The reality of racial injustice: six churches reflect
With protests against racial injustice continuing across the world following the killing of George Floyd, many of CTE's 50 Member Churches have been speaking out against racism, and CTE’s Presidents have announced that they are listening carefully to a range of black voices.
Here, individuals from five of our Member Churches share their reflections on racial injustice, including how their church is currently seeking to address racism, and what more churches can do to bring about racial justice. Rev Wale Hudson-Roberts, Justice Enabler for Baptists Together, also shares a personal reflection with us, entitled ‘I can’t breathe’.
Reflections on the five questions below are provided by:
Catholic church: Gloria Oham from the Catholic Association for Racial Justice (CARJ)
Church of England: Rev Lusa Nsenga-Ngoy, a member of the Committee for Minority Ethnic Anglican Concerns (CMEAC) and diocesan BAME Mission and Ministry Enabler in Leicester
Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG): Dr Tolu Olarewaju from RCCG Living Waters Parish, Stoke-on-Trent
Salvation Army: Major Jonny Smith, Intercultural Mission Enabler
United Reformed Church (URC): Karen Campbell, Secretary for Global and Intercultural Ministries
1. Recent events in America have brought the issues of racial justice into the spotlight, what are your reflections on the US situation?
Gloria (CARJ): The killing of George Floyd is the latest in a long line of deaths in police custody. May George Floyd rest in peace, and may his family see justice done. We are shocked but not surprised to see protests breaking out across the USA and in other parts of the world – including here in the UK.
Lusa (Church of England): It is saddening and concerning to witness the ongoing experience of brutality, exclusion and oppression faced by black, indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC) in the USA. Persistent structural and systemic racism has plagued the lives of countless generations of BIPOC and continues to determine outcomes for all Americans. Despite a long history of civil resistance and protest, racism in US society seems inextricably rooted in the fabric of its society. Unfortunately, successive administrations appear unable to untangle themselves from this legacy. The recent wave of protest offers some hope for change, but the way ahead is paved with multiple challenges.
Tolu (RCCG): The ideal of “equal justice for all” has long been an appeal of the US. In actuality, this is not the case. For much of the country’s history, formal and informal constraints have prevented people of colour from participating fully in central components of economic life, including employment, social mobility and homeownership. The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and the many other deaths of women and men of colour at the hands of police and self-appointed vigilantes, have recently highlighted racial biases in the criminal justice system in the US.
Jonny (Salvation Army): As I reflect on racial justice, these images of George Floyd’s death are out in the open for all to see – it’s horrible and completely wrong. However, even if none of this violent criminal behavior was happening, we need to remember that racial injustice, both in the US and here, is still very present. Everything that I am reading would indicate that the system, in seemingly all walks of life, gives white people an unfair and unjust advantage over other people.
Karen (URC): It is ‘shocking’, and yet I am not surprised. That’s why it is so terrible and beyond sad! Something which should shock us to our core is actually not particularly surprising in the context of the world in which we live. But I am positively surprised by the reaction – in the US, in the UK and around the world. I hope and wonder whether this is one terrible incident too far, and real change might finally be possible.
2. What are your thoughts on racial injustice in the UK context?
Gloria (CARJ): In 1981, disturbances involving the police and black communities in Brixton, Toxteth and Moss Side led to the Scarman Inquiry, and similar disturbances at Broadwater Farm Estate in Tottenham in 1985 led to the Gifford Inquiry. The murder of Stephen Lawrence (1993) was eventually the subject of the Macpherson Report (1999) in which the police response was judged to have been inadequate, and the issue of ‘institutional racism’ was finally addressed. Despite real improvement over the years, the legacy of this history is still in place today. People from BAME communities are over-represented in almost all areas of the Criminal Justice System. They are more likely to be the target of ‘stop and search’, more likely to be arrested and more likely to receive a prison sentence.
Lusa (Church of England): Unlike the US context, debate about racial injustice in the UK is less prevalent in the public arena. Instead, racism is often unhelpfully relegated to private attitudes and behaviours pertaining to the white working class section of the population. It is also suggested that racial injustice in the UK has a more insidious expression than in other parts of the world. However, the empirical and anecdotal evidence suggest that structural and systemic racism is a pervasive reality in the UK, and a key factor in maintaining persistent socio-economic disadvantages.
