In Thriving in the Crosscurrent: Clarity and Hope in a Time of Cultural Sea Change Jim Kenny identified this as one of the times in human history where great cultural changes are happening fast. As that happens there is a time – perhaps three generations – in which the old values, being under threat, attempt to reassert themselves and cause great disturbance in the process. However, Kenny’s thesis is that this resistance is purely reactive and so will inevitably fail as the new values become established. On this basis he encourages us to look to the future with clear-sighted confidence and with hope.

Kenny characterised the old wave as exclusivist in relation to other cultures, religions and value systems, and the new wave as taking an inclusivist or pluralist stance with respect to other cultures. Part of the challenge the old wave is facing is just a matter of fact. In his 2016 Reith lectures Kwame Anthony Appiah showed the complexity of identity features based on creed, country, colour and culture, to which he could have added gender and sexuality. Many, many people have multi-faceted identities in one or more – perhaps all – of these categories. The simplicities on which identity politics relies, the binary “us” and “them”, is dissolving under our feet if it ever made sense, and this dissolution affects attitudes. The project Rewind describes its work with young people who had been identified as influenced by racists, work which had the radical aim of deconstructing the whole notion of race. Their approach includes demonstrating the world-wide genetic cocktail to be found in many people who had always identified, sometimes aggressively, with just one particular race or nationality. Some of the young people who have gone through this programme have testified to how it has subverted their racist tendencies and helped them think again.

Alongside changes brought about by the growing recognition of the complexity of identity there is a deeper change of ethos going on. My area of special interest is religious identity and in Britain this has changed unrecognisably in one generation. I was born in 1951 and, as an active Christian from my teens, remember the thrill of ecumenical worship, particularly when it involved Catholics, with the sense that we were showing up a reactionary church leadership in our shared liberty and hospitality. These days the main complaint about such worship is that it has become humdrum because once-radical displays of unity are now quite unremarkable. The sense of the radical becoming the unremarkable has also occurred in interfaith gatherings. What in the 70’s felt like a theological and social challenge to the wider culture is now a regular part of life in cities, towns and counties throughout the land. There were some key pioneers in both these movements but they bubbled up from a shared heart, the spontaneous shift of an ideal whose time had come.

As well as eddies of resistance Kenny invites us to expect leaps forward, the “emergent,” as people embrace the new wave. This is where I would position my own work in which I have sought to go beyond seeking positive relations between faiths to deliberately blurring the boundaries between them by worshipping as fully as I can as both a Christian and a Sikh.

Objections to such flexibility can be expected from representatives of the old wave, but can anyone see the developments we have experienced in the last fifty years being crushed? If there are times when anxiety about the future does arise Kenny offers a hope and clarity to which we can hold through choppy seas, looking to the time when our unity is built on, rather than threatened by, the wonderful diversity of human life.


John Barnett was ordained in 1977. In 2009, he became Interfaith Officer for the Wolverhampton area of Lichfield Diocese. For a number of years, he regularly worshipped at GKN Sikh gurdwara alongside his continuing Christian ministry until both were disrupted by COVID-19 regulations. His book Christian and Sikh is being featured as part of our March #ThemeOfTheMonth: Unity in Diversity. You can get your copy here!

Please note: Sacristy Press does not necessarily share or endorse the views of the guest contributors to this blog.

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