Monthly Archives: April 2019

An Anatomy of Hate Speech

April 2019 Pulse

On 19 March 2019, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam disclosed that there are plans to conduct a ‘proper debate’ in Parliament on issues such as race, religion and hate speech. This announcement came in the wake of the horrific shootings in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, which claimed the lives of 50 Muslims. A 28-year-old Australian man, whom media describe as a white supremacist and a member of the ‘Alt-right’, is responsible for the brutal massacres.

Minister Shanmugam states that tough laws must be put in place to tackle and curb hate speech, but rightly emphasises that this must be the work of everyone in society. ‘So, we have been (actively working on), and we have to continue to actively work on, bringing people together. Without that, it will not work. Who is the we? It is all of you. Every community, every group, every religious leader and, of course, the Government. All working together to achieve this.’

Hate speech, of course, is not a new phenomenon. Throughout history, hate speech – in one form or another – has been used as a tool to legitimise the persecution, discrimination, hatred and murder of select groups of people. Hate speech has been employed especially in war and in times of conflict and unrest.

However, with the advent of the digital media, hate speech can be effectively disseminated and spread to large swathes of the population. Even more insidious is the fact that because digital media has a wide catchment area, hate speech, which is ordinarily reckoned as extreme by most, gets the appearance of being universal. Because of its reach, digital media can ‘normalise’ hate speech and thus extend its damage.

But what is hate speech? On the surface, the answer to this question seems pretty obvious. But the fact is that hate speech is notoriously difficult to define, making legislation against it difficult to implement.

Several regional and international bodies have attempted to provide a comprehensive definition of hate speech. For example, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe defines hate speech as all forms of expression which ‘incite racial hatred, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and all forms of intolerance, since they undermine democratic society, cultural cohesion and pluralism’ (Recommendation No. R(97)20).

According to the Report by the Equality and Anti-Discrimination Ombud of Norway, the Norwegian Criminal Code § 135 describes hate speech as speech that threatens or insult someone, or speech that incites hatred, persecution or contempt for someone because of their: (1) national or ethnic origin (including skin colour), or (2) religion or belief, or (3) sexual orientation, or (4) disability.

The Report elaborates that regardless of its motivating reason, hate speech has many common denominators. ‘It is often built on negative stereo-types, prejudice and stigmas, and it effects both individual and group dignity and reputation in society.’ Those who engage in hate speech often use exclusionary rhetoric to play up unfounded fear or contempt for a particular group.

The most extreme types of hate speech are those that would incite violence or hate crime against the group that is despised or discriminated against. ‘In its most extreme form,’ the Report states, ‘hate speech comes in the form of threats, glorification of violence, incitement to violence, death threat rhetoric – and in some cases in combination with violence and murder, i.e., hate crime.’

The many harmful effects of hate speech have also been carefully documented and discussed. Hate speech, which denigrates a targeted group (e.g., Muslims or Jews), also encourages the victimisation of that group. This generates deep anxieties and worries among members of the targeted group, which usually forms the minority of the population. Researchers have also found that hate speech has a contagious effect, and often results in even more hate speech.

Hate speech is an affront to democracy. This is because the people who are victims of prejudice and hate often avoid speaking out for fear of backlash and further harassment. And, in a multi-racial and multi-religious society like Singapore, the polarising effect of hate speech will jeopardise the social cohesion that we have worked so hard to foster.

Christians who are called to love not only their neighbours (Mark 12:31), but also enemies (Matthew 5:44) must of course reject the practice of hate speech because it not only demonises the other, but it also unfairly and damagingly tars the whole group with the same brush. Hate speech therefore violates the dignity of the other and subjects him to unfounded prejudice and unjust discrimination. In other words, hate speech dehumanises its victims.

While hate speech must be roundly rejected as a harmful and pathological way of treating the other, what constitutes hate speech is, as I have alluded to above, difficult to ascertain and identify. Although the definitions cited above may look straightforward and compelling at first glance, closer examination will immediately show that this is not in fact the case.

For example, according to the Norwegian Criminal Code, hate speech is speech that threatens or insult someone, or speech that incites hatred. Barring very extreme cases, what is ‘threatening’ or ‘insulting’ is in fact very subjective and mostly debatable. The definition offered by the Council of Europe that hate speech is that speech which incites racial hatred, xenophobia and intolerance is similarly problematic. This is because speech that is deemed to be inciting such attitudes is quite often subjected to a variety of interpretation. In addition, the context in which such speech is made can clarify as well as obfuscate the matter.