Tolu (RCCG): The history of racial injustice in the UK is linked to its relationship with its former colonies. Currently, there are obvious racial injustices in the country including an ethnicity pay gap, differences in employment rates, access to education, social mobility opportunities, and biases in the criminal justice system. Black and minority ethnic (BAME) individuals are also more likely to work in low-paid sectors with limited progression opportunities. Racial injustices in the UK context are intertwined with the social and economic systems that govern the UK, and are often more subtle than the form that exists in the US.
Jonny (Salvation Army): For the past 18 years I have lived in London and become friends with many people, including people from BAME communities. In these 18 years I have raised questions within my own institution, The Salvation Army, numerous times regarding racial injustice. The reality is that from reception through to university places, and from job opportunities through to applications in church ministry, BAME people largely face a complete disadvantage. In 2016, David Harewood highlighted this in the TV documentary Will Britain ever have a black prime minister? As every prime minster has been Oxbridge educated, and with a disproportionate amount of white people studying in these institutions, at present, the answer would be no! It’s completely wrong, because this, along with so many of our systems, is unjust and simply needs to change!
Karen (URC): Racial injustice is both real and prevalent – in every area of life – though not as overt as in America. The fact that it is ‘less obvious’ makes it more difficult to address – easier for it to be denied, and for BAME people to question themselves: “Is it me… or is it the system?” There is a suggestion that the UK has no problem, and that the failing lies within individuals, or groups of people. Often, if BAME people presume to speak out, they are perceived as “playing the race card again… and we’re tired of it!” We need education… and change!
3. Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic. What are your reflections on this?
Gloria (CARJ): BAME people suffer more seriously and die more often than others in UK society. This is a multi-faceted problem. While geography, age, gender and underlying conditions each has its place, there are other factors like poverty, housing and employment which contribute to the vulnerability of Black and Minority Ethnic Communities. We must seek to understand this complexity. BAME groups are more likely to be employed as essential workers such as bus drivers, care workers, shop workers, cleaners, nurses etc. They tend to work in jobs that take care of others – a vocation rather than just a job. However, these are often low-paid jobs, which then mean poorer living conditions.
Lusa (Church of England): While we want to affirm that all human deaths are a loss to our shared humanity, we lament the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 On United Kingdom Minority Ethnic (UKME) communities. The pandemic has only highlighted pre-existing societal fault lines within UK society. It has shone a light on the structural and systemic racism that negatively impacts the lives of people from the global majority in the UK. The effect of Covid-19 on BAME communities has exposed the detrimental impact that unfavourable policies are having on many migrant workers, and proving the limits of the human cost of the “hostile environment” approach.
Tolu (RCCG): Social, demographic, economic and political factors have all contributed to the disproportionate rates of infection and death for BAME communities as regards the coronavirus pandemic. BAME populations are significantly more represented within the lower socioeconomic strata of society in terms of income, housing, education, poverty, and other indices of deprivation. A higher proportion of people from BAME backgrounds also have underlining health issues such as type 2 diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular diseases (CVD), and other respiratory diseases. Furthermore, structural discrimination and stressors also affect BAME populations physically and mentally. All these are compounded by the fact that there is an over-representation of BAME workers in high-risk occupational sectors such as frontline and essential service workers.
Jonny (Salvation Army): Watching the London marathon a few years ago, I met for the very first time a Kenyan Salvation Army officer who was taking part. This fit and relatively young man, who became a friend, sadly died in April due to the virus. I then read the statistics, which again show us that people from BAME communities are more impacted if they get this virus. I then also saw a report by ITV showing how BAME NHS and care worker employees have been treated in an unjust way within their different roles. I am angry and deeply saddened by this.
Karen (URC): I have seen comments scoffing that BAME people “have a chip on their shoulders” – how can a virus be racist? Or blaming BAME people for being the source/spread of the infection. Too many people seem completely dismissive of the obvious multiple socio-economic inequalities at play. I am 100% certain that if evidence showed that white people were four times more likely to die from Covid than Black people, there would not be such a haste to ‘ease the lockdown’ – without a vaccine, without a cure, without anything really having changed! Black lives apparently don’t matter!
4. How is your church currently seeking to address racial injustice?
Gloria (CARJ): The Catholic Association for Racial Justice (CARJ) is an independent, black-led, lay-led association which seeks to work with others for a more just, more equal, more cooperative society. We try to listen to BAME voices and make them heard in the Church and the wider society. This is a form of education in which the oppressed teach the oppressor – if they are willing to listen.
