Speaking About Race This Sunday?

Whether to speak, what to say

Pastors may be wondering whether they should say something about the subject of race this Sunday in church, and, if they conclude that they should, they may be struggling to know exactly what to say. I think it would be weird and wrong for pastors to say nothing at all about race when so much of the western world, online and in real life, is convulsed in the aftermath of the tragic, chilling, and cold-blooded killing of George Floyd. How much should be said, and in what way, will vary from place to place. As we consider speaking (be that online, in prayer, from the pulpit, etc) we need to be very careful not just to blurt out ill-considered comments because we feel we must be heard to say something. In the midst of our speaking we will also want to commit to a longer-term search for wisdom, to more considered and careful reflection and teaching. We can speak clearly of the evil of racism and riots while also acknowledging that we ourselves have much more to learn.

Racism is real and always will be

If you are not yourself black you only need to ask a black friend about their day to day experience of racism to know that, for all the progress there has undoubtedly been in recent decades on many fronts, racism tragically remains very real. I do not believe that we will ever reach the point where the church can stop addressing the problem of racism, because it is part of the pervasive bad fruit of the fall. Even as Cain killed Abel, so one person will always hate another, and often the hatred will fall along racial lines. While its forms may vary (Gentile vs Jew, white vs black, black vs Asian, Chinese vs Japanese), racism will always be with us. It must therefore always be addressed in the church because we always need to be thinking and teaching about how we love our neighbours and our brothers and sisters in the particular places and times where God has put us. This is not a distraction from the gospel, it is the living out of the gospel.

Trying, and failing?

It is easy for a white man to be too scared to say anything about racism on a public platform for fear of getting it wrong. Even the individual words I use here may offend you, without me knowing or intending it. I am sorry should that prove to be the case. But I suspect it is better at this juncture to try and to fail than not to try at all, so here are some thoughts for pastors as they prepare to preach this coming Sunday against the backdrop of recent events.

Checking our motives

In addressing racism (from the pulpit, in praying, conversation, online, etc) I suggest that we need to check our motives:

– We ought not to do it just to be seen to be saying something.

– We ought not to do it because we are attention-hungry, like a sad, insecure celebrity.

– We ought not to do it because we want to be friends with the world. ‘At last, an issue where we can align with what the world thinks!’ Here’s a test to see if that is your motive: do you also still comment on issues where you are out of step with the world? Speaking on race may well gain you friends in the world. Speaking against abortion or the LGBTQ agenda will not. As a Christian pastor you need to be utterly reconciled to being on the wrong side in the world’s eyes.

Rather, we ought to speak first and foremost from love: love for the God who created all people, and love for our brothers and sisters and neighbours.

And we ought to speak as under-shepherds of the precious flock with primarily pastoral intentions:

– To examine ourselves and to help our churches examine themselves with a view to repentance and change. Repentance is at the heart of the gospel message and must always be where we start. We cannot assume that racism is a problem out there among others and not in our midst. We may be greatly helped (and saddened) by discussing with our own members their experiences of prejudice and even just clumsiness within our own church.

– To look to help and comfort those most immediately affected (which for many will mean black members in our churches).

– To help the church as a whole to think through what is going on around them.

– To build the church: the only truly viable multi-lingual, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-national, and multi-racial body.

A deeper problem

And what of the content of our words? When we speak, we need to speak from deep inside the Scriptures and the gospel. Many of us are, to our shame, playing catch up in thinking about race when the world has already gone ahead of us. The danger with such a weighty and already-established bandwagon rolling so loudly through our cities is that we uncritically hitch ourselves onto the back of it and end up parroting worldly analyses. But while we can and should learn from such worldly analyses, we ought not just to buy into their diagnoses of the problem.

