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The gospel demands we confront the evil of racism highlighted by the death of George Floyd

Today we have a guest post by FIEC Director John Stevens, which originally appeared on his own blog site. You may not agree with all his observations or conclusions but there are most certainly things to reflect on.

In our church we have been so blessed to welcome people from many different places and cultures and express that we are all one in Christ. But there is still work to do in society, in the church as large and in our own attitudes that we do not always recognise. John writes…

Over the course of the Coronavirus lockdown my family has instituted a Thursday night takeaway and film night. Two of the films that we have watched together Remember the Titans and Hidden Figures have had as their theme overcoming racial prejudice in the United States. Remember the Titans was about the racial integration of a High School American Football team, whereas Hidden Figures was about the contribution of African-American women to the NASA space programme. We have also watched the BBC series Noughts and Crosses, which cleverly reverses the stereotype of racism by fictionalising a Britain which is ruled by a colonising African elite that practices apartheid against the indigenous white population.

What has been so striking to me has been the way that my children have been absolutely outraged by the racism depicted in these films, finding it almost incomprehensible that anyone would mistreat people simply because of their skin colour. The films do not depict white people as abhorrent racists or white supremacists, but it is the ordinary cultural assumption of the legitimacy of the racism depicted that is so shocking. It was a glorious moment in Hidden Figures when the head of the NASA team demands the end of segregated “restrooms” and smashes down the “Coloureds” sign with a sledgehammer. We were cheering him all the way.

I am grateful that my children find the very idea of this kind of racism abhorrent. I remember growing up in the 1970s and early 1980s and, looking back, it was, in all honesty, a racist culture. There was no segregation, and racial discrimination had been outlawed, but there was still a cultural assumption of white superiority and entitlement. After all, immigration had been encouraged post WWII so that there would be people willing to do the jobs that the indigenous people didn’t want to have to do. Racist jokes were the norm, racist language was ubiquitous and shocking racial stereotyping went unremarked. There are a number of prime-time television shows from the 1970s that won’t be included on BritBox because they are basically racist. I remember watching them, and laughing along with everyone else in my circle.

Middle-class white people hardly knew anyone who was black or Asian. I remember the race riots of the early 1980s, some of which took place in my home city of Birmingham. Amongst the white middle-class population, they were seen as acts of criminality, with no understanding at all of the prejudice and abuse that black people experienced. There is no doubt that the police were systematically racist. The only place I remember hearing racism directly challenged as a child was in the Sunday School I attended at a liberal URC church, for which I am grateful. It at least sowed the seeds of an alternative outlook.

I am very grateful that so much has changed over the last 40-50 years. It has been a slow and painful process to face up to our inherent racist assumptions and prejudices. The McPherson report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence highlighted the reality of institutional racism, which was prevalent not just in the Metropolitan Police, but in many other institutions that comprise the establishment. White middle-class people learned the new language of political correctness. They ceased to practice direct racism, while rarely understanding or experiencing the inequalities that confronted those from ethnic minorities on a daily basis. When I lived in Birmingham, the city was multi-ethnic, and my children were amongst a small minority of white kids in their school. When we moved to Market Harborough, we found it hard to adjust to how mono-ethnic the town is.

While there has been considerable progress over the last 50 years, the appalling mistreatment and tragic death of George Floyd in Minneapolis is another reminder of the brutal reality of racism in contemporary society. Yet again a black man was treated with callous disdain and disregard by a white man in authority. It is all too easy to understand the rage of the Black community in the United States, echoed here in the UK, because this is a tragically recurring event. Not only is there direct mistreatment, but ethnic minorities face systematic economic inequality. Recent research in the UK has shown that black people have a much greater risk of dying from COVID-19. Irrespective of whether this is partly genetic, the relative economic poverty of the BAME community, and the lifestyle issues this exacerbated, are a clear contributing factor.

Without in any way endorsing the violence and looting that have accompanied some protests, at the very least, I find this reaction understandable. If you feel fundamentally disrespected and mistreated by a wider society, why should you feel any obligation to respect its laws that fail to protect you and seem to entrench the privilege and unaccountability of others?

I find it deeply disturbing and offensive that President Trump would appear in front of a church clutching a Bible, when his public statements are so contrary to what the Bible says about race and equality. It is hard not to feel that he is electioneering to his voter base. It is especially embarrassing because evangelical Christians have all too often failed to fight against racism and prejudice but sought to justify their entrenched privilege by reference to the Bible, whether defending apartheid in South Africa or segregation in the Southern States, or at the very least lamenting it but refusing to take any costly action against it. We live with the legacy of the misuse of the Bible to endorse what the Bible itself condemns.

If there is any good that can come out of this horrendous situation, it is perhaps to remind us afresh of the reality of racism and the need to tackle all kinds of abuse and prejudice merely based on the colour of a person’s skin, and to strive for a greater equality in society. This has perhaps been less prominent in recent years with the rise of populism in Western democracies as other political issues have dominated the agenda. I remain disturbed that underlying the rise of populism, with its hostility to immigrants and nationalistic ideology, is a suppressed white rage against the loss of power and automatic privilege in societies that have become increasingly multicultural. Racism seems to have re-emerged under another guise.

I don’t pretend to know what the answers are to these issues at the level of a secular society, though the prohibition of discrimination, insistence on equality before the law and the fair trial and punishment of those responsible for abuse are an essential bedrock. However, I do think that the only true hope for reconciliation is ultimately held out in the pages of the Bible. Donald Trump may have held the Bible up, but we evangelical Christians need to live the Bible out and model the true reconciliation that is made possible in and through Christ.