In their paper published by the Icelandic Human Rights Centre, Jóna Aðalheiður Pálmadóttir and Iuliana Kalenikova notes that ‘Hate speech is a complicated concept and there is no internationally accepted definition or understanding of it.’ ‘[A]lthough many countries have passed legislation prohibiting hate speech,’ they add, ‘what is defined as hate speech varies significantly between countries and regions.’

There are those that define hate speech in the narrowest way possible in order not to impose undue restrictions to the freedom of expression. For example, the free speech advocacy group ARTICLE 19 while eschewing hate speech believes that ‘offence should never be a basis for restricting expression, even if it is discriminatory …’ Furthermore, it maintains that direct blasphemy of a particular religion or insulting the religious feelings of a particular faith community should not be considered as ‘hate speech’. For this group, the only kind of speech that must be deemed unlawful is speech that incites violence on a particular individual and group.

But the lack of consensus on what hate speech entails has a more sinister consequence. It allows extremist groups to use the rhetoric of hate speech to silence all forms of criticism or challenges to their ideologies and agendas.

In an article published in this space entitled, ‘Islamophobia Phobia’ (March 2017), I cited the case of the sexual abuse of at least 1,400 children in the South Yorkshire town of Rotherham by Pakistani gangs from 1997 to 2013. The official inquiry revealed that although the police, city authorities and child protection agencies knew what was happening, they chose not to do anything about it because they were afraid of being accused of ‘racism’ and ‘Islamophobia’.

In the hands of extremists ‘hate speech’ can become a powerful political tool to conceal the truth by preventing it from being told. Even appropriate and legitimate public opprobrium or censure of the behavior or agenda of a particular group can be labeled as ‘hate speech’ and condemned as racist, intolerant, or bigoted by that group. Hate speech can force the public to adopt a form of self-censorship (a self-imposed gagging order) that can be detrimental to the security of our society and its members.

Laws against hate speech, which are meant to protect the dignity of certain members of society (especially those belonging to a minority group), may be used by unscrupulous extremists in a way that not only goes against public interest, but also puts the larger society at risk.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

Science and Theology as Analogous Research Programmes

April 2019 Credo

Richard Dawkins, the famous British atheist, famously asserts that since science works, it must be true and we must believe what it says. If Christianity clashes with science, so much the worse for Christianity. For this reason, some college students are persuaded to abandon their Christian faith once they conclude that it has been discredited by science.

The perception that science has discredited Christianity is based on two assumptions. First, the results of science are empirically verified and indubitable in contrast to the unverifiable claims of Christianity. Second, Christianity not only lacks explanatory power; it is in conflict with the empirical findings of science. For example, God becomes redundant once evolution explains the origins of species and inflationary cosmology explains the origin of the multiverse. We are reminded of the famous incident when Napoleon Bonaparte questioned Pierre Laplace why his large book on cosmology never mentioned the Creator, to which Laplace retorted, “I had no need of that hypothesis.”

However, neither Dawkins nor Laplace should be given the last word. There are other eminent scientists who do not agree that there is conflict between science and Christianity. Furthermore, science itself faces several intractable problems.

First, we note the problem of induction. For example, scientists apply the following process of reasoning when they try to identify a sample of clear liquid in a flask.

Hypothesis: If this liquid is water, it should boil at 100 degree Celsius. [If P then Q]

Experimental result: This liquid boils at 100 degree Celsius. [Q]

Scientific conclusion: This liquid is therefore water. [Therefore, P]

It is apparent that this form of reasoning commits the logical fallacy of affirming the consequent: [If (1) P then Q, (2) Q, (3) Therefore, P].

Second, science can only produce probabilistic truth claims. That is to say, no amount of repeated testing can generalize a universal truth claim. The prediction that “the sun will rise from the East” has been confirmed to be true billions of times. But this does not guarantee that “the sun will rise from the East” tomorrow. In short, no amount of observation can absolutely confirm a theory.

Third, David Hume has pointed out that science is beset by a serious epistemological problem. He noted that while Newton’s theory of gravity has been successful in explaining motion, in reality we can’t observe the forces themselves. Likewise, while we may conclude that a ball causes another ball to move after they collide, in reality we never observe or experience the forces of the collision. We don’t see the causal interaction between the balls, but we cannot help believing some kind of metaphysical “stuff” causes the interaction. Hume concluded his Treatise of Human Nature with a caution for epistemological modesty for scientists: “We are only acquainted with its [the appearances of objects] effects on the senses, and its power of receiving body. Nothing is more suitable to that philosophy, than a modest scepticism to a certain degree, and a fair confession of ignorance in subjects, that exceed all human capacity.”