Lusa (Church of England): The Church of England has been grappling with its own history of systemic and structural racism for over 30 years. While small strides have been made in representation and participation of people from the global diaspora in its life and structures, the picture remains bleak. In recent years, we have seen particular efforts to increase BAME vocations, and access to senior leadership roles for BAME people, but progress is still slow. There are also a number of dioceses currently leading significant strategic initiatives funded by the Church Commissioners to improve mission and ministry with and to people of UKME heritage.
Tolu (RCCG): The Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) in the UK has an RCCG UK Covid-19 Response Fund. This fund is for parishioners who may be in dire need due to the coronavirus pandemic. The church has sought through this activity to help its predominantly BAME parishioners to overcome economic injustices, because BAME communities have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic. The parish that I attend, RCCG Living Waters Parish in Stoke-on-Trent, was also part of the National Church Leaders Forum (NCLF) organised call to action by the black churches, responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and how it affects the BAME community. A report on how the issue affects black churches was prepared, and will hopefully make its way to those in government so that appropriate action can be taken.
Jonny (Salvation Army): The Salvation Army has for some time had policies against racism. However, we, like many other institutions, recognise that we have a very long way to go as we fight to see racial justice, both inside and outside of the Salvation Army. I was delighted a few weeks ago that the Salvation Army issued a very powerful statement which included the words: ‘(we) want to recommit to our journey of togetherness with people from BAME communities and respond with positive action.’ Action speaks louder than words, and all of us have a part to play to bring about racial justice for all people. The church is made up of each of us, and so this is not “someone else’s responsibility”.
Karen (URC): In the United Reformed Church we have a department specifically tasked with addressing issues of racial justice in Church and society as part of its remit (and other departments with overlapping agendas). We have a (sadly diminishing) network of Racial Justice Advocates, highlighting and promoting justice issues at a local/regional level. There are initiatives to enable mutual support between BAME ministers and networks, and formal responses to national and global situations. There is also an ongoing initiative considering the legacies of the transatlantic slave trade, seeking to raise awareness and respond to issues of racial injustice built on white privilege; this has both a UK and global focus via the Council for World Mission (CWM).
5. What more might church and society do to address racial injustice?
Gloria (CARJ): In the short term, we must support Black and Minority Ethnic people who are in situations that make them particularly vulnerable. Longer term, we must act to improve the fundamental inequality experienced by many in our Black and Minority Ethnic communities: income, education, housing, employment etc must be prioritised.
Lusa (Church of England): We have witnessed a recent flurry of engaged responses from a number of senior Church leaders who have spoken out against the ongoing experience of racism faced by people from the global majority in the UK as well as in the US. They have called for a need to address and redress racism in its institutional and personal forms primarily within the Church and, more widely, across society. Many in the Church of England are now calling for an independent public inquiry to investigate, as a matter of priority, issues of racism within Church and society.
Tolu (RCCG): The church needs to encourage its members to engage with the appropriate political and decision-making processes so that BAME individuals are better represented where important decisions are being made. This way the church can balance its spiritual and secular roles in ways that are pragmatic. Society must take a good look at itself and eradicate all forms of racial injustices. A renewed focus is also needed for BAME education, social mobility, advocacy, health, and social justice. Everyone should learn the values of tolerance and individual liberty, and we should never allow anyone to be looked down on due to race.
Jonny (Salvation Army): I love the idea of a journey of togetherness. However, if we want and desire a journey of togetherness, then we have to recognise that so often the majority wants the minority to join them. This is called assimilation, and quite simply, this is not togetherness! Fornet-Betancourt sums this up quite brilliantly by saying: 'we together create a community of worlds that are different yet in solidarity with each other... that are reshaped by means of the interaction of their members... (where) the organising principle... is the leading and normative idea of 'mutuality'. Such mutuality is only possible from a non-judgemental starting point which assumes that no culture has an inherent superiority over another.' This is not someone else’s responsibility – we all have a part to play towards a just society of togetherness. Please Lord, help me to play my part!
Karen (URC): The first challenge is to face it. Acknowledge it. Stop denying its reality. Re-commit to addressing the issues – I understand many posts re racial justice have been discontinued across the churches. There is a need for active listening, education and raising awareness – many people live in a bubble; they don’t understand because they don’t have to live it! Some BAME people too are so immersed in the unjust systems that we stop registering the injustices! In both Church and society, pertinent questions include: Who is present? Where are they located – socially and economically? Who has a voice? Who is in leadership? We may need to employ ‘positive discrimination’ – until the playing field is levelled – with considered efforts to foster positive self-image amongst BAME people. The Church may also need to get more involved in politics.
