A year on from the murder of George Floyd, Andy reflects on the church’s often uncomfortable relationship with race
Since the outbreak of COVID-19 and the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the past year and a half has been marred by personal tragedy for many of us. For Black people, 2020 also brought the added trauma of widespread protests in the US and beyond following the police murder of George Floyd last summer. As if the performative activism, empty gestures of solidarity and the black squares which flooded Instagram from celebrities and influencers weren’t exhausting enough, the lacklustre response of the church to the racial unrest was most disappointing for me and many other Black Christians alike. From Pastor Louie Giglio intimating that slavery somehow resulted in “white blessings” to the egregiously dismissive comments from the lead pastor of the London branch of Australian mega church Hillsong, the church’s inexcusable naivety was telling. For white pastors, particularly those leading majority Black congregations, the duty to express sensitivity should go without saying. However Black members of the church were met with a hurtful lack of solidarity, a worrying lack of understanding and a deeply upsetting lack of empathy. The tone of the comments indicates that the white clergy in particular has not embraced social justice as a priority.
“For me to be rallying as a pastor about something that’s going on in another country, I’m not really sure that’s helpful”– Pastor Gary Clarke, Hillsong Church London
The principle of unity is very important in Christianity – in fact, the book of John records Jesus’ longest prayer and its main concern is unity. However, in discourse surrounding ways to combat racial division within the church and wider society, there seems to always be emphasis placed on Black people’s anger in response to racial injustice, instead of on the racial discrimination which caused the unrest in the first place. Racism is insidious and manifests itself in many different ways, whether overtly or through subtler microaggressions. There is a reluctance on the part of Christians to acknowledge that the church is not immune to this. Rarely, if ever, are white members of the congregation encouraged to interrogate whether they themselves are fully comfortable with Black spaces or with Black people freely expressing their emotions (including last summer’s collective Black outrage). It is uncomfortable for Christians of all races to consider the historical role race, class and gender have played in the church and its denominational formation. However, this collective lack of self-reflection means that, for Black people already having to navigate daily racial microaggressions, their place of worship often becomes another hostile environment.
“Christianity is the white man’s religion. The Holy Bible in the white man’s hands and his interpretations of it have been the greatest single ideological weapon for enslaving millions of non-white human beings. Every country the white man has conquered with guns, he has always paved the way, and salved his conscience, by carrying the Bible and interpreting it to call the people ‘heathens’ and ‘pagans’; then he sends his guns, then his missionaries behind the guns to mop up.”– Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X
There is a long history of radical Black revolutionary activists and thinkers taking the church to task over its role in race relations. Criticisms of the church’s rank hypocrisy from the likes of Frederick Douglass and Edward Blyden in the 19th century to Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and James Baldwin in the 20th century are certainly nothing new. To paraphrase gospel star Kirk Franklin, the failure of the church has contributed to systemic racism. From the whitewashing of Jesus to teachings of the curse of Ham and the slave bible, created by slave masters to further promote slavery by removing specific parts of the bible, the church has always been complicit, with systemic racism deeply embedded institutionally. Unconscious racial biases still exist, as Pastor Elijah Israel observes: “Even today, notice churches run by ‘Black’ Leaders, don’t often have ‘white’ majority congregations, but churches run by ‘white’ leaders can have ‘Black’ majority congregations.” Given the historical context, it is difficult to disagree with Malcolm X’s somewhat incendiary assessment of what he described as “the white man’s religion”, sentiments of which were echoed by James Baldwin. For a lot of Black people, what was most disappointing about the unsurprising faux pas from the white clergy is the realisation that the brand of Christianity to which we subscribe is really just the latest iteration of the white Christianity under the guise of which slavers and colonial masters attempted to justify the oppression of Black people for centuries.
“I don’t know what most white people in this country feel. But I can only include what they feel from that state of their institutions. I don’t know if white Christians hate Negroes or not, but I know we have a Christian church which is white and a Christian church which is black. I know, as Malcolm X once put it, the most segregated hour in American life is high noon on Sunday. That says a great deal for me about a Christian nation. It means I can’t afford to trust most white Christians and I certainly cannot trust the Christian church.”– James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro
In healing communities from the stress and emotional turmoil of the last year and a half, the church of course has a substantial job on its hands. However, regarding racial justice, the fundamental question which remains is: what is the role of the church moving forward? Bishop T.D. Jakes noted that religion has a tendency to be “verbal” but, in crisis, to be blind and this roundtable discussion exploring the impact of Black Lives Matter attempts to address this. Self-righteous piety is doing my people – much like the Pharisees which Jesus spent so much of his ministry condemning, will the church continue to be rendered ineffective in times of crisis? Or, like the priest and the Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan (both of whom were highly respected in their religious spheres of influence), will the church continue to willingly choose blindness when the issues at hand are perceived to not directly affect the congregation? The book of Exodus in the bible reveals the emancipatory potential which is central to Christianity. However, for this to be realised, white Christians must address their apparent lack of understanding and refusal to get involved by acknowledging the pain Black people are going through. Without listening to, learning from and elevating Black voices on the matter of systemic racism, the racial unity which is sought after will forever be a fallacy predicated on the silencing of those suffering.