Some thoughts on the dangers posed by Identarianism and the Vampires' Castle—And address before the church's AGM

READING: Matthew 6:1-15 

In my minister’s comments in the Annual Report (which you can read in full at the end of this address) you will have seen I feel that

. . . looking around and seeing the seemingly inexorable rise of intolerant nationalisms as well as an increase in conservative social and religious rhetorics . . .  many of us here are beginning more and more to appreciate that, as stewards of a powerful reasonable, emotionally and intellectually intelligent, open-hearted and minded, tolerant religion that is deeply rooted in the European democratic liberal Christian and Enlightenment traditions, we really do now have a duty to get our inclusive message heard more widely.

This brief address introduces you to two very contemporary examples that make this point pretty strongly. But, before I introduce you to Generation Identity and the Vampires’ Castle I need to lay before you the general liberal religious issue at stake, namely, repentance (“metanoia”, that is to say a “turning around” or a “change of heart”) and forgiveness both of which, of course, lie at the heart of Jesus’ teaching.

Jesus’ whole way of being in the world clearly indicates that, although the basic nature of human beings allows them to make — again and again — mistakes that range from the merely thoughtless, ignorant and stupid to the downright culpable and evil, they also have a nature that is always-already capable of making a radical change of head and heart and so of praxis — we can start living in different, better, more healing and compassionate ways. Because of this capacity, as our biblical reading reminded us, Jesus was acutely alert of the need to foreground forgiveness as a central element in any good life. In his teaching (which is, alas, oftentimes very different from Christian teaching) there is absolutely no sense at all that he thought humans have some fully predetermined, essential identity but are instead, ever learning, developing, evolving creatures capable of initiating change for the better in ourselves. Of course, we are not in control of everything in this matter — to think that would be to commit the always dangerous sin of hubris — and the “graceful help of God” in all this (if one is minded to put it that way, and today I am) is to be found in that we are creatures who have been gifted with an existence in which this transformative capacity is in play. It’s astonishing to recall that the church eventually turned this into what is called the Pelagian heresy — a particularly British heresy named after the monk Pelagius.

However, as you’ll now hear, the Identitarian youth movement and the occupants of the Vampires’ Castle do not agree with us on this point and to them, in turn, I now turn.

The by now Europe-wide Identitarian movement was originally derived from the French Nouvelle Droite (New Right), Génération Identitaire and Unité Radicale and it now forms part of the so-called counter-jihad movement and is often described as forming part of the global alt-right movement.

You may unknowingly already have come across them thanks to their attempts last summer to use a small ship called the “C-star” to patrol Libya’s coast forcibly to stop any migrants they came across trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea into Europe. This came to the attention of the mainstream British media primarily because the columnist Katie Hopkins, still at the time writing for the Daily Mail Online, decided to offer her support to this initiative by sailing with them.

But you will have had to be following the news pretty carefully to have noticed that two weeks ago, on Saturday April 14th in Sevenoaks, there was a meeting of the newly formed British group called Generation Identity which was followed by some scuffles which broke out between them and those protesting against them.

Even the most cursory examination of their online literature will reveal that they are constantly talking about what they believe to be distinct and mutually exclusive “ethno-cultural identities” and, although they say they “insist on a world of plurality, peoples and cultures” and that they “believe in true diversity”, they have absolutely no sense of this being possible except through repatriation of people into distinct homelands for any person who doesn’t fit their definition of who is ethnographically and culturally European — in particularly this means anyone who is either not to their eyes an obviously a white European or whose religion is Islam.

To achieve this division of cultures and ethnicities they explicitly state their desire to engage in what they call a Reconquista (“reconquest”) of Europe. The term Reconquista is one they have borrowed from what they describe as “the historical event of the Visigothic kingdoms successors’ gradually recapturing the Iberian Peninsula, which had been held by Muslim conquerors.”

I could say much more about Generation Identity, not least of all how their ideas are seeping more and more into mainstream European and British youth culture but I’ll leave it there for the moment and turn from the right to the left end of the political spectrum.

On the left a different, if clearly closely related, phenomenon has slowly been developing — it’s something that the cultural theorist Mark Fisher (1968-2017) named in 2013 as the Vampires’ Castle. But in the Vampires’ Castle the “us” and “them” division is made, not on the basis of ethno-cultural claims but on claims about a person’s moral guilt. Here’s how Mark Fisher puts it:

The Vampires’ Castle specialises in propagating guilt. It is driven by a priest’s desire to excommunicate and condemn, an academic-pedant’s desire to be the first to be seen to spot a mistake, and a hipster’s desire to be one of the in-crowd.

Fisher named it as he did because the people who inhabit the Vampires’ Castle feed

. . . on the energy and anxieties and vulnerabilities of young students, but most of all it lives by converting the suffering of particular groups — the more ‘marginal’ the better – into academic capital. The most lauded figures in the Vampires’ Castle are those who have spotted a new market in suffering — those who can find a group more oppressed and subjugated than any previously exploited group, [and it is success in this endeavour which will ensure they] will find themselves promoted through the ranks very quickly.

I hope you can see that identity is playing a powerful role here too but, in the Vampires’ Castle the “us” and “them” division is, as I have just noted, one made on the basis of moralisation.

Let me give you a recent high profile example of what I mean, namely that of the British journalist and former Director of the New Schools Network, a free schools charity, Toby Young (b. 1963). You may remember that in January of this year the current Conservative government appointed him as a non-executive director on the board of the Office for Students (OfS). However, it was quickly revealed that he had a truly appalling record of writing articles and posting thousands of tweets that were often sexist, homophobic and which set about belittling those whom he called “universally unattractive” working-class students who had not had the privileged, private education he had had. This is not even to mention his open support for eugenics and selective breeding, nor his generalised scorn for things like the provision of wheelchair ramps in public buildings. Together they revealed a man whose attitudes showed he should not be serving in a body like the OfS.

