A response to the death of George Floyd
Those in leadership have a responsibility to lead and I’ve learned this week that failure to say something, says something.
It is now 17 days since the “Black Lives Matter” rally in Trafalgar Square and 23 days since George Floyd was murdered on the streets of Minneapolis. Two days ago I received an email from a member of the church family, asking me why I had said nothing about the events of an African-American whose life was cruelly snuffed out in 8 minutes and 46 seconds. She rightly challenged me that my failure to say anything publicly in these last weeks has itself said something.
Now, as I (finally?) sit down to write, I do not want to excuse my failure to comment so far. For the person who sent me the email is right. Oh, I can tell you that over the years I have read many social media comments written by people who clearly have little understanding of the subject they write about and I don’t want to add to that list. I can tell you that the issue of George Floyd’s murder and the racism that caused it, is so important that I don’t want to speak inappropriately and further offend those deeply hurt by the horrid evil of racism. But I have been shown by a dear member of the church family that a failure to comment says something. I got this wrong. I should have responded sooner. It should not have taken a member of the church family to email me, in order to get me to make a public response. So in the words that follow, while I run the risk of saying things that demonstrate my lack of understanding of the issues of racial prejudice, to say nothing runs a greater risk. As a white middle class man I write with trepidation, but I write out of love for a sister in the church family, and for all those who have suffered as a result of this evil. I write now to show that I care.
Having failed to make any statement so far, it would be easy to rush to state what we could do, should do and can do, and then to call on the authorities to act. That must be done, but it is also incumbent upon me to examine my own heart. I need to scrutinise my life for endemic racism in me. Jeremiah tells us that “the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked.” (Jeremiah 17:9, KJV). My heart is wicked and I can easily deceive myself that it’s not. We so easily justify ourselves. We have many blind spots. A thorough examination of the heart is necessary. But I can’t be trusted to do a thorough heart examination on my own. I need the Lord who searches the heart and examines the mind (Jeremiah 17:10). I must pray that the Lord would help me to recognise any racism in me. I need the Lord to expose the implicit biases and the stereotypes that affect the way I think when I encounter anyone who is racially different to me. I must beg the Lord to help me to see, acknowledge and then understand any inappropriate feelings I have when I engage with anyone who is not like me. I must ask the Lord to help me hear the way I speak. And then I must ask the Lord to have mercy on me. For I am likely to find racist sin in my heart if I genuinely open my life to being examined by the one who sees all things. And then of course I must repent of it and beg the Holy Spirit to change me and to weed out every last bit of this hateful evil in me.
It has been stated many times that racism is a systemic problem. I don’t want to disagree, but I do want to go further.
It is systemic. Racism runs right through society. It is right that it is named and called out. We must expose it, and those who protect it, or worse, promote it. Exposing this wickedness (and those responsible for it) makes it harder for people to hide behind excuses. We must highlight it and expose it so that it cannot be allowed to continue unchallenged.
As we do that, it will impact us all. As I’ve already suggested, racism is there, in every heart. We are all guilty. But, personal culpability acknowledged, there are some in leadership in society who can and must be called on to act. Those who can do something about it, must be pressurised to do so. We should call for a root and branch investigation into racism in every area of life – not just the police force, but through every government department, every work place, every school and university, every social setting. Every nook and cranny of society should be open to scrutiny, including the church. We should examine, and if necessary, change the laws of the land and ensure that just laws are not only enshrined in law, but then carried out and followed through with equity and justice.
But it’s not just a systemic problem. As I’ve already said, it’s endemic. It’s a disease of the heart and there is only one solution to the pandemic which is racism, and that is the gospel.
There is one way and one way only that hearts are changed- and that is through the gospel. Law can put a lid on things – and we should use the law to do that. Education can change understanding and in time, when enough are enlightened, societal pressure can bring about transformation by changing what is deemed unacceptable behaviour. Educating people can change deep felt attitudes. But law making and education can only go so far. The heart will always be wicked and deep rooted racism will again raise its ugly head somewhere unless the heart is changed. So we must preach the gospel of grace, for it is the gospel that changes us from the inside out, and it is the gospel that will bring lasting change to individuals.