Karl Popper seeks to evade the problem of induction by arguing that the method of science is not verification but falsification, that is, it proposes bold conjectures and tries repeatedly to show them false. A theory is scientific if it is able to state in advance what will count as falsifying it. If it is falsified by reliable and reproducible experimental results, that theory must be abandoned.

Popper seems to have proposed a neat solution to ensure that scientists maintain their methodological rigor. However, Thomas Kuhn argues in his classic book, The Structure of Scientific Revolution, that in practice, scientists do not conform to Popper’s stringent requirement. For example, scientists did not abandon Newton’s theory of gravitation when they discovered that the orbit of Uranus deviates from the path predicted by Newtonian mechanics. Instead, they resorted to post hoc explanations by positing that the irregular path of Uranus must be due to gravitational interference by a yet unseen planet further out of the solar system. Their conjecture turned out to be true!

The history of scientific controversies suggests that scientific observation and testing is theory-laden and influenced by background assumptions. Scientific knowledge is not built on indubitable foundations; it is rather held together as a web of theories/beliefs (W.V. Quine). Theories with the strongest supporting evidence are located at the centre while the weaker and contested theories are located at the fringe. The testing of truth claims is carried out in the context of a reigning scientific paradigm – a disciplinary matrix that comprises a comprehensive set of interlocking laws, theories and applications. The paradigm is accepted or rejected as a whole, based on criteria like simplicity, empirical fit and explanatory power.

Imre Lakatos suggests that science is built around a “hard core” of background theories which generates a “research programme” of “auxiliary hypotheses” for the purpose of testing. These “auxiliary hypotheses” may be altered or abandoned in response to their test results. They form a “protective belt” so that the “hard core” is not under pressure to be altered immediately, if not abandoned upon every scientific testing. Nancey Murphy applies Lakatos’ methodology to theology – the “hard core” would be the Trinitarian doctrine of God, his holiness and revelation in Jesus. “Auxiliary hypotheses” may be theoretical like original sin or practical like Jonathan Edward’s tests for valid signs of a work of the Holy Spirit.

The view that science comprises a hierarchy of truth-claims was actually presaged by John Warwick Montgomery in his article “The Theologian’s Craft.” (1966). He took a cue from Charles Peirce who described scientific investigation as a process of “abduction” whereby the scientist starts with a set of observations and then seeks to find the simplest and most likely explanation. The scientist uses his imagination in the abduction process to generate cycles of theory formation and testing in order to devise conceptual gestalts (or patterns of meaning and interpretation) within which data observed in nature is made intelligible.

As mentioned earlier, theological inquiry is analogous to scientific investigation as it specifies which theory (doctrine) forms the core that is immune to immediate testing, and which theories serve as “auxiliary hypotheses” to be tested. The Bible is the repository of irreducible objective historical facts and truths of divine revelation.  The core theory of divine revelation is that Jesus as God incarnate died for the sins of the world and rose again for its justification. The task of the biblical scholar is to discover how the truths of divine revelation were progressively revealed and developed in the Bible. The task of the systematic theologian is to work out the revealed truths discovered by biblical scholars in order to demonstrate their proper relations to the core truth and to construct conceptual gestalts that ‘fit’ the revealed truths in their mutual relations so that they capture the unity and essence of revealed truth.

Both science and theology formulate “auxiliary hypotheses” or “conceptual gestalts” (doctrines) as indirect tests for the veracity of their core theories. The test for scientific theory is whether it explains the observed physical phenomena while the test for doctrine is whether it gives a coherent explanation of the facts of religious experience. The similarities between science and theology extend to cases where truth claims are upheld despite their paradoxical nature. For example, scientists uphold the paradox of the wave-particle theory to explain the contradictory properties of subatomic phenomena while theologians uphold the conceptual gestalt of the Trinity to explain concrete religious experience. In these cases, both the scientists and the theologians are humbly subordinating their theory to match the data at hand.

