Right-wing social media users have driven themselves into a frenzy of outrage over a tweet written by a Church of England priest named Jarel Robinson-Brown. The front page of today’s Daily Star features calls for him to be sacked.
I strongly suspect that some of those attacking Jarel are motivated in part by the fact that he is black, gay and left-wing. Mostly, however, they are attacking him for things that he has not said.
Jarel has been accused of insulting Tom Moore, the 100-year old fundraiser who sadly died recently after raising millions for NHS-linked charities. Jarel has also been accused of insulting white British people.
He has done neither of these things.
The tweet in question read:
“The cult of Captain Tom Moore is a cult of white British nationalism. I will offer prayers for the repose of his kind and generous soul, but will not be joining the ‘national clap.’”
Whatever you make of this viewpoint, it is clear that Jarel was not criticising Tom Moore but the use of his memory. Indeed, he described Tom Moore as “kind and generous”. Nor did Jarel attack white British people; he attacked white British nationalism.
It is one thing to disagree with Jarel (which is fair enough). It is quite another to accuse him of saying things he has not said.
Jarel Robinson-Brown removed his tweet on the day it was posted, acknowledging that the timing and wording were insensitive. However, other people, including other clergy, have made similar comments. It is unlikely to be a coincidence that the person who was most attacked for taking this sort of view is black, gay and the sort of person who right-wingers in the Church love to hate.
Now right-wing Twitter warriors who claim to be “free speech advocates” and who regularly attack “cancel culture” have driven Jarel off Twitter and set up a petition calling for him to be sacked. Speaking as someone who has often recieved abuse and even death threats from far-right types, I know that there are few people so easily offended as gung-ho nationalists.
Journalists on papers such as the Daily Star and Daily Mail know very well that accusing people of misusing Tom Moore’s memory is different to criticising Tom Moore. A lot of hate-mongering relies on intelligent people pretending to be stupid, well-trained journalists acting as if they cannot understand nuance.
Like most people, I admire Tom Moore, who became a celebrity at the age of 99. His fundraising actions suggest he is compassionate, dedicated and courageous. Jarel Robinson-Brown described him as “kind and generous”.
Admiring Tom Moore does not mean supporting people who have misused him to promote nationalism and militarism. The Covid pandemic is a reminder that our compassion cannot stop at borders and that we need to work together to find global solutions. Despite this, Tom Moore is frequently portrayed as somehow representing Britain, as if Covid were a particularly British problem that only British people could solve.
Shortly after Tom Moore’s fundraising efforts began, he was being described as “Captain Tom”, as if his former membership of the army somehow made him more worthy. He later became “Captain Sir Tom” – referred to by three words, only one of which is actually a name. He was made an honourary colonel at the Army Foundation College, where 16-year-old recruits are taught to kill, two years before they are old enough to buy a violent video game. Today, the Ministry of “Defence” tweeted about recent activities undertaken by the UK armed forces and claimed that they were building on Tom Moore’s legacy (they conveniently failed to mention their key role in training the Saudi forces bombing civilians in Yemen).
It is possible to criticise all these developments without attacking Tom Moore himself. We can also celebrate Tom Moore while also praising the other people of a similar age who have also undertaken heroic fundraising efforts during the Covid crisis. Nor is it insulting to Tom Moore to suggest that if Boris Johnson really wants to honour him, he could perhaps commit to funding the NHS properly rather than rely on the charitable efforts of heroic centenarians.
Amongst those who have behaved most deplorably in this situation is the Diocese of London in the Church of England. They rushed to hide behind the pillars of establishment respectability. Their statement began by referring to “Jarel Robinson-Brown’s comments regarding Captain Sir Tom Moore”, ignoring the fact that his comments were not primarily about Tom Moore but about the reaction to his death. The Diocese’s statement contained several sentences criticising Jarel Robinson-Brown and one short sentence criticising the racist abuse he is now receiving. “A review is now underway,” it said ominously. “Led by the Archdeacon of London”.
Faced with a choice between backing a prophetic voice under attack or siding with the forces of establishment and nationalistic outrage, it is rarely difficult to know which position the leadership of the Church of England is likely to take.
Contrast the treatment of Jarel Robinson-Brown with Richard Poole, a Church of England vicar in Surrey. Last year, Richard Poole criticised the Black Lives Matter movement in his sermon and spoke about race in such a way that a black churchwarden resigned. Poole’s bishop defended him after a rather vague apology. The story barely made the media beyond the Christian press and the likes of Piers Morgan and Laurence Fox did not take to Twitter to criticise him.
Thankfully, while church leaders are rushing to grovel to the right-wing lynch mob and side with the idols of nationalism, the London wing of the Student Christian Movement, the LGBT+ Society at King’s College London and the Anglo-Catholic Socialist Collective have all bravely issued statements of solidarity with Jarel Robinson-Brown.
It is a reminder that the future of Christianity lies with grassroots movements, not with institutional denominational leaderships. It is at the grassroots that Jesus’ gospel of love and liberation is most faithfully proclaimed and lived out.