Cults of white nationalism: In solidarity with Jarel Robinson-Brown

Theologian and Church of England priest Jarel Robinson-Brown has found himself at the centre of a storm after expressing, in a single tweet, his opposition to the national clap for Captain Tom. Robinson-Brown praised the late Tom Moore’s ‘kind and generous soul’, and stated that the ‘cult’ around Moore was a ‘cult of white British nationalism’ in which he, Robinson-Brown, would not participate. Robinson-Brown’s tweet was met with a torrent of outrage, including racist and homophobic abuse, which did not stop after he deleted it and apologised. The Diocese of London issued a statement that focused on the ‘hurt’ caused by the tweet, while also stating that Robinson-Brown’s actions did not ‘justify the racist abuse he is now receiving’. National media coverage has followed, including at least one article that described the (single, deleted) tweet as a ‘rant’.

Much could be said, and is being said by others closer to the sharp end than I am, about this story – about what it reveals of the risks of having opinions in public while being gay and Black; about the failure of a large and powerful organisation unequivocally to condemn the racist and homophobic abuse of a junior employee; about the irresponsibility of media reporting that encourages further attacks on a named individual; and about the ‘chilling effect’ on Church of England clergy, particularly those who are already minoritised and marginalised, who learn that they cannot rely on the support of the hierarchy if they express unpopular views in public.

As a theologian I’m interested in Robinson-Brown’s criticism of the ‘cult of Captain Tom’ as a ‘cult of white British nationalism’ – and also in why there’s so much resistance to that criticism, not least (as we learn) from at least some of the hierarchy of the established church. We might accept for the sake of argument that Robinson-Brown’s tweet was not well timed and was open to misinterpretation, and still recognise the problems the way “Captain Tom”‘s image and story was seized on to reinforce some of the comforting stories we (white) Britons tell ourselves. The story in which we are and were always on the right side of history. The story in which all we need to bring us through a complicated present is a stripped-down memory of a simple and noble past. The story in which we all know what is good – and it looks very much like us, or at least like us as we choose to believe we are, the plucky generous no-nonsense right-thinking Brits who always pull through. We set up our own image on a pedestal and applaud it.

A prophet won’t tell you what you want to hear; a prophet won’t join in the applause. A prophet is there to stop a nation being destroyed by self-worship. And a nation that silences its prophets, in times like these, is asking for trouble.

Today I’ve been thinking about Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the anniversary of his birth. It’s deeply disturbing to me and many other scholars of his work that there is, in the contemporary US, at least one very prominent evangelical figure using Bonhoeffer’s name in the service of… a cult of white nationalism. It should be a warning to all of us of the dangers inherent in the creation and appropriation of heroes and saints, especially when the ‘cult’ of the hero is used to demand unquestioning loyalty to a group or to suppress dissent.

2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Mark Keenan on 6 February, 2021 at 12:49 am

    Captain Sir Tom Moore’s story resonated with so many people around the world because it was a story of sacrifice for the common good. He served his country in during World War II and in his twilight years decided to do something to help his fellow citizens and fundraise for the NHS in a time of national crisis. He was celebrated for his achievements and very quickly became a national hero. His skin colour was irrelevant. All societies and cultures need heroes. We were not putting ourselves or a nation’s past on a pedestal to applaud. We were applauding the admirable qualities of a hero and role model – a Good Samaritan for our times.

    Jarel Robinson-Brown’s tweet was a slur on the name of a good man who had nothing to do with white nationalism. It also implied that anyone planning on commemorating his life though a short applause was a white nationalist. This upset a great deal of people both for the timing, tone and sentiment of the tweet. Of course he is entitled to his opinion and any racist or homophobic abuse is wrong in all circumstances. Sadly, sending confrontational racist accusations on social media often provokes a reactionary response.

    The Good Samaritan did not think about ethnicity, religion or history when he encountered a fellow human in trouble. Focusing on what divides humanity, judging people for immuntable characteristics and dwelling on a history that we are not responsible for achieves nothing for equality and only sows hatred and discord.

    Thankfully, not all priests are prophets.


    • Posted by Danny Smith on 10 February, 2021 at 4:04 pm

      Mark Keenan – I completely agree with your reply to this article and I thank you for posting it. Personally I never at any point, whilst Sir Tom was making his efforts for charity, did I make a link with race or that clapping as a show of appreciation could be described as a ‘white cult’. I feel for Sir Toms family as they obviously did not need this type of unnecessary distress at a time when they are grieving but more than anything I would have loved to have heard Sir Tom himself respond to the tweeted statement and if he made the link with race.


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