Michael Polanyi notes that science is not merely an impersonal execution of an abstract algorithm of research. It entails “connoisseurship” that includes transmission of research skills from master to apprentice, the art of problem solving and discovery, and shared commitment to scientific values. Scientific knowledge is not merely objective; it is intensely personal as it requires “conviviality” as scientists are bonded together by shared commitment (faith) to scientific values in their common enterprise. Likewise, theological inquiry is intensely personal. Doctrines are not impersonal construct as they serve as guideposts which set priorities for Christian life. For example, the doctrine of Trinity may appear abstract to the uninitiated, but it touches the prayer life of the theologian.

Scientific theories and doctrines are accepted by the research and interpretative community because of their explanatory power for empirical observation and religious experience. The profound truths uncovered by science and religion should elicit awe and wonder. To quote Immanuel Kant, “Two things fill my mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe, the more often and the more intensely the reflection dwells on them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”

Dr Ng Kam Weng is Research Director of Kairos Research Centre in Kuala Lumpur. Previously, he had been a fellow at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies and a member of the Center for Theological Inquiry at Princeton University. From 1989 to 1992 he taught at the Malaysia Bible Seminary Graduate School. He has a PhD from Cambridge University.

Towards an Ethos of Responsibility in Southeast Asia

April 2019 Feature

Are member nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) accountable actors that care and provide for their own peoples and societies?  Do they conduct themselves in ways that reflect a felt sense of obligation toward their neighbours?  In a word, are ASEAN countries hospitable, are they responsible?

The violence perpetrated against the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar’s Rakhine State by their own government, and the tepid responses of many ASEAN countries toward Myanmar vis-à-vis the resulting refugee crisis, appear to suggest otherwise.  Indeed, the Rohingya crisis, some would say, is but the latest in a long litany of travesties in the region.  They are rendered the more tragic, so critics have contended, because of the apparent refusal by countries to protect not only their own populations, but those of their neighbours, from plights and tribulations whether natural or manmade.

Southeast Asia has long been viewed as a region whose governments jealously guard their national interests and mind their own business, or who are vociferously reminded to do so by aggrieved neighbours who invoke the ASEAN principle of “non-interference,” deploying it as one might a charm to fend off unwanted criticism or intrusion.  The concept of national sovereignty in Southeast Asia is ostensibly understood and upheld by ASEAN countries as the exclusive, enduring and inalienable right of nations to be undisturbed from without.  This view is absolutely consistent with international law.  It becomes a problem, however, when governments repress their own peoples—ironically, the very ones to whom they are or should be accountable—in the belief that they have the right to do as they please.

In the 1990s, developments in regional conflict management in Africa led the Sudanese diplomat and legal scholar Francis Deng and his associates to advance the ground-breaking notion of “sovereignty as responsibility.”  For Deng and friends, sovereignty is not merely about the rights of nations but equally their responsibility to perform the tasks expected of effective governments and to meet the needs of the societies under their care.  In the 2000s, this re-envisioning of sovereignty was further developed by an international commission into “the responsibility to protect,” which the United Nations subsequently adopted and refined into a doctrine regarding the protection of populations from grave harm.  Stressing that nations are obligated to protect populations against which crimes against humanity—such as genocide, ethnic cleansing and war crimes—are being carried out, the UN took the extraordinary step to sanction the use of “timely and decisive” military intervention by the international community against errant governments guilty of those offences.

Despite endorsing the responsibility to protect at the UN, the ASEAN countries did not back the notion of military intervention.  But while their ambivalence towards the responsibility to protect was not unique, combined with ASEAN’s categorical support for non-interference, the perceptible net effect was that of a region whose self-centred inhabitants cared little for each other.  Global norms may have evolved but the actual conduct of many nation-states is still working to catch up.

Be that as it may, developments in Southeast Asia over the past several years suggest change is afoot.  As a consequence of their growing awareness of and shared concern over the rise of transnational challenges facing the region—natural disasters such as devastating tsunamis and cyclones, viral epidemics like the 2003 SARS crisis, economic shocks like the 1997 financial crisis—the ASEAN countries and their dialogue partners have been developing mechanisms aimed at enhancing their capacities to assist one another and to respond collectively and meaningfully to those challenges.

In the area of disaster relief, they have formed the ASEAN Militaries Ready Group to support humanitarian missions, endorsed standard operating procedures for the utilisation of national assets in humanitarian emergencies under the ASEAN Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response (AADMER), and sought ways to enhance the interoperability of the region’s armed forces when executing those missions.  In the area of economic recovery, they have put in place the Chiang Mai Initiative, a currency reserve pool for relieving ailing economies under duress.  Despite the absence of any legal obligation to assist, ASEAN countries have sought to aid and assist one another, whether on their own or collectively through any of the ASEAN-based regional mechanisms and platforms.

