by Dr Kevin Hargaden and Dr Steven Horne
Dr Kevin Hargaden is the Director and Social Theologian of the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice. He is the author of Theological Ethics in a Neoliberal Age (2018) and co-author of The Parish as Oasis (2022).
Dr Steven Horne is the first Romany from the UK to be awarded a PhD in Theology (November 2020), and is a Licensed Lay Minister in the Church of England. He is the author of Gypsies and Jesus: A Traveller Theology (2022).
Centuries of Hate
When was racism invented?
That might sound like an odd question, since we know that human communities are practically incapable of resisting prejudice, discriminatory bias, and the tendency to project all our troubles on to an identifiable hated group.
But racism is not a synonym for prejudice. It is a “diseased and disfigured social imagination” which constructs and justifies a hierarchy of humankind and then weaponises that to achieve some other aim. The Greeks suffered from an appalling cultural superiority, despising and pitying those who lived outside their borders (“Barbarian” etymologically derives from βάρβαρος – all who could not speak Greek). But this linguistic and cultural prejudice was not coded by a complex arrangement of biological (and pseudo-biological) categories – ranging from skin-pigmentation to cranial shape – along with geography, language, religion and all the other elements that we can see functioning in racism.
In this view, racism is an alloy of our hatreds which only became possible for us to forge with the advances in Modernity. The discovery by Europeans of new lands, the invention by Europeans of new classification systems, the invention by Europeans of new weapons, all together created a context where European powers could commit to a view of the world where some people are the norm and others are not, and to explain that division not by myth or the partisan passions of tribalism, but by science. We fail to understand something important about the world we live in if we do not understand the world that they lived in: Their genocidal colonial projects were not (just) naked power grabs whereby they could enrich themselves and increase their power. It certainly wasn’t straightforwardly motivated by the desire to save “the heathen” with the good news of the Christian gospel. It was a civilisational project justified by cutting-edge science. The arc of history bent towards the racially superior. You may protest and lament that fact, and some people did, but it was understood to simply be the way of the world.
Interrogated historically, a good candidate for the beginning of racism might be the Egyptian Act, passed by Henry VIII in 1530. With this law, we find a people group identified, negative traits and nefarious intentions ascribed to them, and the authorisation to administer the State’s power to marginalise them – quite literally. These “subtil, and crafty” people were not “Egyptians” but an “outlandish people” so described. Coming up on five hundred years later, these people are known as “gypsies” or “Roma” or “Travellers”. The names have changed, but their position in the racial hierarchy persists. That this racial imagination had to be invented and imposed is further displayed by the fact that though Irish Travellers are subject to the same social marginalisation, they have a different ethnic origin, arising from displacements within Irish populations that may have followed the genocidal violence of Cromwell’s New Model Army, along with other traumatic events. Rather than an outlandish people, what we find when we consider the history of racial hatred towards Travellers is an outlandish fiction.
In this essay, we will consider the place of theology in the communities who have struggled under such racist prejudice for half a millennium and explore what wider academic discourse can learn by attending to Traveller theology.
Theology from Within the Halting Site
Dr Steven Horne is the author of Gypsies and Jesus, a 2022 book which may turn out to be the first major work of theology informed by the Christian practices of Gypsies, Roma, and Travellers (GRT). He is a lay licensed minister in the Church of England, and leads a team that is renewing a church in Canterbury under the “Fresh Expression” stream – experimental approaches to mission that adapt to local cultures. A candidate for ordained ministry, he will, all going well, be ordained in 2024. Dr Horne is also a Romany gypsy.
Gypsies and Jesus opens with the intention of “taking back the pen” from “gorgers” (non-GRT people) and rewriting the social narrative that has been offered. It is a work that straddles History, Sociology, and Cultural Studies, while never losing either its open exploration of religious practices within GRT communities or its ability to offer constructive theological proposals. My colleague in the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice, Peter McVerry SJ, has often remarked that if Irish Travellers had darker skin, Ireland would be known as one of the most racist societies on Earth. Reading Gypsies and Jesus I was repeatedly struck by my own vast ignorance of groups of people I call my neighbours. That settled people can settle for knowing so little about their neighbours is a clear sign that some form of racial oppression is at play. That ignorance of reality is required because our cherished stereotypes only survive in the darkness.
In an interview with me, Dr Horne explained that the Egyptian Act was not the only explicitly racist legislation that has been passed against GRT people. “It was 23 years after slavery was abolished in this country [the United Kingdom] that gypsies and travellers were finally recognised as free people,” he said. How can this not be more widely known? How can such outright oppression not be at the forefront of our thoughts when we consider anything to do with GRT communities? Drawing on language first developed by the ground-breaking professor of Romani Studies, Thomas Acton, Horne spoke of “forgettory” – the “structured and intentional ‘amnesia’ that allows Roma and Gypsy historical and religious narratives to be reversed, altered, or forgotten.” The social narrative we sustain about Travellers needs to be rewritten because in lieu of fact and detail, we have anecdote and generalisation.
