There’s nothing like a European Union flunky complaining about colonialism to trigger off a hernia. There’s also nothing like the grand panjandrum of Britain’s colonial church lecturing us on the evils of Empire to activate my haemorrhoids. So, step forward, Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury.
I’m the mongrel child of two colonialisms—Portuguese and British. I can face Jeremy Paxman on University Challenge and recite the name of every Governor General who ruled India. I can beard ‘Queen of Mean’ Anne Robinson in a Weakest Link den and spit out the date on which British troops gunned down a thousand Indians at Jallianwala Bagh. Blame my history teachers! They drilled this data into my hippocampus all through my school years in Bombay.
So when Justin Welby fulminates against the British Empire like an over-enthusiastic extra on the film sets of Attenborough’s Gandhi, I should be praising him, not pillorying him with juicy jibes. Instead, I am a crying, talking, sleeping, walking, living refutation of Welby’s grievance gibberish. Why, oh why, am I not churning my colonial victimhood into a cottage industry and selling imperial resentment and colonial guilt souvenirs to lefty tourists shopping on Outrage Street?
Because, whether Welby likes it or not, it was the colonial power of Portugal that brought me the good news of the Lord Jesus Christ. And, astonishingly, this is what the Archbishop is slamming in his recent lecture on evangelism that he dishes out like tangled spaghetti.
When preaching the gospel to people of other faiths, His ‘Umbleness Archbishop Uriah Heep stresses “the need to be conscious of our colonial history and how it has impacted other faiths in Britain today.” Yup. If you’re British, you need to flagellate your pallid, freckled bottom and moon it before Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs so they can see you shedding your white privilege and confessing your colonial guilt before you tell them God loves them and Jesus died for their sins.
“How are British Christians heard when we talk of the claims of Christ by diaspora communities who have experienced abuse and exploitation by an empire that has seemed to hold the Christian story at the heart of its project?” asks Welby.
Justin Welby’s grasp of colonial history and the post-colonial Diasporas in Britain is as prodigious as Jamie Oliver’s knowledge of string theory in quantum gravity. Where historians and angels fear to tread, Justin Welby, Sultan of the Superficial, dares to rush in like the Gadarene swine on steroids.
When Welby speaks of “diaspora communities” the church is seeking to evangelise, he is alluding primarily to Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs originating from British India (which encompassed Pakistan and Bangladesh). Welby’s claim that the British exploited and abused these religions while holding “the Christian story at the heart of its project” is not only as phoney as a three-pound banknote, but is dangerous nonsense.
Why? Because far from promoting Christianity in India, ‘the jewel in the crown’ of its Empire, the “ever cautious and pragmatic” British East India Company “studiously avoided tampering with religious institutions.” On the contrary, its “policies of ‘non-interference’ and ‘religious neutrality’ aimed to demonstrate to all in India that their Raj was neither ‘Christian’ nor in favour of missionaries,” writes Professor Robert Frykenberg in Christianity in India: From Beginnings to the Present. “The Indian Empire was, fundamentally if not formally, a Hindu Raj,” observes Norman Etherington in Missions and Empire.
Indians know how British administrators paid for the upkeep of Hindu temples using British taxpayers’ money. Thousands of pounds were poured into sponsoring the great Jagannath festival at Puri (from which we get the word ‘juggernaut’). “Authorities in India remained extremely nervous about anything that ‘Hindu’ supporters might see as threatening their hallowed institutions and stood ready to summarily expel any missionary, or discipline, and even dismiss, any overly zealous officer whose tactless actions provoked social unrest,” writes Frykenberg.
William Carey, known as the ‘father of modern missions,’ was forbidden from entering British Bengal and only allowed into Calcutta as Professor of Oriental Languages at Fort William College, even though the Baptist missionary was seeking voluntarily to go to India to preach the gospel. British missionaries entering British India faced stiff resistance and were summarily reprimanded or even deported if they disparaged Hindu or Muslim practices as ‘devilish’ or ‘heathen.’
Only after considerable pressure from William Wilberforce, Charles Grant, and the Clapham Sect did the British Parliament reluctantly agree to send ‘missionary chaplains’ to India—and these had to limit themselves to serving British staff in India. Only in 1813 did Parliament partially lift the ban on missionaries entering India.
Guess what happened, Justin? Missionaries landed and established modern English schools, thereby laying the foundation of the well-organised modern educational system in India, which for the first time in three millennia was open not just to high-caste Brahmins, but also to the most lowly untouchable.
Welby patronisingly treats the colonised as mere subjects. Historians, however, recognise colonised Indians as actors, collaborators and even subversives. Ironically, Christian missions gave rise to Indian nationalism and the fight for Indian independence as the efforts of missionaries “brought counter-currents of religious renewal, social reform, and the eventual rise of nationalisms,” observes Etherington.
Cambridge historian Brian Stanley agrees: “Christian missions have often been seen as the religious arm of Western imperialism. What is rarely appreciated is the role they played in bringing about an end to the Western colonial empires after the Second World War,” he writes in Missions, Nationalism, and the End of Empire.
Welby also ignores completely the role of indigenous evangelists who did far more than missionaries to spread Christianity belying the image of Christianity as the ‘white man’s religion.’ After all, the ancient Syriac churches had existed in India as early as apostolic times and had been entirely indigenous for centuries.
Indian historian James Elisha Taneti explores how women as “informal agents and professional preachers” led their families and communities in conversion movements towards Christianity. Some of these women led and served their communities as schoolteachers, nurses, and Bible women. In his monograph Caste, Gender, and Christianity in Colonial India: Telegu Women in Mission, Taneti explains how the British administration opened up education and employment to the marginalised segments of Indian society, “inadvertently provided them space to renegotiate their social standing.”
Evangelical missionary preaching and the legal protection to make religious choices under the British Raj not only “muddied the cultural norm” but the “exposure to modernity resulted in dissent within the dominant and heightened the aspirations of the disenfranchised for reforms. Taking advantage of the cultural unrest and educational opportunities, the subjugated groups pursued their struggles against the status quo and made inroads not seen before.”
Welby’s anti-colonial screed a la Edward Said and the Empire-bashing brigade does not arise from his passion for evangelism. It arises from “the conviction that Western culture is constitutively defined by a virtually uninterrupted series of crimes visited upon other groups: blacks, women, homosexuals, natives of the Third World,” as Indian-American author Dinesh D’Souza stresses, and that Western Christianity is complicit in this colonial conspiracy.
Eerily, by arresting street preachers and clamping down on Christianity through its draconian policies, today’s British government is repeating what the colonial administration did in India—preventing Christian mission—this time in Britain! And Justin Welby is colluding in this anti-Christian enterprise by hanging the millstone of colonial guilt around the necks of today’s Christian missionaries.