Dave Andrews explains how he readily recognized that some missionaries were clearly prejudiced against the people they worked with, while it took him many years in India before he realized just how many racist ideas resided his own heart. To correct his attitudes, he drank deeply from Indian Christian culture under the guidance of Indian brothers and entered into a serious dialog with members of other religions to identify the good aspects of each religion.
Dave, his wife Ange, and their family have lived and worked in intentional communities with marginalised groups of people in Australia, Afghanistan, India, and Nepal for nearly fifty years. Dave, Ange, and their friends started Aashiana, Sahara, and Sharan—Christian community organisations working with slum dwellers, sex workers, drug addicts, and people with HIV/AIDS in India. They are currently part of the Waiters Union, an inner-city Christian community network that is walking and working alongside Aboriginals, refugees, and people with disabilities in Brisbane, Australia. Dave is interested in radical spirituality, incarnational community, and the dynamics of personal and social transformation. He is author of many books; his forthcoming book To Right Every Wrong—The Making and Unmaking of One Improbable Minor Prophet will be launched in early 2021. Dave is a lecturer at Christian Heritage College, a trainer for Community Praxis Cooperative, and an elder emeritus for Servants to Asia’s Urban Poor. www.daveandrews.com.au
Racism, Mission, and Me: Some Personal Reflections
Mission Round Table Vol. 15 No. 2 (Sep-Dec 2020): 30-33
I am a white, English-born, Anglo-Australian, well-educated, middle-class Christian. People like me may not want to be seen as racist, and may even sincerely not want to be racist, but it doesn’t help anybody, especially those who may be oppressed by my unrecognised and unredeemed racism, if I protest that I am not racist. I think all cultures encourage us to be racist to some degree or other, and I am no exception.
If we are to deal with our racism, we need to admit it. Racism is the systematic discrimination that advantages the dominant ethnic group we belong to; discrimination is prejudicial treatment that disadvantages a non-dominant group. And while pre-judgment of others may occasionally have a positive survival value, prejudice—or unjustifiable negative pre-judgment—is the basis of all discrimination and racism.
In these reflections, I examine how I came to acknowledge my implicit racial bias as an Anglo-Australian with the help of my Indian friends, and then how I came to address my explicit religious bias as a Christian with the help of my Muslim friends.
I wasn’t aware that I was racist while growing up because I was raised in England as the only white boy in our suburb with two black, foster brothers from Nigeria. And when we moved to Australia, unlike most Anglo-Australians, my mother and father worked closely with indigenous leaders and I had many Aboriginal aunties and uncles. It was only when I moved to India at the age of twenty-one that I was confronted with my racism.
It started when I encountered the racism of some of the missionaries I met. Let me be clear, most of the missionaries I met did not come across as blatantly racist, quite the opposite. But I quickly became aware that when many of them talked of “Indians”, the term was a pejorative that reflected prejudice. “Indian” work was short-hand for “slip-shod, shoddy” work. “Indian” workers were “incompetent, irresponsible” workers. There were two ways of doing things: “the right way and their way.”
One older missionary took me aside when I arrived and told me that I could “never really make friends” with “Indians” as these “Indians” could “never be trusted.” This prejudice led to discrimination when it came to these missionaries making friends. They “ministered” to the Indians, but only made “friends” with the foreigners. When it came to “ministry”, one older couple, who had lived in India for thirty years, told me that we couldn’t preach the gospel properly in Hindi as it was derived from Sanskrit, which was the language of the Vedas, the sacred texts of Hinduism which thwarted any attempt to communicate the “true truth” in the local language. They said I could only preach the gospel properly in English. They seemed to be completely oblivious to the multiple “pagan” influences on the English vocabulary that named the first month of the year after the Roman God “Janus”, named the fifth day of the week after the Norse God “Thor”, and, according to the Venerable Bede, named “Easter”, the most sacred occasion in the English Christian calendar, after “Eostre,” the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring, fecundity, and fertility.
I secretly despised these missionaries and prided myself I wasn’t racist like them. I vowed never to live in a mission compound, but instead chose to live in Aashiana—Urdu for the “nest”—an Indian Christian residential therapeutic discipleship community in Delhi where I delighted in proving these missionaries wrong by developing the best, most-trustworthy friendships I have ever had in my life with dear Indian friends. However, it was these very Indian friends with whom I lived in community, who, in due course, were to confront me with my own racism.
