A year ago, I wrote a piece titled “Hey Church, Why Don’t We Talk About Race.” A year later, in response to the murder of George Floyd, many UK churches are taking the opportunity to talk about racism. However, for many, this is the first conversation concerning racism. And so, today, I would like to clarify why it is particularly important for multi-ethnic churches in the UK to continue talking about racism.
Firstly, the church and racism have been affiliated for centuries. For example slavery. Although many Christians (i.e. William Wilberforce) were against slavery, there were also many Christians for slavery. Arguments were justified biblically; for example, the story of Ham.
In Genesis, Ham - son of Noah, was cursed by his father after seeing him pass out drunk and naked. Unlike his two brothers, who covered Noah while walking backwards to avoid disgracing him, Ham was cursed to be ‘the lowest slave of his brothers’ (Genesis 9:20-27). Christians believed Noah’s words to be of divine intelligence and, according to Larry R. Morrison, slavery was ‘an accomplishment of Noah’s prediction’.
Some biblical dictionaries suggest black people are said to be descendents of Ham based on Genesis 10:6. But also due to the Hebrew and Egyptian translations of the name Ham, which refers to warmth, sunburnt or black. Therefore, as Larry R. Morrison continues, since Noah did not remove the curse from his son, Ham, the legacy of slavery would continue ‘indefinitely’ to his descendants. Since black people were the presumed descendants, slavery was merely the divine fruition of Noah’s curse and thus, biblically rooted.
Another affiliation between the church and racism is found within the colonial missionaries. These missionaries were spies and agents, suggests Walter Rodney in his book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Spies sent to subdue the people. This was accomplished through messages of submission and forgiveness, encouraging Africans not to rise up against white Europeans, who were exploiting the land and the people (Rodney 277-278).
Those uncivilised black savages don’t need to hear about equality but rather obedience. Yeah, that sounds about right.
As Jomo Kenyatta, the first president of the Republic of Kenya, said: ‘When the missionaries arrived, the Africans had the land and the missionaries had the Bible. They taught us how to pray with our eyes closed. When we opened them, they had the land and we had the Bible.’
It is interesting to look at the vision of the Bible the Europeans took with them during imperialism. A vision of the Bible, which whitewashed many biblical figures including Jesus Christ himself.
Yeah, that’s right I’m talking about the white Jesus.
Firstly, the image of Jesus was constructed centuries after He was alive and His prominent European features, The Roots states, reflected the Roman Empire - not Jesus Christ; thus supporting their own anthropomorphic supremacy.
But that was all in the past; slavery was abolished and the colonies were given their independence. Churches are becoming more diverse! However, I believe, it is imperative that the church looks at her past in order to understand her present. And because we have not, we have allowed room for racism to evolve.
Let me introduce you to: The Progressive Colour-Blind Multi-Ethnic Church.
The Progressive Colour-Blind Church believes all its members are equal. The Progressive Colour-Blind Church preaches from scripture, such as Galatians 3:28 and Ephesians 2:15. We are all the same, Amen? Amen! The Progressive Colour-Blind Church doesn’t see race.
This is a red flag.
(But the Progressive Colour-Blind Church doesn’t see colour so…)
The problem is, as detailed in Ben Lindsay’s We Need to Talk About Race, the use of scripture, such as those detailed previously, becomes a ‘blanket message.’ It is comforting, blinding and creates a church monoculture, which ‘downplays difference’ (38). Essentially, the Progressive Colour-Blind Church preaches universality within diversity.
However, universality is a societal narrative which upholds one person, one ideal as the norm everyone is measured against, and since imperialism, this ideal has been white people. In the article “Melancholic Universalism,” Sara Ahmed suggests universalism is performative, requiring people to give up signs of differences. Thus, when whiteness is held as the universal in the church, non-white church members are encouraged to reject or give up differences to fit in.
This is a problem as it begins to echo past tactics of whitewashing and subduing non-white church members. The consequence of not seeing colour and race, as noted by Ben Lindsay, is white church members will ‘ignore the realities, concerns, joys and fears of people of colour’ (89).
However, the most notable aspect is that 'diversity' could be read and internalised as a façade in multi-ethnic churches. Using the bare minimum to respond to racism because of [insert ethnic minority name] is an excuse and tokenism.
‘Diversity’ is a dirty word, in which you are expected to be seen but not participate. 'Diversity' seems to be addressed as knowing there are other cultures besides your own and maybe acknowledging differences in food or dress. But does it go skin deep?
There are trends of racism within multi-ethnic churches; this is exemplified through the resignation of Dave Gilpin, the former pastor of Hope City, a multi-ethnic mega church. A pastor who a year after making racist claims was only recently told to resign.
The church must take responsibility for our involvement in racism. In understanding the weight and pain of our involvement do we learn to be accountable for our actions. I will not forsake the churches striving to do so, whether that be paying reparations or having these long overdue conversations. But this is a responsibility the church as a whole must take up.
Not because the church was caught by the world - as this leads to attempts to be politically correct and no room for true growth - but rather because the Bible and the nature of God is against racism. The Bible is explicitly clear that we must stand for the oppressed (Jeremiah 22:3), as well as exemplifying that the church was multi-ethnic from its inception.
In understanding the church's history, in her entirety, do we understand how far away the church drifted from God, during imperialism until today, in order to glorify ourselves. We begin to understand that we forced God to cosign off on our sin.
If there is one thing to make clear, it is that racism is alive and well. It has a seat at the dinner table, it follows you to school or work, it sits next to you at church and it preaches from the pulpit.
The church, the multi-ethnic church, is not exempt from its involvement. I urge the multi-ethnic church to clarify what diversity means, does it go skin deep? I urge dialogue and not monologues between church members. Finally, to the multi-ethnic church, I urge you not to get consumed by this oxymoronic cheery rainbow church. As the late Ravi Zacharias said, “you’ll never get to a person’s soul until you understand their hurt.”