'We Need to Talk about Race'
As a culture, we like to think that we are ‘on the right side of history’. We have emerged from the darkness of ancient history and are now ‘enlightened’ about issues such as sexuality, gender, the environment and more. But there is at least one area in which both society and the church are almost equally on the wrong side of history: race.
Once upon a time, black, white and Middle Eastern people were equal participants in the shaping of culture, scholarship and Christianity. Think of Augustine, Tertullian, Clement of Athens, Origen… What do you picture when you think of these early, and incredibly formative, theologians? If the image in your mind is a bunch of bearded white men, you need to think again. All these teachers and thinkers were black Africans.
If you're white, pay attention to what your mind and emotions are doing as you read this. Are you rejoicing in the truth, repenting of our whitewashing of history, or thinking, even in part, ‘but…they can’t be. Really?’
And what about Jesus, the disciples, Paul, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Moses, Noah, Adam and Eve. You’re almost certainly picturing them as white, even though they must have been at least Middle Eastern, if not African. Centuries and centuries of religious art have portrayed them as unequivocally white, and that has shaped our perception such that it is at least surprising, and often shocking to try to imagine them as black.
Why does this matter? It matters because it shapes our perceptions of what is ‘normal’ – and hence of what is ‘right’. If you think that every Biblical figure and Christian leader throughout the centuries has been white, you will subconsciously be looking to white people to continue leading the church now - particularly if you are white yourself. You will assume a line of cultural heritage that includes white people and excludes those of other skin colours. If you're white, you may even subconsciously believe that this is in some way due to merit, and entirely fail to recognise the centuries of racism that have caused and perpetuated this disparity.
The fallout from this is the focus of Ben Lindsay’s excellent new book, released today, called We Need to Talk about Race. Lindsay seeks to help his readers understand the experience of black Christians in white majority churches – and to begin to think of ways that we can bring change.
This is an issue of justice. It is not right that people of colour are marginalised in western culture, it is even worse that they experience the same marginalisation and discrimination in the church, where we are all explicitly told to be one in Christ Jesus, where colour, race and background should be irrelevant to our inclusion and flourishing.
You may be thinking “My church doesn’t exclude people from leadership because of their colour; we look for gifting, and for those who have stepped up to serve in other areas of ministry.” But imagine that throughout your life every time you stepped up to lead or take responsibility you had been mocked, criticised or ‘cut down to size’. Imagine that had been your parents’ experience, and their parents’ before them. When you have been repeatedly, persistently shamed for doing the things your white friends are expected, encouraged, even urged to do, what would make you keep trying? Add to that the fact that in many cultures it is considered extremely rude to push yourself forward; you must wait to be invited. It is no wonder that black, Asian and other minority ethnic people hold back in our churches.
As I have learned more about social justice in the last few years, it has become clear to me that one key thing that those in the minority (or marginalised – it is very possible for a small minority to hold the power – it’s a power game, not a numbers game) culture need is advocates. They need someone from the culture of power to advocate for them, to speak up for them, to encourage them, to form a bridge between them and the leaders of the culture. Lindsay refers to these advocates as allies, people who will come alongside the marginalised, listen to them, get to know them, find out not only what their needs are, but what their strengths are, what their culture is like, who they are as individuals, not as a homogenous bloc needing a white saviour. If you are white, who could you be an ally for in your church? How could you begin to turn the tide of injustice within your church family? If you are black, who are your white friends in church? Is there anyone you trust enough to read this book with them and share your perspective?
“White people might ask ‘Why must I make all the effort?’”, Lindsay says. “The answer is easy: you’re the majority culture and you are part of the power structure, whether you know it or not.” We have centuries of injustice to begin to repair. We need to start now.
It is a challenging book, which touches on all kinds of difficult subjects, like slavery and reparations, without having the time or space to go into them in any great depth. It is richly biblical, though, and will provoke deep soul-searching in anyone who has ears to hear and a heart for justice. And it ends with hope – the assurance of the ability of prayer to power the fight and to make a difference in even the darkest of nights.
We Need to Talk about Race by Ben Lindsay is published by SPCK. You can buy it from their website or from any good book retailer.