Confronting racial bias
In my experience, many Indians deferred to fair-coloured people, particularly to white people. If a white person turned up at an Indian gathering, they were typically welcomed as a celebrity, asked to be the keynote speaker, and given a seat of honour—often the only seat in the house. I think this deference was partly a function of India’s default to their gracious tradition of extending incomparable hospitality to guests. But I also think this deference was partly a result of centuries of colonisation by waves of increasingly fair-coloured people, from the Aryans, through the Moghuls, to the Angrezee. However, while my Indian friends were always hospitable, they were in no ways deferential. They told me that, whether I liked it or not, I represented the harbinger of yet another neo-colonialist project in their country that disavowed the worst aspects of colonialism but still embodied an implicit “west-is-best”, “white-is-right” bias. One of my friends said, “We have enough problems in India, we don’t need to import them!” I was mortified, but confessed there was no doubt they were right. So to offset this bias, I—along with all the other foreigners who were in our community—agreed to accept the recommendations our Indian friends made to us.
First, we agreed to devote time to an intensive study of the language and culture. We studied Hindustani rather than Hindi because it was the language of the common people. Furthermore, we studied the art, religion, economics, and politics of the society. We were most affected by the culture as it had been reinterpreted during the Indian renaissance in the early twentieth century, particularly the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore, the Noble Laureate Bengali polymath philosopher, composer, and painter, and the politics of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the world-renowned Mahatma of the anti-colonial, nonviolent, nationalist, independence movement.
“Sattal Christian Ashram information video,” 8 July 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OsvMw_XSrXA.
Second, we all resolved to discover the meaning of our faith in Christ within the Indian context from a traditional Indian leader. We felt this was important for all of us, since we had all been brought up in an educational system that had been largely influenced by the West (even those of us who had not been brought up in the West). Thus, we all felt the need to become more in touch with our Eastern context. We stayed for three weeks in Bharuch, a small town in Gujarat in western India and learned from Subodh Sahu, who initiated us all into the Indian art of meditation, an inductive study of Christian Scripture, and dialogue with neighbours of other religions. Later, we invited Archarya Dayaprakash from Sat Tal Ashram to hold a satsang in our house. He introduced us to the radiance of our faith in Christ in the light of other religions. Consequently, we came to understand our faith with contributions from both Western knowledge and Eastern wisdom, forming a uniquely Indian synthesis.
Third, we agreed that we would, within the framework of India and infused by a faith that was Indian, make our decisions about how to develop the community through consensus. There was some debate about whether or not consensus was an Indian practice. Indian people were described by French anthropologist Louis Dumont in 1972 as “Homo Hierarchicus,” suggesting that the very concept of equality was foreign in India. Yet Vinoba Bhave, a National Teacher and spiritual successor to Mahatma Gandhi, maintained that the concept of equality was no more foreign than the Vedas, and the equality of all is vouchsafed in the vedic notion of the Oneness. Moreover, Jayaprakash Narayan, a National Leader and socialist protégé of Mahatma Gandhi, advocated the practice of lok niti—direct participatory democracy, which involved all the adult members of a community—as the archetype of authentic Indian politics. To these disciples of Mahatma Gandhi, it seemed that nothing could have been more Indian than the development of community through consensus. Indeed, this was the Mahatma’s dream. So in our own community, we sought to make this dream a reality, and it is a principle that we practiced with profound effect. As Nimmi Parambi said, “so much precolonial and even postcolonial missionary zeal has been borne of an unconscious spirit of patronism and it has produced a sense of inferiority and shame among Indian people.” In reflecting on Aashiana, Nimmi contended that “a sense of very real equality exists among the members of the community” and “one of the main outcomes of Aashiana has been the gradual restoring of a sense of real dignity for the Indians in the group.”
Fourth, we decided to reinforce this process by seeking to be as financially self-sufficient as we possibly could be. We would take funds to support projects for others, but as much as possible, we would not take money from abroad to support ourselves. In practice, the foreigners had to depend on foreign funds for their personal support, and the local members of the community generated their own income from within the country. One time, a wealthy man from abroad offered us substantial sums of money, and we discussed it and then kindly declined the offer. Another time, when Nimmi Parambi and Susie Mathai’s families offered furniture and a vehicle to the community, they were accepted with much appreciation. This reinforced the sense of dignity in our identity as an Indian community.
Our emphasis on our Indian identity did not eliminate the tension between the foreign impetus and the indigenous shape of the model for our community—nor did it eliminate tension between those from the East and those from the West within the group. Tensions continued to exist. Yet the community intentionally made decisions that would offset the influence of its non-Indian (or even anti-Indian) historical antecedents in order to facilitate the development of a fellowship that would reflect a creative fusion of the East-West tension. To begin with, that fusion had a decidedly Western accent, but it became more mixed with Eastern rhythms. This intermixing was echoed in our name, which is a common Urdu word (not English) that connotes “a place of protection, support, nurture and sustenance.”
