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Let’s stop using God’s name as an excuse for racial apathy

Calvary Greetings,

In case you are wondering why this person with a Muslim-sounding name is writing a letter to Christians residing in the West, please hear me out. Although I was born into a Muslim household, I had my Damascene conversion while watching an Oral Roberts crusade on television. The following day, I accepted Jesus as my Lord and Saviour after a colleague led me to say the sinner’s prayer. 

I am also black.

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s public death by the police, there was a global uproar. Anti-black racism in Europe and the United States has come under the spotlight with organisations and individuals offering suggestions to address this injustice. 

The church has also come out to address these concerns. The Church of England set up an Archbishops’ Racism Action Commission to drive forward bold changes to ensure racial equality in the church. Churches around the Western hemisphere have publicly condemned racism and organised webinars to discuss anti-racism. 

This letter is addressed to Christians who have adopted a lukewarm attitude towards anti-black racial justice efforts. For the sake of clarity, this letter is not explicitly addressed to white Christians only. In the aftermath of the protest resulting from Floyd’s murder, I have had discussions with black and white Christians, listened to sermons from black and white preachers and read articles and social media posts from black and white Christians. I have come across white Christians who are unhappy with the gross injustice meted on blacks and seen some black Christians who feel that the clamour for racial equality is unnecessary. For those who don’t support the quest for racial justice, rest assured that this letter is written in love. Selah.

There are several ways in which we have recently manifested our racial apathy. We say that anti-black racism campaigners should remove hatred from their hearts and be more forgiving; we call for a colourblind approach since our identity is in Christ; we say that in agitating for racial justice, blacks are being earthly focused instead of heavenly focused; we say that blacks should stop playing the victim; we focus on the flaws of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) organisation instead of the humanity of black lives, and we say the church should not be involved in politics. 

I will address each of these points later on, but for us to understand the present, a historical analysis of the role of the Western church in racial injustice comes in handy. Selah.

Christianity in the West has a long history of being on the wrong side of anti-black racial justice. When millions of Africans were kidnapped from the shores of Africa and taken to work as slaves in American plantations, slavery was justified on biblical grounds. The slave masters read from Genesis 9:18-27 to explain why they were right to ill-treat their slaves by using the following Aristotelian syllogism:

Premise 1: Noah cursed the descendants of his son Ham with servitude

Premise 2: Blacks are descendants of Ham

Conclusion: Blacks should be treated as slaves.

Once the slaves were well established in the plantations, during Sunday service, the preacher would quote from Ephesians 6:5-7: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favour when their eye is on you but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart.” 

Blacks who agitated for freedom, besides being whiplashed were accused of disobeying God’s command. The black slaves in the Caribbean were given “Slave Bibles.” The slave bible excluded the parts where Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt. Some slave masters felt that “Teaching enslaved people Biblical lessons about obedience and accepting one’s fate would help them be better slaves.” Selah.

In the aftermath of the Berlin Conference of 1884, the Western powerhouses of Britain, France, Portugal, Germany and Belgium partitioned Africa. This Scramble for Africa led to the colonisation of the continent. Britain was one of the most prominent players in the looting of Africa. It was able to become the dominant global economy through the bent and broken backs of black Africans. 

Western Christian missionaries served as agents of colonialism by giving the European empires a veneer of morality. As they built schools, hospitals and preached the Good News, they turned a blind eye to the atrocities committed in the name of God and Queen/King. Some of the missionaries helped in the negotiation of unfavourable treaties, which put Africans at a disadvantage. There is a famous quote attributed to Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu: “When the white man arrived, he had the Bible, and we had the land; now, we have the Bible, and he has the land.” Selah.

When slavery morphed into Jim Crow racial segregation in the US, some preachers advocated a “segregationist theology” which placed blacks at the bottom of the racial totem pole. The Citizens’ Councils, a white supremacist organisation, produced children’s books, which taught that heaven was segregated. The criteria for membership of this organisation was to, “Pay $3 a year dues, be white, be a segregationist, be a loyal American, and believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ.” 

As blacks began to advocate for racial justice during the Civil Rights Era, some American Christians felt uncomfortable with the quest for racial change. The most explicit demonstration of this mindset can be found in the response to Martin Luther King’s involvement in the protest to end segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. 

To recap, King was arrested for leading a protest and while in jail, eight white Alabama clergymen sent a message to him calling the protest unwise and untimely. In response, King drafted his famous Letter From a Birmingham Jail calling out the clergymen’s racial apathy. 

The Alabama clergymen’s opposition to King’s quest for racial justice bears some semblance to the opposition we see today from some of us. More on this later. Selah.

During the slavery and Jim Crow era, some Christians sanctioned anti-black racial terrorism, this time around a number of Christians in the West have embraced the approach of the eight white Alabama clergyman by condemning the victims of racial terror seeking justice. Some of us accuse anti-black racial campaigners of not abiding by the biblical creed of “loving your enemies”. Some of us say that instead of being bitter, blacks should seek reconciliation and forgive those who terrorise them. Agreed we should love our enemies and pray for those who despitefully use us, but that does not preclude us from seeking justice. 

We assume that justice equates to revenge. When blacks seek justice, they are asking for protection from physical and social extinction. For centuries, blacks have faced genocide. Seeking justice is a preventative measure to police killings, housing discrimination, employment discrimination, health discrimination, criminal justice discrimination, economic discrimination and other forms of systematic racial discrimination. 