‘I can’t breathe’ – a personal reflection from Rev Wale Hudson-Roberts, Justice Enabler for Baptists Together.
You might have thought that, more than 50 years on from the assassination of Martin Luther King Jnr, the world would have moved on with respect to ‘racism’ – but clearly, it is not so. King’s words speak as clearly into the present moment as they did into North America in the 1960s.
“We have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition. In a sense, we have come to the nation’s capital to cash a cheque. When the architects of our republic wrote those magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all would be guaranteed the unalienable Rights of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on that promissory note insofar as the citizens of colour are concerned. Instead of honouring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad cheque, a cheque that has come back marked insufficient funds. … And so, we have come to cash this cheque, a cheque that will give us on demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of NOW. It would be fatal for the nations to overlook the urgency of the moment.”
Among the many speeches delivered that day, it was this speech that galvanized the 250,000-strong crowd. His charge was that those in power had issued a bad cheque – making a mockery of the Constitution’s historic guarantee, “In the God we trust.” King claimed that those who controlled 1960s America had ‘defaulted’ on the promises in the Declaration of Independence - despite continuing protestations that the Constitution applied equally to all Americans, both black and white. The last line of this quotation certainly has an ominous ring: “It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment.”
The March on Washington occupied the secular temples of power and disabled the conduct of commerce - just as Jesus had done long before in the Jerusalem Temple.
In Jesus’ day, the Jerusalem Temple was not only the center of religious life, but also the hub of national government, the beating heart of the nation’s economy, its central bank and treasury, and a depositary of massive wealth. It was from the Temple that there was issued pronouncements and decisions that impacted the lives of every single person in the land. In Mark’s Gospel we see Jesus, not only attacking the money changers and dove sellers but, for a short time at least, suspending all commercial operations. Mark leaves us in no doubt that Jesus was angry. ‘A den of robbers’ was the scathing expression Jesus used in his condemnation of the Temple merchants – reclaiming for another time that most bitter attacks against the Temple, the declaration of judgement on the Temple in Jeremiah 7:15. That historic judgement had found its moment a second time in the days of Jesus.
Initiatives for protest begin with God. God graciously permits us to participate in his reign by means of protest; time and again we are commissioned to challenge the structures of power reflecting the ‘image of God’ that we bear. As large swathes of North America - now joined in solidarity by protests in the UK, Germany and parts of the Middle East – challenge continuing institutional racism in their land, responsibility falls again on all who are made in the divine image to participate in advocacy. In 2020, the straw that has broken the camel’s back has been the lynching of George Floyd.
Back in the nineteenth century, Sam Sharpe (Like King, a Baptist) also committed himself to protest. His protest began peacefully, but later turned into Jamaica’s largest ever slave rebellion. The uprising lasting for around 10 days and soon spread throughout the entire island of Jamaica, mobilising as many as 60,000 of Jamaica’s enslaved population. The protests contributed to the eventual passage through the UK Parliament of the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act, culminating in the abolition of slavery across the British Empire in 1838.
King and Sharpe should remind Baptist that protest is an essential part of our inheritance. Surely our various traditions and theologies all demand that we also speak out and stand in solidarity with black and brown communities that are still experiencing institutional racism in North America – as indeed in our own country where in the aftermath of the institutional racism presented in spaces such as the Hostile Environment, Grenfell Tower Fire, Windrush Scandal, and more latterly Covid 19, many people of colour can barely ‘breathe.’
COVID-19 has shed an intense light on these injustices, both in North America and in the UK, where the death rate from the virus of the BAME community is significantly higher than that of the white population. Right now, white Baptists are being challenged once again to join a ‘holy insurrection’, going beyond merely hashtag activism, and putting their white bodies on the line - like King, Sharpe and Jesus. As Baptists Together our tradition should fly in the face of superficial platitudes about racial justice, often from the comfort of our homes, churches and Baptist Associations. Rather, it should commit white Baptists to participate in sacrificial protest with your black and brown sisters and brothers around the world. God is no neutral observer in matters of justice, racial or otherwise. God sides against injustice, with countless numbers of people of colour in this country and, everywhere, where people cry out in pain: “I can’t breathe ...”
Wale Hudson-Roberts, Justice Enabler for Baptists Together. This piece was originally published on the Baptists Together website.