Racial Justice and the Church

In light of the horrific death of George Floyd and the recent protests, I wrote a letter to our church, East London Tabernacle Baptist Church. There’s a lot more that needs to be said and heard, I’m sure, but hopefully this is a good start.

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

I imagine that we will have all seen some of the footage of the last moments of George Floyd’s life. His calls for help, his calls for his mother, his lifeless body being lifted on a stretcher, the impassive and unconcerned expression of the man in uniform whose knee was squeezing out the last drops of his life. Derek Chauvin has not been convicted of murder by a court of law but there seems little doubt that he committed an act of callous brutality that ended George Floyd’s life. It is a distressing, outrageous scene, one of the most disturbing I have ever seen. George Floyd’s death, (which has joined the long list of similar deaths including Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Philando Castille, Michael Brown, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and many others) has become an example, a symbol, of something that people across the world have risen up to protest against: the continued unjust treatment and discrimination against black people and other ethnic minorities across the world.

Relationships within the church
How should we respond as Christians to these events? The first thing to say is that as I have talked with black brothers and sisters at ELT, I realise that as a white man, I do not know what it is like to be treated differently, to be treated worse, because of the colour of my skin. I have not had the experiences that someone like Shai Linne shares in the article that Ken recently shared; experiences that can be transposed in the UK context, experiences that many of you have had. I have been grateful for those who have shared with me their stories of living as a black man or woman in our society and I have been pained to hear of their experiences of exclusion and discrimination and worse. ‘If one part suffers, every part suffers with it,’ the Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:26, and those of us who have not had the experience of racial prejudice and discrimination need work to understand and enter into the experience those of our church who have. And, therefore, as a white man, my first response should not be to analyse, adjudicate or assess but to listen and learn and lament where injustice and sin has happened. Further, all of us must be open the idea that that injustice has happened at our hand, that we, whether wittingly or not, have wounded our black and ethnic minority brothers and sisters. Where we are aware of this, we must seek forgiveness and reconciliation, personally and directly. Where we are unaware, we must be open to humbly and patiently receive correction and rebuke and repent of our lovelessness. To our black brothers and sisters, and those from other ethnic minorities, we want to hear from you. We want to hear when you are wounded, when you are pained by the way you are treated. If there are things in our life as a church that could be better, let’s talk about it and see how we can better live out our shared identity in Christ.

Any hope for a better, more just, more peaceful world, must begin with, and include, personal relationship and, where necessary, reconciliation, between individuals of different ethnicities. Without that, any political or legal progress will be an empty shell. Thankfully, at ELT, as a church with an unusually high level of ethnic diversity, we have the opportunity to live that out and demonstrate it. In the little under two years I have been here, one of the greatest joys I have found is being in groups with people of different races and nationalities to me and enjoying fellowship across barriers that usually divide society. Responding to George Floyd’s death in a Christian way, must mean redoubling our efforts to maintain and deepen our unity and fellowship together in the bond of the Holy Spirit.

The Social and Political Implications
However, the issues raised by the death of George Floyd are not limited to the personal and the individual. The response to his death shows that the question of racial injustice is inescapably political and social. How do we respond as Christians in this arena? First, I think it is worth saying that in regard to specific political policy and action there is much more scope of disagreement and debate amongst Christians. There can be no debate that all human beings, whatever the shade of their skin, are made in the image of God and worthy of respect, dignity and justice. There can be no debate that racism is a sin that dishonours the God in whose image we are made. But how we best deal practically with the discrimination and injustice that happens in sinful society is something that godly Christian men and woman, both black and white, can and do disagree about. We can call other Christians to honour their fellow image-bearers but we do not have the authority to judge another Christian simply because they do or don’t support a particular policy platform.

In Joshua 5, when the commander of the Lord’s army stands before him, Joshua asks, ‘Are you for us or for our enemies’ asks Joshua. ‘Neither’, the man replies. It is an extraordinary response since Joshua is the leader of God’s covenant people who have a covenant which promises them the very land that they are invading. The lesson we are meant to draw, I think, is a clear one. No cause, not even the cause of God’s covenant people, can assume God’s unqualified, unlimited support. Indeed, by Joshua 7 Israel will be defeated by the city of Ai because of their sin. We never get to put God in our corner, as a kind of mascot. No, all of our causes, no matter how noble, must match God’s standards of truth, purity and justice.

That means that as we assess the responses we see to the issue of racial discrimination, we must consider whether that response matches God’s standards of truth, justice and holiness in his Word. It means that, though we may sympathise with the anger people feel at injustice, indeed we may share it, we cannot endorse the violence and looting, carried out by a small minority, that has accompanied some of the protests. Not only does such violence undermine the cause that it claims to serve, harming those who it claims to represent, like the African-American retired police officer, David Dorn, who was shot dead during looting in St Louis, but it contravenes the sacred commands given by God, ‘You shall not murder’, ‘you shall not steal.’ No cause can claim to be so urgent, so noble, that it can set aside the moral law of God.