But many on the left did not simply attack him on the basis of the evidence — that clearly needed to be done — instead they followed perfectly the fourth of the five laws of the Vampires’ Castle Fisher sees constantly in play. The fourth law is to “essentialize” and here’s how Fisher puts it:

While fluidity of identity, pluarity and multiplicity are always claimed on behalf of the Vampires’ Castle members . . . the enemy is always to be essentialized. Since the desires animating the Vampires’ Castle are in large part priests’ desires to excommunicate and condemn, there has to be a strong distinction between Good and Evil, with the latter essentialized. Notice the tactics. X has made a remark/has behaved in a particular way — these remarks/this behaviour might be construed as transphobic/sexist etc. So far, OK. But it’s the next move which is the kicker. X then becomes defined as a transphobe/sexist etc. Their whole identity becomes defined by one ill-judged remark or behavioural slip. Once the Vampires’ Castle has mustered its witch-hunt, the victim . . . can reliably be goaded into losing their temper, further securing their position as pariah, the latest to be consumed in feeding frenzy. 

Now it may be, indeed it seems likely, that Toby Young still believes all the things he once did and that he needed to be challenged on them and removed from his post — something which, alas, didn’t happen even though, thankfully, he chose to resign. None of that worried me, but what did was the way the left proceeded in general because it showed that in their world there is no longer any possibility for a change of heart and mind nor, of course, for the existence of any kind of forgiveness. In their minds because Toby Young had said transphobic/sexist things therefore he was, for-ever-and–ever-world–without-end-amen essentially a transphobic/sexist man. I personally don’t hold out a great deal of hope that Toby Young will any time soon repent and truly change his ways but, with all my strength, I’m going to keep alive a belief and a Universalist Christian practice that says repentance and forgiveness are always possible — even unto the very end of time.

As your minister, I’m compelled to struggle my hardest to ensure that an eternally divided world dominated by Identitarians and inhabitants of the Vampires’ Castle in which repentance and forgiveness is no longer possible does not come into being, and a church such as this can and should play a key role in this struggle.

“So what can we do now?” asks Fisher. His advice from back in 2013 still seems to me sound: we must always be rejecting “identitarianism, and to recognise that there are no identities, only desires, interests and identifications”; it is to say out loud and clear that every articulation made by anyone must always be taken as “provisional and plastic” and to see that “[n]ew articulations can always be created”; it is to be shouting out from the roof-tops that “[n]o-one is essentially anything”; and, in my opinion, it is lastly to live very publicly according to Jesus’ precept which we repeat each week in The Lord's Prayer, namely, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

The existence and increasing influence in our modern culture of both Identitarians and inhabitants of the Vapmire Castle is, on the day of our AGM, a powerful reminder of why it is so important for us to support, maintain and even grow a congregation rooted in the radical, liberal Christian and Enlightenment tradition such as this. Our relevance and need for existence has not been as great as it now is for at least a century and so I thank you all, from the bottom of my heart, for your continued support of this community.

Amen.

—o0o—
MINISTER'S REPORT FOR THE AGM

For a good few years now I have noted in this report that I felt we were still in a period of marking our time as we try slowly to reassess what kind of role we as a four-hundred and fifty year old liberal religious movement might meaningfully be able to play, not only in our own personal lives, but in the wider world of the city of Cambridge and beyond. That we might collectively be beginning to sense something of what that role could be is indicated in the very full year about which our secretary eloquently speaks elsewhere in this annual report. That we had the courage (and modest financial ability) to trial a student ministry is another powerful indication that this is so. If you have not already done so then please take a look at the report prepared for us and for the annual meetings of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches by Susanna Hartland. It can be found at the following link:

https://www.cambridgeunitarian.org/about/student-ministry

It’s been a joy and a privilege to see this work unfold over the year and my heartfelt thanks go out to everyone who has been involved in these projects.

Now, in talking with members of the Cambridge congregation during the last encouraging year and as we have all been looking around and seeing the seemingly inexorable rise of intolerant nationalisms as well as an increase in conservative social and religious rhetorics, I feel that many of us here are beginning more and more to appreciate that, as stewards of a powerful reasonable, emotionally and intellectually intelligent, open-hearted and minded, tolerant religion that is deeply rooted in the European democratic liberal Christian and Enlightenment traditions, we really do now have a duty to get our inclusive message heard more widely.

In my weekly addresses to you I try to offer you various ideas and possibilities we might explore to help us do this but, as the old adage has it (notwithstanding that I try never to give sermons), a sermon preached is not a sermon done and so, unless a sustained, considered collective conversation soon begins amongst us about how to make our liberal religious and democratic message better known, we will simply remain an interesting, but ultimately inconsequential, liberal voice crying in the wilderness.

The big success of last year was ensuring our buildings became accessible and inviting. The success of next year (and the years to come) will be seen in how well we can make our liberal religious/philosophical community as equally inviting and accessible. But as we do this we must remember that buildings and religious and philosophical community are not at all the same. Buildings must not present a challenge to their users but religious and philosophical community must, so we need to recall that we are not talking here about developing a simplistic popular message that offers people merely a liberal comfort-blanket but about delivering a powerful, nuanced but sometimes unpopular message that taps the two sacramental energies of religion namely limitation in the face of hubris and for transformation in the face of complacency.

Of course, it won’t be easy to do this, as our student ministry project revealed. But that it must be attempted is, to me, beyond question. So, in the coming year, I invite you to join  the conversation about how you can actively support this church and help to get its much needed message out into the world.

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