Like the clergymen who accused black protestors of hatred and violence, we accuse today’s protesters of violence. Most of the protests have been nonviolent, and the destruction of properties, which we have watched on our television screens, are the exceptions rather than the rule. We should ask ourselves why we are more bothered with the pulling down of statues and the protection of property than about the conditions that provoked such a response? Do properties have more intrinsic value than the millions of God’s black children left bruised and bloodied on life’s Jericho Road? 

In his response to the clergymen who accused him of inciting violence, King noted the clergymen preferred a “Negative peace, which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice”. From the book of Isaiah, we read: “Learn to do good; Seek justice, Rebuke the oppressor; Defend the fatherless, Plead for the widow.” Why are we then refraining from seeking justice and rebuking the oppressed instead of the oppressor? Selah.

Some of us argue that blacks should focus on their identity in Christ rather than on the colour of their skin. We quote Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” 

We suggest that labels like “black”, “people of colour” and “black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME)” are irrelevant because our lives are hidden in Christ. 

In analysing the ongoing protest, Dr Gavin Ashenden, the former chaplain to the Queen, noted: “The problem is it camouflages what Christianity’s solution to racism is. Christianity offers a supernatural solution by having people fall in love with God, be forgiven and forgive all others and then become colour blind.” Yes, our identity is in Christ, but in this worldly kingdom, race plays an essential part in life’s outcome. 

Without a doubt, we are one in Christ, but in the West, a clear racial divide exists between blacks and whites. When police officer Derek Chauvin put his knee on George Floyd for eight minutes and forty-six seconds, he didn’t see someone created in the image of God; he saw a black man instead. When two police officers from Oxford assaulted my brother in 2018, they didn’t see someone whose identity was in Christ; they saw a black man instead. 

This divide manifests in the church. According to research conducted by Barna Group, the evangelical Christian polling firm, 70% of black practicing Christians were motivated to address racial injustice while only 35% of white practicing Christians felt the same. Only 38% of white practicing Christians felt America had a race problem compared to 78% of black practicing Christians. A 2017 Pew Research study revealed that 71% of white evangelical Protestants believed the American police were doing an “excellent” or “good” job protecting people from crime whereas only 45% of black Protestants felt the same. Selah.

Some of us accuse blacks of being earthly minded instead of heavenly minded. King also addressed this issue in his Birmingham letter when he wrote: “In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: ‘Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.’ And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.” 

We argue that the body of Christ should not get involved in politics; hence our reluctance to lend support to anti-black racial campaigns. In doing this, we create a paradox. On the one hand, we say “no politics” when it comes to seeking racial justice. On the other hand, some of us support politicians, policies and referendums that perpetuate institutional racism. Selah.

We say black people should be spiritually awake and not just racially awake. But, blacks can be both spiritually awake and racially awake. We note that blacks should move on and stop playing the victim. My fellow citizens of the household of God, why are we looking at things from the inhumanity of the oppressor instead of the humanity of the oppressed? Blacks in the West should and must play the victim until racial justice rolls down like waters and racial righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Selah.

Instead of focusing on the viciousness of anti-black racism, we expend our energy on the flaws of the BLM organisation. We seem to confuse BLM the concept with BLM the organisation. BLM the concept means that the lives of black people matter. Those who use the slogan are not saying that all lives or white lives don’t matter. They are saying black lives are at risk and need to be preserved. 

BLM the organisation is a “Global organisation in the US, UK and Canada, whose mission is to eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on black communities by the state and vigilantes.” 

The BLM movement is a subset of the anti-black racial activist movement, which includes but is not limited to bodies such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Congress of Racial Equality, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Equal Justice Initiative and the National Urban League. We are, however, quick to dismiss BLM and any agitation for black racial justice as anti-Christian, anti-family and anti-capitalism and on this basis. It’s as if we don’t care about the plight of God’s children in the West treated as second-class citizens. Selah.

King Solomon once said: “There is nothing new under the sun.” Our dismissal of an anti-black racist organisation to justify the racial status quo is also not new. The eight Alabama clergymen mentioned earlier dismissed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights who were working to bring about racial justice, as purveyors of violence. 

According to Tisa Wenger, an associate professor of American religious history at Yale Divinity School: “Much like their proslavery predecessors, 20th-Century segregationists argued that the civil rights movement was trying to impose an alien, anti-Christian, even communistic ideology that would destroy the Christian racial order of the South.” 

Why are we repeating the same thing in the 21st Century? Selah.

Some young people in the black community feel that Christianity has conspired against them. They see it as a white religion that does not care about them. When we dismiss their frustration, demonise organisations fighting for their causes, turn a blind eye to racial injustice and support racist politicians and policies, we reinforce their suspicion. This has led some of them to seek answers in other religions. 

From our attitudes, we are presenting them with a 21st Century variant of the slave bible. We have taken out the Exodus story and the message that God is interested in the deliverance of the oppressed; we have ignored Jesus’s concern for the “least of these”; we have ignored King Solomon’s, “When justice is done, it is a joy to the righteous but terror to evildoers”; we have ignored Prophet Amos, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”; we have ignored Prophet Isaiah, “For I the Lord love justice; I hate robbery and wrong”; we have ignored Prophet Jeremiah, “Thus says the Lord: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed.” 

My fellow Christians, let us wake up from our racial apathy and demonstrate that Christianity and black racial justice are not antithetical. 

May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you. My love to all of you in Christ Jesus. Amen.