Healing The Divides (Book Review)

This is the second book I’ve read and reviewed this summer talking about a divide affecting the church. The first focused on class divides and this one is about race. Jason Roach and Jessamin Birdsall write against the back drop of the recent #BlackLivesMatter movement and the response to George Floyd’s murder.

Jason writes as someone who is Black British born to immigrants from Barbados.  Prior to being a church leader, he was a GP.  On a personal note, I know Jason as we trained together at Oak Hill and I can testify to his gracious, humble pastoral heart.  Jason’s wife is white and so they are raising a family with mixed heritage.  Jessamin is white American and grew up in Japan and the States.

Healing the Divides is a short book but it packs a lot in. It helps us to think about race from both a theological and a practical/pastoral perspective.  It includes deep thinking about the causes of racial tension and helps us to navigate some of the recent controversies around Critical Race Theory, Structural and Systemic Racism.  

The authors teach us how to listen to people from outside of our own tribe and comfort zones. This means that they encourage us to hear the heart cry of the #BlackLivesMatter’s movement whilst being unafraid to critique problematic aspects of critical race theory and the #BLM organisation. They model humility, acknowledging their own failings, willing to own up to compliance and so encouraging us to do he same.

The book is very clearly rooted in their personal stories and experiences – particularly Jason’s and rightly so.  It is important that we give time to hear black voices within the church (incidentally I hope that Jason won’t just be heard when talking about race, he has a lot to teach us).  This both gives the book the roots for its strengths and also sets its boundaries.

A short book arising out of personal experience will not cover everything and that may leave some wanting more.  For example, it is unavoidably London-centric.  Some of us will want to think more deeply about the implications of racial division for reaching muslim-background communities in northern Britain and the Midlands.  I have also seen some bewildering and concerning criticisms of the book with complaints that it doesn’t address antisemitism as a form of racism.

First of all, Jewish experiences of racism are not left unmentioned (p20-21) but secondly if a book arises out of personal experience (both in terms of being affected by racism growing up and pastoring in a specific multi-cultural context) then rather than putting pressure on the authors to tell the story and engage with the issues in the way that we want them to, we should be listening to their story and observations as they tell it.  The criticism seems rather similar to the attempt by some to counter #BlackLivesMatter with #AllLivesMatter. Of course, all lives matter but there was a specific focus on black lives for a reason.

If we find that a book like this doesn’t address a particular context, then there are two ways we can respond. First of all, we can do so by way of analogy. We can apply the lessons of the book to other contexts. Secondly, perhaps deeper reflection is needed on those other contexts and there are other books to be written by other Christians.

Before concluding I want to respond briefly to another concerning reaction I’ve seen to the book. There seems to be an instinctive response in some circles that if someone writes about things like social justice on matters of race and class that they must somehow be watering down the Gospel and offering a social gospel. This is clearly a nonsense. We can surely see how the Gospel leads to an outworking of the transformed vertical relationship with God in our horizontal relationships with each other. This book is thoroughly orthodox and evangelical in the best sense of the word. It is rooted in a clear understanding of the Gospel of Grace and it helps us apply that Gospel to an important aspect of life together.

My recommendation is that instead of speculating about this book, the best thing to do is to read it. If you are as yet unpersuaded that we have an issue here that needs addressing or if your worried that it’s impossible to engage on the issue of racism without being sucked into worldly alternative Gospels, then read this book and be ready to have your mind changed.

If you are serious about seeing racial divides healed both in wider society and especially in our churches then I highly commend this book as one to buy, read, share and discuss with others in your church.

Healing the Divides is available from The Good Book Company priced at £7.64

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