Likewise, while the statement ‘Black Lives Matter’ is one that is vitally, burningly, true; the organisation that has taken that statement as its title is another matter. On BlackLivesMatter.com website, the organisation explains that ‘We disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure’ and that ‘We foster a queer‐affirming network. When we gather, we do so with the intention of freeing ourselves from the tight grip of heteronormative thinking.’ No Christian, submitting to the authority of God’s word, can endorse these statements. Does that mean no Christian should participate in a Black Lives Matter demonstration? No, I don’t think it does because the statement itself is biblical and true. But it does mean that we shouldn’t judge those who don’t feel comfortable joining that demonstration, or using the phrase on social media, for fear that doing so will be misinterpreted. We must resist the urge to set up criteria of what our brothers and sisters must do or say in order for us to consider them sufficiently anti-racism. We do not know the contents of our brother or sisters hearts or their prayers or what they do in private for the sake of others. One of the negative aspects of the modern concern for social justice is how much pressure there is to be public and demonstrative about how we deal with it. But the Lord Jesus tells us ‘Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them.’ If we allow the fight against racial injustice to become soil for judgementalism then we will simply multiply injustice and receive no reward from our Father in heaven. We cannot assume that silence on social media or in any other arena is necessarily complicity with racial injustice. We must give each other the freedom to speak and act according to the measure of faith and insight that the Lord gives each one of us.

If racial reconciliation is a noble cause, and it undoubtedly is, it is because it is God’s cause not our cause.  We must, then, pursue the cause of racial justice and racial reconciliation in the Lord’s way, under the Lord’s command, and with the mind of Christ. We must be unyielding in our commitment to truth, unflagging in our devotion to justice. And if we are, then we have great grounds for optimism and confidence that the cause will succeed. We do not need to follow the secular script in our pursuit of racial justice, for we have a better script, a better story, one that is a deeper, richer and more powerful force for racial reconciliation than anything the world has to offer, namely the Gospel of Jesus Christ revealed in the Scriptures. For it is God’s word that gives us the basis for fighting for racial justice, for it tells us that all men and women bear the divine image. If, as the secular world believes, humanity is simply a random cosmic accident, where is the injustice in what happened to George Floyd? Who cares about randomly arranged atoms? But we do care because all in our society know deep down that what the Bible teaches is true: all men and woman bear the image of a holy God and therefore possess profound dignity. It is on that basis, and that basis alone, that we can consistently and insistently declare the racial injustice is a problem. Second, God gives us the means of racial reconciliation, namely the cross of Christ. For the cross of Christ reminds us that we are all, whether white or black, sinners worthy of condemnation and that we are all, whether black or white, reconciled to God through Christ and are being ‘renewed in knowledge in the image of our creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.’ (Col 3:10-11) The cross of Christ gives me the freedom to admit I have sinned against my brother or sister and it gives me the freedom to forgive the brother or sister that has sinned against me. There is no better means, no other means, for racial or any other kind of reconciliation than the cross of Christ and our unity in Him.

Finally, the Word of God gives us the certain hope of racial reconciliation. Revelation 7 records ‘a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the Lamb.’ One day, our divisions and disparities, our wounds and our weeping, will be finally done away with and we will stand together before the Lamb, saved by his blood, in all our diversity, united in worship and equal in glory. From the world’s point of view, there is very little hope for racial justice, let alone racial reconciliation. A glance down the annals of history suggests that the human heart has an infinite capacity to breed conflict and violence from the smallest of differences. Indeed, the concept of ‘anti-racism’ can, paradoxically, when taken up by sinful hearts and hands, entrench and embitter already existing divisions. But a glance through the pages of Scripture shows that God has committed himself to re-forge the unity that Adam’s sin, and our sin, has broken. He will unite all things under the headship of Christ, he will give life back to the dead, and lift up the head of the oppressed. You may have shed bitter tears for the discrimination you have experienced and seen, the oppression you have felt. You may still be weeping today. But one day, that weeping will be able to stop. One day, those tears will be wiped away by the very finger of God. Because one day God will dwell among his people and all things will be made new. And with that newness will come justice, righteousness, goodness, joy, love and the consolation of all our hearts.

So while we still live in the day of weeping and of injustice, we can still live in hope. The fight for racial justice is hard, slow, detailed, complex, painful and necessary. But it is not futile. Whether we march or pray, post on social media or converse with our friends, repent, forgive, lament or learn, we can all play a part in realising the Biblical vision of ‘one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace’ (Eph 2:15). ELT has a unique opportunity to be a place where those who nurture hatred in their hearts, and those who respond to hatred with violence, witness a display of something different, something new, something good, something that displays a power beyond that of merely human construction but a power that comes from the Holy Spirit. Something that tells them that though we are many, of many backgrounds, many ethnicities, many experiences, we all have ‘one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.’ (Eph 4:6) May it always be so.

In Christ,
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