Ultimately, in a region still wedded to the non-interference principle, the onus in times of emergencies rests with the affected countries themselves to invite the help of international organisations and other countries.  However, this logic does not free the others from their obligation to assist.  Both recipient and provider equally share the responsibility to furnish succour, safety and security to affected populations: the recipient through her grant of consent and invitation; the provider through her contributions of aid, assistance and the like.  Indeed, a prospective provider cannot not respond to the prospective recipient because their very identities are predicated upon conditions of sociality rather than of autonomy.  In other words, the fundamental importance of the other to my very being is such that without her and her infinite demand for my hospitality, there can be no ‘I’ or self.  As Zlatan Filipovic has written, “One is a subject only and insofar as one is awakened or ‘sobered up’ to responsibility for the other person.”

The path towards an ethos of responsibility in Southeast Asia is neither simple nor straightforward.  So far, the signs that aspiration is being translated into reality are promising but embryonic.  According to the ethicist Philip Hallie, “Deeds speak the language of the great virtues far better than words do.  Words limp outside the gates of the mystery of compassion for strangers.” Responsibility is as responsibility does, and Southeast Asia would be the better for it.

Dr Tan See Seng is Professor of International Relations at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and concurrently Deputy Director and Head of Research of the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies. 

Pastoring with the Fathers

April 2019 Credo

In the past three decades, a number of Christian writers have commented on the way in which the role of the minister has morphed in modern evangelical Christianity.

In 1934, William Adams Brown and Mark A. May conducted a major study on clerical roles, the results of which were published in four volumes. In the main, the study identified five major roles of the minister: teacher, preacher, worship leader, pastor and administrator.

About fifty years later, in 1986, another major study was conducted which saw the minister’s roles expand from five to fourteen. What is even more alarming is that for many evangelical churches, technical and managerial competence are deemed to be more important than traditional ministries like preaching, teaching and pastoral care.

In addition, the pastoral ministry is being increasingly professionalised. As David Wells puts it, ‘It is being anchored firmly in the middle class, and the attitudes of those who are themselves professionals or who constantly deal with them are increasingly defining who the minister is’.

As a result, the minister is no longer regarded as a pastor-theologian and spiritual guide. He is now seen as a CEO.

The twin dangers of secularisation and professionalization must be addressed if the biblical and theological vision of the pastoral ministry is to be preserved. How are we to do this?

One way to do this is to return to the authoritative sources of the Christian faith, an approach that the Roman Catholic Church calls ressourcement. In this brief article, I turn to the writings of two of early Christianity’s most illustrious theologians to see what might be gleaned from them that would serve as correctives to the modern distortions of the ministerial office.

The first is Gregory of Nazianzus’ Second Oration (also known as De fuga) that was preached shortly after Easter of 362. And the second is John Chrysostom’s On the Priesthood (De sacerdotio), a document that many scholars date between 388 and 390.

These two treatises represent very different genres and were written with very different purposes in mind. De fuga is an apology that was preached before a liturgical assembly, while On the Priesthood is a dialogue between Chrysostom and a friend.

Even a cursory reader of these treatises would be struck by the high view of the office of the priest or the minister they espouse and present. Priests, according to Chrysostom, ‘are entrusted with the administration of things which are in Heaven’. Referring to Matthew 18:18, he argues that priests have been given an authority that ‘God has not even given to angels or archangels’ – the authority to ‘bind and loose’.

The ministers in God’s Church, he adds, are superior even to the Jewish priests. The latter only has the authority to examine a physical body and pronounce it to be free from leprosy. But Christian ministers and priests ‘have authority to deal, not with bodily leprosy, but spiritual uncleanness – not to pronounce it removed after examination, but actually and absolutely to take it away’.

The early theologians’ exalted view of the office of the minister is clearly premised on their understanding of the priesthood as spiritual vocation.

According to Fr Joseph Carola SJ, the early fathers of the Church understood the function of the priestly or pastoral office in terms of the triple munera: the munus regendi, the munus docendi and the munus sanctificandi.

Gregory describes the munus regendi (the duty of pastoral governance) as the ‘art of arts and the science of sciences’. Now, when the fathers speak of governance they do not have in mind the management of the Church in the way we moderns understand it. Rather pastoral governance for them has to do with spiritual healing, with the cure and care of souls.

