Racism is a sin of omission not just comission

One of the things that has been concerning for white church pastors like me in response to some of the discussion about racism has been the level of defensiveness. We want to say that we are not racist and so we get very defensive when people talk about systemic racism going on in our churches and our society. This seems so unfair to us. We would not use derogatory language, become aggressive or knowingly discriminate against someone because of their colour, would we? Of course not, we would not tolerate such behaviour from others in our churches and we have spoken to people when that happens haven’t we.

I think this misses the point because so often it isn’t about what we have done or said, it is about what we haven’t. Now, to be sure, there is an element of education involved. We will spend time working with and correcting people who are not alert to the offensiveness and plain wrongness of the things they say, the stereotypes they endorse. However, one omission is a failure to take persistent and wilful sin seriously. Sin is wilful even if the person claims it is unintentional when they have been warned about it so often and show no regard for the seriousness of it.  Do we take this as seriously as other sin?  I read one author proclaiming their anti-racist credentials because they had asked a racist to resign as a church member. Did you get that. They were as far as I’m aware in a church context where discipline is practised. They knew that the matter was serious enough to say the person could not continue as a member but they asked them to resign. At that point, my question would be “if you practice formal church discipline, then why did you not practice it here?”  One reason why a discipline issue is not taken before a church on occasions is because elders recognise that the church would simply not get the significance of the issue. They could not guarantee that the members would act to remove the unrepentant member. Now, if the church doesn’t get a matter as serious as this then the responsibility lies with the teaching elders.

Another situation in which I believe there have been sins of omission is in the development of separate black churches in the UK. Now, some of the black churches arose out of serious and offensive rejection but I have heard another story.  The story goes like this. Black people came to our churches but they could not fit in. They wanted to arrive when they felt, usually late and leave when they wanted after a few hours. They wanted a different type of music too (and sometimes preaching). Well, can I observe that in terms of musical style, the arrival f the Windrush generation coincided with a significant shift in musical tastes in the British culture and the church. I might also add that attitudes to time keeping and punctuality don’t seem to be such a significant issue these days, so that can hardly be pinned as a cultural issue now. However, the important thing is this. Christians assumed that they were the host/majority culture and yet if we are part of God’s kingdom then how can we talk in such nationalistic terms?  Why were the supposed hosts not willing to adopt to accommodate their brothers and sisters? Would it have been really too hard?

Thirdly, you may be familiar with the term “woke.” It started as a positive term to capture the sense of someone waking or becoming woke to the issue of injustice. It was a word coined by those who had experienced racism to describe their struggle for justice. Yet, the word has been taken from those people and turned from a positive to a negative. It has become a derogatory term used to insult people and accuse them of being unsound or unpatriotic. If we have allowed such a thing to happen on our watch then that seems to me another example of a sin of omission. If you are intentionally using the word as a derogatory term then you are demeaning black people and their cry for justice. That is overt racism. You need to desist and repent.

Finally, we are quick to respond to the question of diversity in leadership by insisting that leaders should be chosen on merit. In spiritual terms that means elders and deacons are based on their character and calling. We will argue that there must be no tokenism. That is all well and good. However, reflect back over the past 20 -30 years and think of all the godly and gifted people who have never been asked to serve (and I suspect this will include a range of people not just from ethnic minorities.  The reality is that people have been passed over for leadership and their gifts left unused because their face for whatever reason did not fit.

Almighty and most merciful Father,
  we have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep.
  We have followed too much the devices and desires
      of our own hearts.
  We have offended against thy holy laws.
  We have left undone those things
      which we ought to have done;
  and we have done those things
       which we ought not to have done;
  and there is no health in us.
  But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders.
  Spare thou them, O God, which confess their faults.
  Restore thou them that are penitent;
  according to thy promises declared unto mankind
      in Christ Jesu our Lord.
  And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake,
  that we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life,
  to the glory of thy holy name. 
 Amen.

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