As we preach the gospel we must take care. The church has a chequered history when it comes to racism. 300 years ago many Christians used the Bible to justify the slave trade! Shocking isn’t it? You can make the Bible say whatever you want it to say! But when the scriptures have been faithfully preached and then believed, lasting change has come about.
So much of what is good about this nation was shaped and influenced by a Christian worldview. So much of what is right and good and wholesome in this nation came about through Christians seeing what was wrong because they were shaped by the gospel. So we must preach the gospel.
Further the gospel will give me right expectations. One of the most desperate things I find about racism is how often this has been campaigned about before. I’m no historian, but I don’t need to be to know of Martin Luther-King’s “Dream.” But here we are 57 years later – the dream has not been realised and the nightmare continues. Even the most current “Black Lives Matter” campaign is not new. A Wikipedia search will tell you that it was back in 2013 that the movement began with the use of the hashtag, #BlackLivesMatter on social media after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting and death of African-American teenager Trayvon Martin in February 2012. Seven years of campaigning later and George Floyd is murdered in broad daylight. My point is simple, there have been many times in history when black Americans have raised their voices, but still the injustice and the evil continues.
On Sunday 14th June my colleague Pete Scamman preached brilliantly on the impact of having wrong hopes. He explained how wrong hopes – hopes that can never be realised – break us (you’ll need to listen to the sermon to hear the argument).
The Black Lives Matter rallies hope for real and lasting change. I want to stand with all who hope for that kind of change. But I fear those hopes might again be dashed.
What I am about to say does not negate campaigning efforts and is certainly not an excuse to revert to a passive resignation. This is too important to let that happen. The life of George Floyd and the many others who have died and been affected by racism are too important to do nothing. Black lives do matter. We must act. However, only in the gospel can we find the hope that there will be a day when racism will be fully and finally eradicated. That day will arrive when Jesus comes in judgement and in salvation. Jesus will wrap up the world as we know it, and the glorious new creation and a brand new era will be ushered in forever.
The gospel gives us that hope. A hope of full and perfect justice. The hope of a day when this evil of racism will be banished forever. Wrong hope can break us, but as my colleague Pete Scamman said, “right hopes can make us.”
The gospel of Jesus Christ is our ultimate hope, but meanwhile we should speak out against evil and injustice. Of course we need to speak in ways that are full of grace and truth, but my failure to say anything until now, might well highlight our biggest danger – saying nothing. Or going quiet when it’s no longer front page news.
We must speak out firmly and definitely and repeatedly. We’ll need to keep at it when we’re knocked back time after time. It will be necessary sometimes to be people who won’t take “no” for an answer. In all likelihood we’ll be misunderstood. But Black Lives Matter because all lives matter.
As we act we must pray. Not as a last resort. And certainly not as an excuse to do nothing – “You demonstrate on the streets, I’ll pray in my room!” That won’t do. But we must pray because we are dealing with matters of the heart. What’s more these are issues of such magnitude that they are beyond us. We need to pray because we believe that God moves in hearts (Ezra 1:1, 5). He even moves the hearts of unbelieving rulers and tyrants. We must pray because the great and lasting change we long for will only come about through a movement of God. God is the one who not only searches hearts, but who changes hearts.
As a staff team we have committed to read together, “We need to talk about race” by Ben Lindsay. We are ready to be shown our mistakes and failures and to think carefully how we can ensure we’re working to include ALL people.
It took an email from a sister in the congregation to get me to my keyboard. I want to publicly ask for her forgiveness and I want to publicly thank her. Thank you for showing me that saying nothing, said something. Dear sister in Christ, I do hope you feel this is better late than never.
I write and post this with some fear. Not primarily the fear of speaking out and receiving critical feedback. But rather the fear of having written things that offend the very people who are already hurting. I know that I don’t understand all the issues and I haven’t ever been in your place. If this piece has hurt you further, either because of what I have said, or because of what I have not said, I do ask for your forgiveness. But please know that I have written this because saying nothing, said something.