In a splendid passage in the Second Oration, Gregory describes what the munus regendi entails. ‘The scope of our art’, he writes, ‘is to provide the soul with wings, to rescue it from the world and give it to God, and to watch over that which is in His image, if it abides, to take it by the hand, if it is in danger, or restore it, if ruined, to make Christ to dwell in the heart by the Spirit: that in short, to deify, and bestow heavenly bliss upon, one who belongs to the heavenly host’.

The munus docendi has to do with the teaching responsibilities of the Christian minister. All the fathers of the Church see this sacred duty of expounding the word of God as at once the minister’s highest honour and his greatest responsibility.

According to Gregory, the minister is the teacher of the faith and the defender of the truth. It is by humbly fulfilling this role that the minister truly serves the people of God.

The counsel that these ancient spiritual writers give to Christian ministers has a surprisingly modern ring to it. Chrysostom instructs ministers not to be populist, that is, not to be swayed by the cultural currents of the day or threatened by criticisms, especially those from the ‘outside world’. ‘Let, therefore, the man who undertakes the strain of teaching never give heed to the good opinion of the outside world, not be dejected in soul on account of such persons’, writes the golden-mouth Preacher.

The minister should instead be his own harshest critic, as he measures his ministry against the high standards set by God himself. In his quest to fulfil this great responsibility, the sole aim of the minister must be to please and honour God: ‘For a sufficient consolation in his labours, and one greater than all, is when he is able to be conscious of arranging and ordering his teaching with a view to please God’.

Finally, the minister exercises the munus sanctificandi (duty of sanctification), chiefly through the administration of the sacraments. To the minister or the priest is given the authority to ‘bring down the Holy Spirit’, says Chrysostom. The priest ‘makes prolonged supplication, not that some flame sent down on high may consume the offerings, but that grace descending on the sacrifice may thereby enlighten the souls of all’.

Because the work of the minister and priest has to do with administering the sacraments – the means of God’s divine grace – he must apply himself to the pursuit of holiness and godliness. ‘How could I dare to offer to him the external sacrifice, the antitype of the great mysteries, or clothe myself with the garb and name of priest’, writes Gregory, ‘before my hands had been consecrated by holy works … before my ear had been sufficiently opened to the instruction of the Lord’.

This brings me to the most consistent and undoubtedly the most important emphasis of the early Church fathers regarding the Christian ministry, namely, the holiness of the minister. Christian ministry has to do with more than the skills and competence of the minister. It has to do more crucially with the virtuous life of the minister.

As Christopher Beeley puts it in his excellent study of Gregory of Nazianzus, ‘Priestly virtue is … the single most important element of pastoral ministry, above education, eloquence, and social status’. In fact, Gregory explicitly says that ‘to undertake the training of others before being sufficiently trained oneself … seems to me to be excessive folly or excessive rashness’.

Only the minister who is pure in heart will be able to understand the depths of Scripture, ‘rise from letter to spirit’, and penetrate the mysteries of God, writes Gregory. Thus, the Christian minister must continuously train himself in godliness. ‘He should know no limits in goodness or spiritual progress’, insists the Archbishop of Constantinople and theologian, ‘and should dwell upon the loss of what it still beyond him’.

The writings of these ancient theologians contain an uncommon wisdom that every Christian minister in the modern church badly needs, regardless of his ecclesiastical tradition. They provide a compass that would enable those whom God has called to be his servants to navigate the confusing labyrinth that is the modern world, to avoid its insidious trappings, and to be the faithful embodiment of God’s truth which is genuinely counter-cultural and liberating.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

Far-Right Extremism

April 2019 Pulse 

On 15 March, terrorist attacks on two mosques in the city of Christchurch, New Zealand, left 50 dead and dozens injured. The attacks were carried out by Australian-born Brenton Tarrant, 28, who was later arrested by police. Describing it as one of New Zealand’s ‘darkest days’ at a press conference, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern also said that the attack was perpetrated by a suspect with ‘extreme views’ that had no place in the country or the wider world.

Brenton Tarrant is a ‘lone-wolf’ far-right extremist who has no qualms about resorting to violence to achieve his twisted nationalistic ideals. In his online ‘manifesto’ Tarrant admits that he has interacted with many right-wing groups and organisations, but denies being a ‘direct member’ of any. Their profound influence on him is all too evident in these horrific acts.

The Christchurch mosque massacres have highlighted once again the rise of far-right extremism and white supremacism not only in Europe and America, but also in Australia and New Zealand.

