A number of things have shown the huge divisions that underlie our society recently, amongst them the vast inequities opened up by race, class and income by the trials of Covid-19, and before that, which we have almost forgotten, the wide variation of responses to the need to protect the land. But none have been more powerful and challenging to us as white Christians than the structural injustices shown by our and the US’s attitude to race in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. It is challenging to non-Christian white people too, but as Christians we have a particular identity rooted in and protected by a loving God who hates injustice: we learn to hate the things He hates, and to love those He loves. And we have to learn. We cannot assume. Two recent contributions on the Grace and Truth blog, by Neil Charlton and by Adrian Lock have helped me start from a different viewpoint in engaging with issues of race and structural inequity. It has helped me to see that whatever efforts I have made toward equity in the past, I cannot eradicate a historic identity as a racially prejudiced white male person – prejudiced by the habitus in which I have grown up in, and to which I have acquiesced, mostly subconsciously. In myself and around myself, and in my society, there are works to do, actions to take, words to speak. If Jesus is Lord, then this other stuff cannot claim even my subconscious allegiance.
Years ago I was debating this in South Africa with a group of young white Christians on an away day organised by the National Initiative for Reconciliation. I was with two black pastors. They were speaking on more difficult issues: I was speaking about the challenge of scripture to those young men about to enter the military on their national service, and who had never been taught that Jesus and political life had anything to say to each other. One of the pastors, Graham, who bravely had tried to start a non-racial Christian community on a piece of land in a township designated (then) as “coloured” was engaging these young people who had been arguing that they didn’t build the walls of apartheid; it was their fathers and grandfathers. And Graham simply said to them: so it’s your job to pull the thing down. So simple. And many in South Africa worked hard to try and achieve that, and are still trying.
Racist stances and nuances are seen most acutely by those who have experienced them. This leads to an acuteness in the perception of racial discrimination that those of us free of the slight of it cannot feel. We found ourselves highly sensitised and politicised, on return from South Africa, because we had been taught what the contours of racism looked like, by seeing both the starkness of it from government and white society, but also because we knew many who suffered under it. I began to notice subconscious bias towards non-English nations of the UK, and somehow took on, not in a damaging way, some of the awareness of my Anglo-Welsh roots, that meant that I could not be fully “at home” in an English society that equated “England” with “Britain.” Nobody’s fault, but needing challenging anyway.
So when yesterday a group of people chucked Mr Colston in the Avon, I felt that there was a rightness and a significance about it, something that people could learn from. Listening to the mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees, talk about it was wise and helpful. I learnt from him. From now on I want to try and learn, and change.
So I am starting from the assumption that I need still to repent, over and far above whatever I have already repented of, because this thing is deep and I have lived within its hegemony for a very long time. I am determined not to criticise others in this position, because we have to learn for ourselves, to allow the Holy Spirit to change us and renew us through what we read and experience, to challenge us and start to lead us into actions that undermine the structural injustices that daily are heaped upon our black brothers and sisters. Before I condemn, have I learnt? Mission, as Joshua Searle has said, is solidarity with the world.
It has been good to see a much more robust response from the churches on this issue than we saw on Covid-19 (though important dissenting voices demonstrate that the CofE is still pretty much the Tory Party at prayer).
There is much more to say, but I am not the person to say it. Hopefully, as we are re-conscientised together, learning, reasoning and repenting together, we may slowly move towards each other as Christian sisters and brothers.