If you live in a multi-ethnic context then over time you get to hear the thoughts, feelings, hopes and fears of people from different ethnic backgrounds to your own. I have the privilege of living in a community and being part of a church where people come from so many different backgrounds, Afro Caribbean, Nigerian, Kenyan, Ghanaian, Eastern European, South Asian.
In that context, you hear stories of people being shouted at and abused, of being racially profiled, stopped and searched of experiencing discrimination even in churches. You spot them wince at another derogatory comment, another stereotype and looking to see if anyone is going to stop the conversation and say “that’s not on.” You hear the question “will we see people from other backgrounds in leadership?” You hear their hopes and fears for their children, you pick up on the fear, sadness and yes anger that something like the killing of George Floyd brings to the surface. In my experience, this rarely comes out of bitterness but there is passion and there are voices crying out to be heard.
So, what has been the response from white church leaders as black voices have been heard over the past few weeks? Well, the encouraging thing (I hope) is that many of us have stopped to listen, to pray and to stand alongside those who have suffered from racism.
However, I’ve been concerned about how some of our reactions are coming across. I get that there is a concern to preserve history and protect free speech, I also understand our frustrations at not being able to open our buildings just yet for worship. Of course those things matter. However, our first and most consistent reactions are part of what I talked about the other day when I said that leaders set the tone.
Here is what people are hearing. When I say people, I mean members of our churches who are looking for pastors to love them, feed them with God’s Word and protect them from wolves.
When we react to the invitation to “take a knee” with them to show that we share their pain and we mutually submit to one other and we say “I won’t bow to another race, I only bow the knee to Jesus.” They don’t hear a refusal to be cowed or to worship idols but rather a refusal to take seriously Jesus’ call to follow his example in John 13 and his command through Paul to submit to one another (Ephesians 5:21). They hear the word I a lot.
I will not be asked to take the knee. I will not bow to another people. I only submit to Jesus.
It is odd isn’t it that we can talk about the Lordship of Jesus whilst allowing the 1st person singular to dominate?
When we say “but all lives matter” they hear us saying that we have not heard their cry of pain and injustice. The point about “Black Lives Matter” isn’t that other lives don’t but that racism has said that black lives don’t matter.
When we say “tearing down statues means we will forget our history” they hear that we love our statues and our history more than we love them. Of course there is a vital conversation to be had about the nature of humanity. Of course, it is possible to distinguish between celebrating the good things a person did whilst realising that they were a sinner who also thought did and said things that were wrong. However, if the first time that we have commented publicly on the issue of race is to defend statues to slave traders, what does that say. Furthermore, if in one breath we can defend people whose ideology included racist ideas because of the good things they did and in the other denounce a slogan and movement because of some of the dodgier political and ethical elements of some of those involved in some of the organisations, then we are telling black believers that we don’t trust them to discern and distinguish as we are able to do.
When we say “Well if they can protest and get away with gathering, so I am going to open my church and call it a protest”, even if to some extent we are joking (though lets be honest there is an edge to the joke isn’t there?) then we have set the tone and sent out the message that we don’t take their hearts cry too seriously, that we are more concerned about our own grievances.
Now, if we are going to pastor our congregations well and if we are going to engage our communities with the Gospel then we are going to need to do talk honestly and openly about humanity, sin and the Gospel. This will mean recognising that sin includes the failure to act and speak for truth and justice so that when we have not confronted racism we need to repent. It will mean recognising that idolatry can seep into cultures so that systemic sin is real. It will of course mean talking about how all of us are sinners and that fear, hatred, prejudice and pride are common to all cultures. It will mean insisting that taking down statues and changing laws cannot change the human heart. It will mean that we do encourage all to be alert to false ideology that can creep in whenever we become passionate about an issue.
However, first of all, we need to get the tone right, to show that we are with the congregation and the community. That we are seeking to listen and to understand pain, that voices are heard. That our congregations are loved.