Horne’s particular contribution to a new narrative is a theology written from the “edgelands”, that territory into which GRT people are pushed, “the place beyond the walls of common culture”. This location – “physically, spiritually, mentally” – is of course fertile ground for theological thinking. It can never be forgotten that Jesus was pushed outside the city walls before he was crucified. He eternally identifies with “the least of these” (Matthew 25:31-46). For Christians, the margins are where we find our centre. And for Horne, the camp – what in Ireland is commonly called the halting site – is almost an entire cosmos to itself. Scholars have come to recognise that the creation narratives unfolded in Genesis 1-3 are accounts of YHWH building for Himself a verdant, ordered but bustling garden which he intends to share with his creatures. And as Horne articulates it, the camp reflects this ordering against chaos. A strict divide is established, not just as an understandable sociological response to the alienation inflicted on GRT peoples by gorgers, but to create a space clear of the pollution of settled peoples. The common complaint that Travellers make a mess of a place is, in fact, a dire inversion of the reality. A defining characteristic of GRT culture is a preoccupation with cleanliness, articulated through the concept of Mokhhadi, meaning pollution. Preserving purity and preventing pollution is the goal of Mokhhadi, “a methodical practice that is intended to maintain health (physical, mental, spiritual) and order (social, familial, religious).”
The general ignorance about concepts like Mokhhadi connect us to the deeper historical forgettory of settled people. But it also illuminates the pernicious contemporary social narrative at play around GRT communities. How often have we heard of complaints of littering and pollution around halting sites or temporary dwelling places? Horne explains that this is invariably not a problem created by the Travellers, but by the settled people, oftentimes enabled by local government. “If you went on the camp itself, I’d put money on it that it would be absolutely immaculate” but the settled people know that they can likely dump their rubbish nearby and not be prosecuted. Local authorities “set Travellers up for failure,” by operating out of the ignorant prejudice that they are a nuisance to settled neighbours and then turn a blind eye while settled people become a nuisance to Travellers.
A Traveller Race Theology
Whether we understand it as its own movement or as a seam of Liberation Theology, one of the most significant theological movements of the last century has been Race Theology. Classically associated with the work of the American theologian, James Cone, whose Black Theology and Black Power and A Black Theology of Liberation, first published in 1969 and 1970 respectively, cracked open an entirely new, critical conversation within the church and the academy. That conversation has broadened and deepened immeasurably in the decades since, but Horne’s work may be understood as part of the next iteration of that dialogue.
Religion still plays a central role in the lives of GRT communities. One of the subtexts of Gypsies and Jesus is how this element of culture is easily overlooked by the State or NGO activists; “a secularisation of gypsy practices which brings out a sort of desperate plea from Gypsy and Traveller groups worried about losing our culture.” Indeed, GRT communities are one of the groups in European culture who have arguably become more religious in recent decades, stemming in a large part from a deeply influential and long-lasting Pentecostal revival that emerged in France in the 1950s. Horne notes that the standard social narrative we share holds that “confidence and reassurance and empowerment within communities come from education – that’s the typical social inclusion account. But for us, actually, it is happening through the church.” It is impossible to work with or for Traveller communities without working to understand the religious and spiritual aspect of their shared life.
Gypsies and Jesus is an excellent introduction to those practices and commitments, framing the religious life of GRT communities in terms not just of doctrines believed in but in priorities favoured, the significance of cultural and spiritual separation, the attention to the body and to the homeplace, and the complex interplay between Scripture, lived experience, and a strongly sacramental view of the world. But it also makes a striking set of theological claims that are of relevance to all Christians, regardless of whether they are gypsies or gorgers. Delving into another phenomenon that is not widely understood – the idea of racial purity within GRT culture –Horne explodes the idea of a “pure bloodline” on theological grounds. Granting that cultural distinctiveness is a good thing to be treasured, he argues convincingly that the idea of a biological basis for culture should be anathema. “At the point of human inception, we all share the same source. As such, dismantling ideas of racial purity and letting Christ reclaim them, is not something that weakens us – whoever ‘us’ is – but is something that transforms our Kingdom living into his Kingdom living.” When Horne argues later that “grace – not blood” is the foundation of any GRT community, he clears space for an account of GRT identity which is distinct, vibrant, and not racialised. Theology offers the intellectual tools to escape the captivity of the racial imagination that has been constructed around the lives lived by Gypsies, Roma, and Travellers for the last five centuries.
Conclusion: Seeking Deeper Understanding
In the 1970s, James Cone shocked the church from its immoral slumber on racism by declaring that God is black. Horne reminds us that Christ is Traveller. Theology that treks to the Edgelands and recognises the Nomadic motif that runs through the bible is a theology that can awaken to the vibrancy of faith practiced in the GRT communities. Attending to the relationship between Gypsies and Jesus is clearly an important endeavour for those within the church.
But for those outside the church who seek to oppose the racism faced by GRT communities, this theological dimension is also essential. At one point, Dr Horne argues that to stop being called thieves, Travellers have to let settled people erase their culture. Given the choice between holding on to their way of life and being alienated or enjoying a grudging form of inclusion at the cost of assimilation is a definitional example of how a society can disregard a person’s dignity. While there have been important advances in the State’s stance towards Travellers, and a welcome change in how the State talks about the Traveller community, no one could suggest that Travellers are warmly welcomed by wider Irish society. The nature of racial prejudice means that an individual Traveller is always being judged. Seeing beyond the stereotypes and the generalisations is the first step to chipping away at this systemic oppression. The hesitance to consider religious culture as a topic of significance or interest is ideological. It should be seen and named as such. You cannot be an ally if you decide in advance what slices of your neighbour’s culture you will engage with.
Most significantly, Dr Horne’s work is of value to GRT communities themselves. In his own account of how he ended up becoming a theologian, he consistently found that no matter how widely he read on issues relating to Gypsies, Roma, and Travellers, “I didn’t see one part of myself in there.” The theological gap he has begun to fill is existentially important to individuals and communities. “The reasons why we keep our practices, the reasons why people keep themselves separate, the reasons why we have different ideas, the reason why we would endure suffering – none of them make sense if you take God out of the equation.”