The Searchlight Educational Trust has recently published Fear and HOPE. This report, based on extensive polling research, gives a fascinating snapshot of current attitudes to identity and extremism in Britain today.
The report captures both the good and the bad. It demonstrates widespread suspicion of ‘the Other’ – especially Muslims – and shows growing support for a non-violent alternative to the EDL. A clear correlation between antagonistic views of immigration and economic pessimism means that in the current fiscal context the issue is only likely to worsen.
One the more encouraging side is the apparent fluidity of attitudes to identity, and in particular the openness of younger people. Furthermore, a huge majority of people reject anti-Muslim extremists as being as bad as Muslim extremists. Around 60% of respondents believed that positive approaches – including community organising – were the best way to combat extremism in their communities.
The report is worth reading for its empirically based insights into the current situation. It highlights graphically the dangers of leaving the issues of race, immigration and integration unaddressed. The report’s authors deliberately throw down the gauntlet to the political classes to confront the issue head-on. As Jon Cruddas MP argues in the Foreword, the core findings of the report “should ricochet through the body politic”.
Yet while the report is focused on “the politics of identity” it also raises interesting questions for Christian readers. If the imperative to respond is so great for politicians, then surely it must be so for church leaders too. Does the church today articulate a robust enough “theology of identity” in an age when the search for belonging and community seems to be growing?
Of course there are Christians articulating answers. Organisations like the Presence and Engagement Network are beginning to address this question by resourcing church leaders and congregations. Recently, the Contextual Theology Centre helped secure a bid by the Church Urban Fund to run the Near Neighbours programme. Yet however valuable they are these remain limited in resources and geographic reach. It is also obvious that Christians need theological resources as well as practical ones to feel equipped for the debate that is becoming unavoidable.
How do we affirm our common humanity with those of different cultures and religions while also engaging with the very real concerns felt by the majority of the population? In seeking to be hospitable to the alien in our midst, who might the church risk alienating? How can the local church be a catalyst for community cohesion?
These questions and more need to be answered. In the meantime, Fear and HOPE provides a much needed look at the state of the issue today.