Scholars note that right-wing terrorism has been on the rise since the 2000s. The most spectacular instance of this brand of terrorism is the massacre of 77 young people in Norway by Anders Behring Breivik in 2011. Since then, there have been numerous reported cases of right-wing violence: the killing of 11 Jews in Pittsburgh, attacks on mosques in London and Quebec and the murder of British MP Jo Cox.

According to research by the Anti-Defamation League, over the last decade 73.3% of all extremist-related fatalities in the US could possibly be linked to domestic right-wing extremists, while 23.4% were attributed to Islamist extremists.


What does the term far-right extremism refer to?

 Scholars warn that the descriptor ‘far-right’ is extremely slippery because it often suggests a wide spectrum of non-mainstream ideologies and attitudes. This ranges from radical, populist and anti-establishment organised parties that are non-violent to clandestine terrorist individuals and groups that see violence as a means of realising their vision of society.

In similar vein, it is notoriously difficult to arrive at a clear definition of far-right extremism. Although the word has been bandied about by politicians, the press and in social media, there is no consensus as to what extremism entails or who gets to define it.

In his book Radical Right, Pippa Norris points out that there are many different labels for far-right political parties and social groups – ‘Far’, ‘extreme’, ‘radical’, ‘new right’, ‘ultra-nationalist’, etc. He suggests that it is best to see these groups as a cluster or family of parties instead of a single category.


Be that as it may, many scholars agree that far-right extremist groups of whatever stripe may be said to be in some ways opposed to the foundations of liberal democracy. These include ideas about national identity, citizenship and political pluralism well as liberal policies concerning minority groups.

These concerns are intertwined in a profound way in the mind of far-right extremists, especially those who espouse a more militant agenda. One obvious example is how perceived ‘enemies’ are constructed based on the way in which national identity and citizenship are construed by these extremists. When identity and citizenship are primarily, even if not exclusively, defined in purely ethnic (i.e., white supremacist) terms, ethnic minorities are invariably seen as threats.

It is therefore not difficult to see the relationship between far-right extremism and migration. A number of important studies have shown a correlation between the emergence and growth of far-rights groups in Western Europe and the United States and the increase level of migration from Muslim nations and the incidence of Islamic terrorism. Thus, it is not uncommon to find Islamophobia and a spike in xenophobic hate crimes targeted at the Muslim community after a terrorist incident perpetrated by Islamists, even if the attack occurred elsewhere.

Douglas Pratt uses the concept of co-radicalisation to describe this phenomenon. Co-Radicalisation, Pratt explains, is:

… the phenomenon whereby the awareness or presumption by one party that another is fomenting a threatening extremism then precipitates, within the first party, a reactive move in the direction of a like radicalisation even though, paradoxically, the perceived initial extremism of the second party is eschewed and denounced.

Seen in this way, Islamist militancy and far-right extremist violence may be said to serve as catalysts and impetuses for each other, the one group motivating the other to greater acts of violence.

But far-right xenophobia extends beyond the Muslim community. As Sophie Gaston notes, ‘a broader cultural disenfranchisement from particularly white working class communities in parts of Western Europe and the United States has fostered a more focused expression of far-right rhetoric and hate crimes towards more traditional minority targets, such as the Jewish, African American or Roma communities.’

Populism and Extremism

There is also a correlation between the advent of far-right populism, fuelled by the erosion of public trust in institutions, to the rise of right-wing extremism. As Gaston explains: ‘As citizens’ trust in institutions has reached historical lows, the proliferation of a widespread anti-establishment sentiment, propagated by the far-right but also far-left, has goaded appetite for disruptive political forces and “radical” perspectives.’

Consequently, even the more extreme sentiments and attitudes emanating from the far-right crusaders might become less radical sounding and more acceptable to the malcontent general public. Describing this shift, Gaston writes: ‘… it certainly is the case that the proliferation and open visibility of previously “fringe” perspectives on racial superiority, exclusionary language regarding migrant populations, nationalistic rhetoric and ethnically based conceptions of national identity and border policies, are contributing to a more favourable and normalised public environment for far-right extremism that has been the case for decades.’

The internet and social media have been widely and effectively harnessed by far-right populists and extremists as a source of political information and networking tool. Extremists take advantage not only of the ease with which the internet makes the formation of new communities and sharing of ideological material possible, but also the anonymity that it guarantees.

For example, in its 2016 research on far-right activities on Facebook, Demos discovered scores of dedicated pages across four European countries – UK, France, Italy, and Hungary – with hundreds of thousands of posts within the period of two months, contributed by tens of thousands of unique users.

