Racism, Mission, and Me: Some Personal Reflections

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 Andrews

 

 

                        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 WrongThe 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. 3 (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.

Recognising prejudice

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.[1] 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.[2] 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[3]  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[4] to hold a satsang[5] 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.[6] 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.”[7]

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.”[8]

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

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