Confronting religious bias
Not all prejudice leads to racism, but prejudice always leads to discrimination. As an evangelical Christian in India, I discovered I needed to do more work on myself to deal with the implicit bias in my religious prejudice that led to religious discrimination.
Before I went to India, I studied apologetics. I believed Christianity was the “true truth” as Francis Schaeffer—a prominent evangelical apologist of the time—once famously claimed. Thus, my task as a “missionary” was to witness to the “true truth” claims of Christianity over against the “false truth” claims—that is, lies—of other religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. The pre-suppositional apologetic approach that I was taught to take in relating to other religions was to expose the “unreasonable” presuppositions upon which other religions were based (e.g. the non-dualism of Advaita Vedanta Hinduism), unpack the “unrealistic” implications of those “unreasonable” presuppositions (e.g. with no duality, there could be no morality, no right as opposed to a wrong), and then present Christianity (or at least Schaeffer’s version of a dualistic neo-Calvinism) as the only “reasonable”, “realistic” way to righteousness.
You can imagine how dangerous this technique was in the hands of someone as self-righteous as I. Wielding this tool like a sword, I thought of it as “the sword of the Spirit” which was “sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12). For someone as combative, dominating, and intimidating as I, the conflict between competing truth claims was a creedal, zero-sum game—a win-lose clash of civilizations. I won a lot of arguments, but also did a lot of damage as I often needlessly, heedlessly, publicly shamed many beautiful and sensitive souls who were nurtured in the bosom of an Asian honor-shame culture.
By the time we started Aashiana, which was established by Indians for Indians who came from many other religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, and Islam), I had come to realize that while I might have some knowledge of the “true truth,” my knowledge of the “absolute true truth” was relative, limited, partial, and incomplete. I found that dialogue with people of other religions was not only meaningful, but also mutually enlightening. I was able to proceed on the basis of three beliefs. First, there is only One God. Second, God is bigger than my own religion. Third, God can speak “truth” through my religion and also through another’s religion. But the challenge for me, as a confronting apologist with a confronting personality, has been to move from a position of “hostility” to a posture of “hospitality” towards that “truth” in others.
Henri Nouwen said:
The German word for “hospitality” is gastfreundschaft, which means friendship for the guest. The Dutch word for “hospitality,” gastvrijheid, means the freedom of the guest. Hospitality, therefore, means the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy.
In this sense, showing “hospitality to the truth” means that I, as a white, English-born, Anglo-Australian, well-educated, middle-class, Protestant Christian, needed to seek to create a free space in myself for the “truth of a stranger” or a “strange truth”, which I could welcome and befriend—even when it was spoken to me by a traditional “enemy”.
The “strange truth” in a “strange language” that I have come to welcome as a friend through a more hospitable approach to dialogue with Muslims is the Bismillah, which stands for the Arabic phrase, Bismillahi r Rahman r Rahim, the invocation at the beginning of each surah in the Qur’an (except one). This beautiful, poetic phrase encourages me to seek to work “In the name of God the most merciful, most gracious and most compassionate.” I have welcomed the Bismillah into my home and my heart.
For me, empathy is the heart of compassion. Empathy is the capacity for us to feel how others feel. In the context of interfaith dialogue, Christians and Muslims can seek to empathize with one another as people and try to feel how each other might feel. As we empathize with one another, we can develop interpersonal relationships that bridge the gaps of division, suspicion, and opposition that have set people of our religions over against each other for ages.
In seeking to improve relationships between Christians and Muslims, most people opt for what I call the “problematic approach,” which focuses on problems and tries to fix them. At first glance, this approach may seem to make sense, because if we want to improve our relationship with one another, we will want to identify any problems and then try to solve them. However, when we give the “problematic approach” a second thought, we realize that it is endlessly “problematic,” because when we look for problems, we find lots of them. And the more we look for problems, the more problems we’ll find, and the more we look at all those problems, the bigger, scarier, and harder to deal with they become—until we often find ourselves so overwhelmed by all the problems that we become unable to solve them.
In dialogues between Christians and Muslims, I have seen this happen time and time again. Christians try to fix Muslims, Muslims try to fix Christians, and both sides end up overwhelmed by all the problems and completely battered and bruised by our cack-handed attempts to solve them. Such engagements do not lead to meaningful dialogue, but to the avoidance of meaningful dialogue. When I first met my Muslim colleague Nora Amath, the Chair of Islamic Relief, she said she didn’t want to meet me at first because she knew I was a Christian, and she was sick of Christians like me seeing her as a problem and trying to fix her.
