Racism's Willing Partner: Religious Supremacy

by Rev. Dr. Shanta Premawardhana, President of OMNIA Institute

I write this from Sri Lanka where OMNIA is conducting four leadership training events aimed at building Interfaith Peacemaker Teams designed to stem the religion-based violence that has shaken this country. You can imagine, then, how devastating it was to hear about the shootings in El Paso and Dayton, while training religious leaders and people of faith in peacebuilding. One of the main differences in the white supremacist violence that took place in the U.S. and what’s going on in Sri Lanka is that Sri Lankan citizens don’t have access to assault rifles, gun ownership is strictly regulated, and guns are scarce. But the commonality in both circumstances and in similar situations around the world, is that violent racism is supported and legitimized by supremacist religion.

Easter Sunday worship at Zion Church in Batticaloa, Sri Lanka seconds before a terrorist bomb attack.

Easter Sunday worship at Zion Church in Batticaloa, Sri Lanka seconds before a terrorist bomb attack.

Following the Easter Sunday bombings of churches and hotels in Sri Lanka, Rohan Gunaratna, a Sri Lankan who is one of the world’s leading terrorism experts (one who rarely speaks about religion) in an interview with The Financial Times said that Sri Lankan leaders should spearhead a zero tolerance approach to (religious) exclusivism, in order to prevent it from turning to extremism.[1]

This problem has rarely been acknowledged. Just as much as the Easter Sunday bombings were a result of Islamic exclusivism turning to extremism, and the current hate speech and violence against Muslims in Sri Lanka is Buddhist superiority turning to extremism, the El Paso and Dayton shooters (as well as the Tree of Life Synagogue and the Christchurch, New Zealand shooters) have a direct link to Christian exclusivism and superiority turning to extremism.

OMNIA’s primary training goal is to deconstruct “received” theologies that have exclusivism and superiority as their key attributes, and to reconstruct “contextual” theologies that have pluralism as its key attribute, which results in people learning to love their neighbor as themselves.

We have formed a working group of theological experts and practitioners to think through how we should address Christian supremacy, and its impact on extremist violence.

Our Trainings in Sri Lanka

We just completed an Advanced Training for 16 leaders who committed to build Interfaith Peacemaker Teams in Sri Lanka, and a Training of Trainers for 15 leaders who committed to conduct Basic Trainings in their towns and villages. Bishop Kumara Illangasinghe, our national coordinator, in a public address, declared that the answer to the problem of interreligious tension is to build IPTs in every village in Sri Lanka.

Today, we are in Jaffna and next week to Batticaloa, areas where ten years after the 26 year-long war ended, devastation lingers. The level of talent, enthusiasm and commitment we saw in these leaders makes me hopeful that we are well on our way to making the Bishop’s goal a reality. We currently have 14 IPTs in Sri Lanka. Within a year, I expect that number to more than double.

The latest graduates of OMNIA’s IPT Advanced Training in Sri Lanka.

The latest graduates of OMNIA’s IPT Advanced Training in Sri Lanka.

OMNIA was part of the U.S. State Department’s Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom

OMNIA was part of the U.S. State Department’s Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom

Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom

In July, Abare Kallah, OMNIA’s lead organizer in Nigeria, and I were among 1000 religious leaders invited from around the world, by the U.S. State Department, for its second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, in July. Organized by the office of ambassador-at-large for Religious Freedom, Sam Brownback, the event focused on many countries around the world where religious extremism and government-based repression has hindered people’s freedom to practice their faith.

However, religious freedom is a contested concept. It is often used as code word for “discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia and Christian supremacy” wrote Marty Castro in 2016. Castro, who chaired the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights during the Obama administration is friend and supporter of OMNIA. He traveled with us on our Sri Lanka immersion two years ago.

At our recent Advisory Board meeting, Bishop Munib Younan (Retired Lutheran Bishop of Jerusalem) reminded us that religion is often manipulated by governments to legitimize their own political goals. Indeed, the plight of Palestinian Christians and Muslims was not on the agenda at the ministerial.

Yet, religious persecution is real. Christianity Today ran an exhaustive report[1] of the stories we heard at the Ministerial. Starting with testimonies from the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, a mosque in Christchurch, and a Sri Lankan Christian, throughout the event, we heard from Nigerians, Afghans, Uigher Muslims of China, Tibetan Buddhists, Yazidis of Iraq and many more. A Pew Research Center report[2] issued the day before the Ministerial, notes that religious persecution increased across the board during the decade of their study, 2007 to 2017.

Shootings like what happened at El Paso and Dayton, may not be counted by researchers or media as events related to “religious freedom.” However, I contend that they are events related to religion-based oppression, domination and violence. Since white supremacy is based on Christian supremacy, until we dismantle Christian supremacy, we won’t be able to address white supremacy.

This is our most urgent task.