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Reflections on race

July 2020 | by Ferris Lindsay

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When I was young, I had big ideas on race. Now I am older my ideas are smaller because I realise issues are more complicated than I once thought. I am also conscious of the pressure of a news cycle that demands simplicity. ‘You must take a position and you must take it now,’ comes the strident cry. ‘Anything less is cowardice or lack of care.’ But I do care. I just do not care for a culture which values likes, retweets, and follows. And I do not care for solutions that deal in slogans and bandwagons and where all must feel passion for today’s concern until tomorrow’s replaces it. It just feels like a mass of issues going up and down in the public consciousness like a room full of yo-yos.

Right now, the yo-yo that is up is racism, especially for black Britons. It stirs my emotions because I have spent my whole life thinking about what it means to be black, in a way, I suspect, that few white people do. But has that thinking given me simple views to express? No! Can I offer soundbites to stir people to action? No! Am I able to speak for different black communities? Not at all. I speak only for myself as the son of Caribbean parents, and as the father of mixed-race adult children, all of whom have shaped my thinking.

My parents’ generation faced very obvious racism: colour bars at work; refusals to rent homes (‘No blacks or Irish, no dogs’); and outright violence. That generation also experienced white churchgoers sliding away along pews or ministers recommending that they go down the road to the church for ‘your people’. Also, the name-calling and verbal abuse was open. But I must remember that there were many who gave a welcome and a helping hand too.

Things have improved much. Many immigrant parents are proud of the lives their children have made. But there are still banana skins thrown at black players and racist chants that infest too many football stadiums. There is still graffiti daubed on real or virtual walls telling people like me we are not welcome. My younger self would have reacted to these. Part of me still yearns for the simplicity of my thinking back then. But I am now sure that the picture has always been complicated. Some of the words used to define racism now are slippery and subjective. Terms such as ‘white privilege’ and ‘institutionalised racism’ are designed to be weaponised and behind them lie agendas I am suspicious of. I am fearful of them creeping into the thinking of Christians, black or white. I have seen something of that in the rush of white Christians to ‘repent’ of imprecise ‘sins’ which are no sins at all (silence is not violence).

So where do I begin with my thinking now? I start with God. The book of Acts tells of his plan to build a diverse and undivided church. Paul, once a fierce Jewish nationalist, was chosen to carry that vision forward. This was to be hard work given the massive chasm between Jews and Gentiles. But he passionately laboured for it and condemned any who would get in the way. So I take Paul as my model. His route to inclusion and unity was demanding, messy, and painful. But all believers, whatever their past relationships, now had to be one in Christ. Paul’s way involved the exposure of cultural sins such as the harsh-speaking habits of the Colossians. It also required developing godly traits, especially a patient willingness to bear with difference (Col. 3). This has always been needed and is needed today.

Our world’s methods for dealing with division are usually brutal and counterproductive. I hear them often in discussions about racism. The loudest campaigns like Black Lives Matter work in similar ways. Their playbook involves controlling the language and the debate; putting down challenging views as morally offensive and confronting those who aren’t 100 percent with them with judgementalism, violence, and shaming. Nobody changes hearts and minds with those. They just breed resentment and suppressed or open anger.

Churches must be different. We cannot copy the world’s ideas while giving them a coat of gospel paint. We mustn’t deal in slogans which simplify and obscure truth. We mustn’t marginalise people. We should humbly examine and hear rebukes to sins in our cultures just as the Corinthians and Thessalonians did. Black Christians know the mess of our own communities: young women left to raise babies and then teenagers alone; misogynistic and sexualised music that misshapes minds; gang violence that has ruined whole neighbourhoods.

White people are no more a homogenous group than are black people. So white Christians must identify real sins that exist in their communities. They must see where they themselves are implicated, and repent. Most of those sins will have nothing to do with race but they are just as real. If others are to confess their sins then we must too. This is the way of repentance. This is the opposite of those who define themselves as victims and simply focus on crimes of history or perceived discrimination. Our gospel says that we are fundamentally sinners, not victims. There is hope where we acknowledge that. Anything short of this approach is just firefighting, necessary but temporary. It is tackling one injustice and seeing a little improvement only to see another quickly flare up elsewhere.

Over the years I have come to understand that with Christ, what we cannot do in our flesh we can do by his Spirit. Within the church, Christians can have their sins exposed and can repent of them. They can find forgiveness from God and others. Love can flourish and unity can be achieved. Such churches will have a good effect upon communities around them. Their members will live new lives among their neighbours, refusing cycles of accusation and violent revenge, doing good even to enemies. Nothing can rival that.

Ferris Lindsay a Member of Forrest Baptist Church, Leytonstone, London.