Nora and I have discovered an alternative way to improve relationships between Christians and Muslims, which is the “appreciative approach.” The “appreciative approach” does not focus on the “bad things” in others, but the “good things” in others. At first glance, this may not seem like a way to improve anything, because if we celebrate the “good things” in others, they won’t make any real effort to get any better. But I have found that when we give the “appreciative approach” a second thought, we realize that it is the only approach that will make any of us want to do better, because when we notice the “good things” in each other, we enhance the “good things” in one another, and we can encourage one another to do “good things” more often. As we observe authenticity, honesty, and integrity in the other every time we encounter it, and as we celebrate sensitivity, sincerity, and vulnerability in the other each time we encounter it, our appreciation can lead to meaningful interfaith dialogue that bridges divides instead of widening them.
As I have already said, one of the really “good things” in Nora’s religion that I have come to appreciate is the Bismillah, which Nora says contains the true essence of the Qur’an—indeed, the true essence of all religions. The more I have thought about the Bismillah, the more I have realized that it represents the best perspective of God within any religion. Both rahman and rahim are derived from the Semitic root rhm, which signifies the womb and nourishing tenderness and lovingkindness. Rahman describes the quality of limitless grace with which God embraces the whole world and all who dwell in it, while rahim describes the general embracing grace of God as it interacts with us in the particular circumstances of our lives, always proactive, prevenient and responsive. In talking with Nora, I have gladly and regularly affirmed how much better both our religions would be if we interpreted our sacred texts in a way that reflects a spirituality of the Bismillah. We have both come to believe that we should use this invocation as a hermeneutic to interpret our sacred texts in the light of God’s nourishing tenderness and lovingkindness.
However, how does a “born again” apologist like me affirm the “good things” that need to be celebrated, and still confront the “bad things” that need to be confronted? In Christian-Muslim engagement, people either do not confront the “bad things” that need to be confronted, or they confront the “bad things” that need to be confronted by criticizing them. But when we attack the “bad things” about the other in the name of aggressive apologetics, we make things worse by escalating the conflict that already exists.
The Parable of the Mote and the Beam by Domenico Fetti (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons.
The words Jesus spoke to his disciples about how we can proceed with care when criticizing others have been transformative for me:
Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” while the plank is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye (Matt 7:3–5).
Nora and I have both tried to heed these words of Jesus and encouraged people not to be critically projective, attacking one another’s religions and escalating the conflict, but to be critically reflective, helping one another to confront the “bad things” in our own religions and working to make things better. Such a critically reflective approach can help us work together to resolve the existing conflict between our religions.
For example, rather than criticize the violence in one another’s traditions, Nora and I help one another confront the violence in our own traditions and host conversations within our own families of faith to help those who share our religion to reflect critically, safely, honestly, and vulnerably on interpretations of our sacred texts that have all too often been used as pretexts for violence, such as the contentious “genocide commands” in Deuteronomy or the controversial “sword verses” in the Qur’an.
Those of us from the more dominant cultures, traditions, and religions need to deal with implicit biases that lead to prejudice, discrimination, and racism that are antithetical to the practice of the gospel of love for our neighbor which works with real empathy and respect towards the possibility of authentic reciprocity.
However, like me, no doubt you will find the change required involves a long slow process. Repentance does not consist of a single cathartic moment but a continuous ongoing moment-by-moment willingness to prayerfully confront my contradictions:
Lord grant me
the serenity to accept the people I cannot change
the courage to change the one I can
and the wisdom to know it’s me.
 These missionaries I am quoting were not with Interserve, the mission agency I was associated with.
 Angrezee is Hindi for the “English”.
 Mahatma literally means “Great Soul”, a title that was given to Gandhi by Tagore.
 An ashram is a spiritual community in India. The Sat Tal Ashram is in the Himalayan foothills.
 Satsang is a Sanskrit word that means a traditional Indian “gathering together for the truth.”
 Louis Dumont, Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and Its Implications (London: Paladdin, 1972).
 From my forthcoming book, To Right Every Wrong—The Making and Unmaking of One Improbable Minor Prophet, to be published by Wipf and Stock, 163.
 Andrews, To Right Every Wrong, 164.
 Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out (New York: Doubleday, 1975), 51.
 Metropolitan Museum of Art, Online Collection, Rogers Fund, 1991. The image is a faithful reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. It is in the public domain in its country of origin, the US, and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.
 See Deuteronomy 20:16–17 and Qur’an 9.5a.
 My version of the “Serenity Prayer,” cited in my book Plan Be (Milton Keynes: Authentic, 2008), 2.