Family Resemblances

Scholars have also noted the striking family resemblances between far-right extremism and Islamist militancy.

Just like their Islamist counterparts, far-right extremists sometimes use religion – in this case, mostly Christianity – to justify their violent acts of terrorism. For example, the members of Christian Identity often claim that their campaign of violence and criminal activities are sanctioned by religion. Sovereign Citizens, a white nationalist group, believes that its doctrines and programmes are inspired and sanctioned by God. And violent anti-abortion extremists in America believe that they are acting in concert with the teachings of the Bible and their online propaganda is often inundated with Scriptural references.

Like the Islamist jihadists, these far-right extremists often use religion to support their own political ideologies and to inspire imagination of some utopian social order that they feel called to bring about. Some employ apocalyptic imageries gleaned from the Book of Revelation to sacralise their political agendas, while others see themselves and their work as the fulfilment of biblical prophecies.

Still others imagine that they are a part of an ancient military order that has been defending Christianity since the time of the Crusades. For example, the Norwegian white nationalist Anders Breivik believes that he stands in continuity with the 12th century Catholic military order called the Knight’s Templar (Order of Solomon’s Temple). In his manifesto, Breivik maintains that Christianity is ‘the only cultural platform that can unite all Europeans, which will be needed in the coming period during the third expulsion of the Muslims.’ Yet he laments that the Church he has in mind ‘does not exist anymore because it has been deconstructed.’

Finally, right-wing extremists and Islamists alike think that their respective communities are being perpetually threatened. For example, Jason Burk notes that ‘For Islamists, the belief that a belligerent west has set on the humiliation and exploitation of the world’s Muslims for the best part of 1,000 years is axiomatic.’

Consequently, both fair-right extremists and Islamists are resolved to resist the ‘tyrannies’ that oppress their respective peoples and communities. The former see the government as their primarily oppressor that must be challenged and fought until their imagined community – often defined by ethnicity or race, as we have seen – is no longer under siege. The latter believe that apostate rulers and regimes should be toppled so that true Islam can flourish.


Needless to say, Christians should have no truck with the extremism and violence of these far-right activists.

The use of Christianity to undergird their ideologies or sanction their (violent) campaigns should be rejected together with their radical politics of difference, ethnocentricity, racism, xenophobia, and their venomous rhetoric of hate and intolerance. The politics of exclusion embodied by these extremists cannot be more antithetical to the command that Jesus gave to his disciples to love not just the neighbour (Mark 12:30-31), but also the enemy (Matthew 5:44).

Let me conclude this article with a word of caution by returning to a point alluded to earlier to underscore its importance in public discourse. It has to do with the word that is often bandied about in various quarters but is notoriously difficult to define, and therefore potentially dangerous. I am referring to that vexingly problematic word ‘extremism’.

What constitutes religious ‘extremism’? Who is the religious extremist? The Oxford Dictionary defines an extremist as ‘a person who holds extreme or fanatical political or religious views, especially one who resorts to or advocates extreme action.’ An attempt to define ‘extremist’ by using the word extreme twice could hardly be described as successful or even helpful.

Be that as it may, arriving at some kind of consensus and clarity about what religious extremism entails cannot be more important in our day. As Jonathan Merritt has rightly observed: ‘In an age of religious terrorism, “extremist” is too damaging a word to be tossed around with such little discretion. When society slaps the E-word on something, it marks it for marginalisation.’

For the secular and uninformed public, certain orthodox religious beliefs and practices may be deemed to be extreme.

For example, in a study conducted in the United States, 60 per cent of Americans would label a person who tries to convert others to their faith as extreme. Forty-two per cent would apply this label to anyone who would ‘quit a good-paying job to pursue mission work in another country.’ And a quarter of those who participate in the study would accord that moniker to a teenage girl who is determined to abstain from sex until marriage.

In other words, a conservative Christian who wishes to be obedient to the Bible and a faithful Muslim who seeks to follow the Koran may be deemed as extreme because their worldviews and actions are at odds with what secular and liberal culture consider as the norm.

When religious extremism is not properly defined, a new kind of intolerance emerges that often leads to the exclusion of those whose views and behaviours the majority deems to be anti-social or simply odd. As Merritt put it: ‘Carelessly painting such wide swaths with a caustic descriptor is its own form of intolerance.’ When there is no clarity as to what constitutes religious extremism, the term can be used to condemn, marginalise and alienate.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.