There are a number of key things we need to do:

1 Listen to the voice of the oppressed

The Bible is a book written by marginalised and oppressed people, inspired by God, to marginal and oppressed people who are looking for hope, redemption, acceptance and inclusion. The Bible gives special place to the experience of the oppressed as a rebuke to the comfortable, and no succour at all to the oppressors unless they repent.

I can’t begin to understand the experience and anguish of those who suffer from systemic racial prejudice, to which I no doubt inadvertently contribute. So, it is absolutely essential that we listen and hear the voice of those who can tell of their experience of prejudice, inequality and oppression.  Only as we do that can we avoid speaking in crass or patronising ways, gain some greater measure of empathy and hear what might be done to make things better.

A couple of years ago, I benefitted from reading Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book Why I’m not longer talking to white people about race. It was an eye-opener, and at the very least, I hope it challenged me to want to take the time to listen.

My friend Jeremy Marshall has strongly recommended reading Ben Lindsay’s book Why we need to talk about Race. We need to hear the challenge of black church leaders as they speak of their experience of the white UK church.

2 Repent of Racism 

I think we need to honestly acknowledge that we are all racist, or at the very least that we are tempted to racism. One reaction of white middle-class people to the claim of institutional or systemic racism is to deny that they are racist at all, and to assert that they are “colour-blind”. The Bible would tell us this isn’t the case. Racism is simply a manifestation of our fallen human nature, which instinctively shows favouritism to those who are like us, and prejudice to those who are unlike us. It is partly the result of fear of the other, the consequence of a fragile self-esteem that is threatened by difference, and partly the result of a desire for superiority and entitlement on behalf of our tribe.

Racism is not a uniquely white problem – far from it. Every ethnic group harbours racist attitudes towards other ethnic groups. This may not, however, be publicly obvious because it is the more powerful ethnic groups in a particular society that have most ability to institutionalise their prejudice. Come the revolution the currently oppressed group quickly becomes the oppressor, perpetrating a different racism of their own.

As Bible-believing Christians, we do not find this a surprise. We know that we are fallen, and we are suspicious of our own hearts. We need to fight against racist tendencies, resisting temptation and repenting of racist actions, attitudes and thoughts. We need to recognise racism for what it is – a wicked sin that deserves God’s eternal judgement. It is a violation of the fact that he made all men and women equal in his image, and a failure of obey the basic command to love our neighbour as ourselves. If we declare ourselves to be free of racism, we are in danger of missing the truth: “If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”

We will only begin to be free from racism, whether in our own hearts or our church communities, when we admit that it is a real problem for us. To deny it or deflect the blame to others who are more overtly racist is to fall into the error of the Pharisee in the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. Sin only loses its power when we acknowledge its reality in our hearts and seek the grace and mercy that we need. Confession is the path to freedom.

3 Work for gospel reconciliation 

We Christians not only understand the spiritual roots of racism, but in the gospel, we have the only true answer to racism. The world longs for racial reconciliation, but this cannot be brought about by mere liberal sentiment and a sentimental concept of the brotherhood of man. However, it may be mitigated by such common grace. Racism can only be overcome at the cross, since it is the cross that deals with the root of racism, our human sin and rebellion against God.

Our racist desires flow from our sense of superiority to others and our claim to be entitled to blessings ahead of them. The cross is the place where we have to set aside any sense of superiority as we acknowledge our common sin, and where we can make no claims to entitlement because we recognise that the only thing we are truly entitled to is the eternal wrath of God. The cross offers us forgiveness but only based on sheer undeserved grace. Our race, sex, culture, age, intelligence, wealth and beauty are all irrelevant. It is humbling and equalising.

It is through the new community of the church that racism ought to be being overcome, as men and women from every ethnic background are united as brothers and sisters in Christ. It is here we discover that our ethnic identity is transcended by our new identity in Christ, so that there is no longer ethnic superiority. We rediscover the truth, marred by the fall, that we are all equal in salvation because we were all equally created in the image of God and have all equally been redeemed by the blood of Christ.

The church is a unique community in its ability to bring about racial reconciliation. Unlike other religions which require an adherent to abandon their own culture and adopt a common alternative culture (as for example Islam which essentially imposes an Arab culture on everyone), Christianity rejoices in cultural diversity within our unity in Christ. We keep our culture and live our lives as believers in the particularity of time, nation, place and ethnicity. Our culture is, however, relativised and provides no basis for superiority over others.

The process of racial reconciliation in the church seems painfully slow when people want radical and rapid change. It is held back by the lingering effects of sin and false-teaching that distorts the gospel message. The church will be a work in progress until the Lord returns, battling different forms of racism in every generation. The New Testament shows just how hard the early church found it to integrate Jewish and Gentile believers in the body of Christ, overcoming centuries of racial prejudice. If it was difficult for them, then we should not expect it to be any easier for us. Considerable progress was made over the 40 years or so that the New Testament covers, but there was still an immense amount to be done, and it would be centuries before slavery (which in the Roman Empire was not a race-based institution but a form of economic oppression) was finally abandoned.

The tragic death of George Floyd reminds us of how much there is to do to bring about racial reconciliation, even in the evangelical church in the UK, let alone society more generally. There are no easy answers or quick solutions. But we can make a start by acknowledging the reality of sin, emphasising the pain of our brothers and sisters who daily face prejudice in society, and taking confidence that it is the gospel message of the crucified and risen Lord Jesus, who is building his church, that can alone bring about the reconciled humanity we long for.

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