It is now over three weeks since the appalling killing of George Floyd. The subsequent period has brought protests, questions about historical monuments and deep soul searching for many of us about our own complicity with the evils of racism. I had intended to write on this a while back- but my brain is slowing down in lockdown and I have been struggling to write anything beyond what should be obvious. However, there comes a point where it is important on behalf of the church here to state the obvious- even if I am making no claims at all that what follows breaks any new ground.
The Bible condemns racism and has the ultimate antidote to it
“In the image of God, he created them; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27). Here is the essential foundation of humanity. Every single one of us is made in the image of God and is equal in dignity, worth and value. We are all part of one race- the human race made by God. Any hint that any human being is superior to any other on the grounds of gender, age or ethnicity is anathema to the Bible and abhorrent to God. This is a message that we should be proclaiming loud and clear. Last year I made my first visit to the States and enjoyed visiting the Statue of Liberty, with its exhibition speaking of America’s understanding of freedom and equality since the 18th century. As I walked round I was struck powerfully by what was missing- the fact that the concept is as old as the Bible, or indeed as old as creation. In passing, it is worth saying that to a younger generation that prizes equality (see the number of sporting stars taking the knee) it is vital that we communicate that this can only ultimately be grounded in a God who conveys human worth.
More than that, the Bible celebrates a range of ethnicities and nationalities. One of the most beautiful pictures in the whole of Scripture comes from Revelation 7- where you see those from every nation, tribe, people and language praising God. In heaven the range of backgrounds is still evident but with complete harmony.
All this is possible because of the work of Jesus on the cross. By his death he breaks the wall of sin that separates us from God. But as Ephesians 2 tells us, he also creates a new humanity- a group where ethnic divisions are swept away as we enjoy a shared relationship with God through Christ.
For a Christian to be guilty of racism, therefore, is to trample upon both God’s plan in creation and Christ’s work on the cross. More positively, the Bible provides the resources for racism to be countered.
But, we need to say more. I am not sure many Christians are guilty of overt, malevolent racism. Where I have been challenged over the last few weeks has been in more subtle areas.
We should be glad that there is less racism in society than previously- in passing, a warning against our tendency to view previous generations as an eptiome of Christian virtue. But it remains the case that in the UK, black families experience greater poverty than white families, the criminal justice system is not always fair and, across the board (including in the church) there is an under representation of black leaders.
I know there are concerns about the wider ideology of Black Lives Matter and questions about the wisdom of conducting protests in the midst of a pandemic. But we do need to say clearly that the injustice that black people often experience matters deeply. We have just finished working through Habakkuk as a church and I regret not having made the point in the opening sermon- Habakkuk’s anguish emerged not from personal circumstances but his outrage at the injustice that he saw before his eyes. Perhaps the most challenging material that I’ve come across this year was some writing from Matt Searles on the Psalms. He wrote about the Psalms that we don’t know how to handle- those which cry out for God’s justice and vengeance on the proud. We tend to shuffle past these with a silent wish that they weren’t in the Bible. But Matt commented that we don’t pray these because we tend to be fairly comfortable and, more challengingly, don’t care sufficiently about our brothers and sisters who do face injustice. And the evil of racism is a prime example of this- we should feel anguish at it and cry out to God because of it.
So here is one of my learning points from the last few weeks- I need to care, speak and pray more about the evil injustice of racism. That might be true for you as well.
We need to listen
In a sense I’m glad that my weary brain didn’t allow me to rush to write- because it gave me the opportunity to listen to black Christians so I could begin to understand their experience. It is well worth reading the account of Shai Linne. I would also give time to listen to a very useful interview with two black FIEC pastors, who describe life in churches very much like ours. And for those who want something longer (but also accessible) I enjoyed the chance to read Ben Lindsay’s book “We need to talk about race” over the weekend. All of them describe in a really helpful manner the impact of racism on their lives- essentially living with prejudice that those who are white don’t experience. We must listen to these stories for the nature of the church is that when one part of the body suffers we all suffer with it- and so it is right for us to pay attention to the challenges our brothers and sisters face.
One comment that came up in both the interview and Ben Lindsay’s book was this- it is not enough for the church to be diverse, it must be inclusive. I am thrilled that, as a chur h, we have a diversity of backgrounds, nationalities and ethnicities on a Sunday. But the follow up call is simply to make sure that everybody is equally included within our friendship groups, ministry teams and leadership. There can be a base instinct simply to befriend people of my generation, background and interests. But the nature of Christian discipleship (just think the Good Samaritan) is that boundaries must be crossed to form friendships. I need to reflect on how well I do that. As to the future- one of the reasons I am longing for the day when we can gather again as a church is to see what we can do to become an increasingly inclusive community.
The murder of George Floyd was an appalling evil that flagged up the ongoing injustice of racism around the world. Perhaps the only benefit is that it gives us all the chance to reflect.