You can see why it might seem a bit faddish or “woke”. MPs are being offered training in unconscious bias: the idea that some of our beliefs may be held so deeply that we are unaware of them. And some politicians don’t want it.
“Leftist infiltration,” the Mansfield MP, Ben Bradley, calls it. It’s Orwellian, too, apparently, as well as an example of “metropolitan groupthink”. But in fact there’s nothing new about it, because one institution has been offering its own kind of training in unconscious bias for roughly 2,000 years: the Christian church.
The conventional Christian understanding of sin seems to me entirely consistent with ideas about racism that appear to some as modern. Christianity asserts that sin is embedded deep in the human condition. Racism is one of its vilest manifestations; there is every reason to expect it to work in us as sin does generally.
Christianity understands that sin isn’t all about the bad things we consciously do. As various liturgies put it, we sin not just “through our own deliberate fault”, but also “through negligence, through weakness”. We “have left undone those things that we ought to have done”. One can sin by omission.
Which takes us to the idea that people can be unaware or ignorant of their own failings. It’s about as orthodox as it gets. According to the gospels, Jesus spent much of his ministry decrying self-righteousness, attacking those who believed themselves to be untouched by sin. He deployed an array of striking images in his condemnation: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” he asks. Elsewhere, he calls some of the moral arbiters of the day “whitewashed tombs”.
Further, we are often driven by forces and desires we fail to grasp or fully apprehend. Saint Paul was honest about this. “I do not understand my own actions,” he wrote. “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” He went on: “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” More of us could do with that self-awareness. We can say we hate racism, we can campaign against it, we can damn others as racist. But that doesn’t make us immune to it.
And because institutions are made by people, it follows that these too can harbour and nurture and propagate sin. They may not know are doing it, or want to be doing it. They may say they’re not doing it; they may even say they oppose it. Yet they may still do it.
Given all this, it is a scandal that the church has so often given succour to racism. It has, from time to time and place to place, been an agent of this sin or a complicit bystander; for example, we see today in parts of Eastern Europe how churches can give their blessing to xenophobia and ethno-nationalism.
Yet there is another story. When orthodox Christian concepts of sin, justice and hope come together, we see change. It is surely no surprise that arguably the two most significant anti-racism movements of the 20th century had as key figures men of the church: Martin Luther King and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
There are those who say the church should talk about sin less. I say it should talk about it more. The bleak stuff is a part of it, because it is a part of us. But allied to it are remarkable, life-giving ideas the world needs more of: repentance, atonement, forgiveness, redemption, salvation. And most radical of all is the conviction that, in spite of all our failings, each of us has equal, infinite and inherent worth, and each of us is loved.
I dare say that other religions and philosophies teach something similar. The complexity of human nature has been explored in art through the ages, from Hamlet to I May Destroy You. The theme endures, I believe, because it is fundamentally compassionate and true. Just as each of us is capable of virtue, so too is each of us prone to vice. We need not be self-pitying or hand-wringing about it, but we are all a bit messed up and we would do well to acknowledge this.
The notion of unconscious bias, therefore, need not make us feel attacked or condemned. It invites us instead to accept our humanity in a spirit of humility. MPs may not necessarily be known for the latter quality, but surely anyone would benefit from understanding themselves better. Some of the criticisms levelled at this particular programme, such as its tone and cost, may be justified, yet its core message is as important now as it has ever been. The words may be modern, but the wisdom is ancient.
• Peter Ormerod is a journalist with a particular interest in religion, culture and gender