Any worldly analysis of the problem of racism will fall short of grasping its true depth and will actually reject a biblical analysis. An examination that stops at the socio-economic or even the psychological level and does not find the roots of racist sin in the depths of human hatred for God and his creation underestimates the depth of the human problem. By contrast, worldly analyses have a tendency, at least as they are repeated in the media and on social media, to be very reductive. Discrimination against black people is real, wrong, and we cannot be complacent about it. We must avoid reductionist explanations of it. Indeed, the very seriousness of it demands more careful thought and searching analysis. As I understand it, an example of reductionism would be an over-emphasis on white privilege as the source of black suffering. Some of the privileges I enjoy come to me because I am white, but most of my privileges have come to me because of the prosperity and stability of the family into which I was born. These are as much my privileges over against less privileged white people as against blacks. And the evidence shows that in America whites are themselves surpassed on many measures of privilege by Asians, as Nigerians often surpass black people from other nations.1 Reductive, recurring reference, for example to white privilege, may actually lead us to miss far more serious aspects of discrimination.

Avoiding over-simplifications

Worldly analysis is also quick to over-simplify the moral dimensions of situations. There are some incredibly moving videos of powerful, peaceful protests in the States and here in the UK. Most striking for me have been the crowds of people lying on the ground with their hands behind their backs crying out ‘I can’t breathe’. Others have been shouting out in anguished complaints about the mistreatment of black people. But some ‘protests’ have sunk into riots and looting, so there are also videos of white and black thugs daubing obscenities and gleefully smashing private property, sometimes with others, including black women whose own property has been attacked, trying to stop them and agonizing over the misrepresentation of their just cause. Increasing numbers of people have been killed by the rioters, including David Dorn, a black retired police officer trying to protect a friend’s shop.2 Again, there is on the one hand footage of police attacking peaceful protesters, just as there are moving images of white police and army officers speaking alongside black community leaders or defending their right to protest even as they ask them to keep the peace.3 To such a mix of events we must have an appropriately careful and distinguished response, speaking clearly against all sin coming from any quarter.

Worldly baggage

As Christians we should also be wary of parroting worldly analyses because they often come with extensive baggage that we cannot endorse. A good example of this is the organisation Black Lives Matter. I passionately believe black lives matter, but I disagree with the organisation Black Lives Matter as it describes itself on its own terms. As a Christian I reject all violent attacks on transgender and gay people, but I cannot affirm a homosexual lifestyle or any human attempt to overturn God-given biological sex, so I cannot support an organisation that defines itself as dismantling ‘cisgender privilege’, as ‘queer‐affirming’, and as seeking freedom ‘from the tight grip of heteronormative thinking’.4 Christians who rush to tag their posts with the organisation’s name are not simply opposing racism, they are unwittingly supporting an entire ‘progressive’ agenda. It is possible to believe utterly that black lives matter, and to say so loudly and clearly, while refusing to endorse the organisation that bears its name and therefore the hashtag that goes with it. We can speak the truth in different words, perhaps even more biblical words.

The unique hope

Worldly analyses also fall far short of providing true hope in the face of racism. The church is all too obviously far from perfect and has been appallingly complicit in much sin throughout its history, including racist sins such as antisemitism and the slave trade. Nevertheless, and only by God’s grace, the church remains the only place where there is a true and metaphysically grounded basis for love between people of different races. That basis is found in the realities of creation (Gen. 1:26-28) and redemption (Gal. 3:28). The Lord Jesus Christ reconciles us to God, but he also reconciles us to one another as no one else can (both aspects are gloriously expressed in Ephesians 2). This is not to deny the place of all worldly social programmes; God can improve societies through his common as well as his saving grace. But there is a limit to the extent of that common grace improvement. If we are serious about racial reconciliation and harmony, we will only find the power for it through the work of Christ and through the Spirit he has poured out on the church. And we can long for the day when it comes, when the knowledge of the glory of the Lord fills the earth as the waters cover the sea.

[1] For a critique of the white privilege explanation and statistics see https://quillette.com/2019/08/22/why-white-privilege-is-wrong-part-1/.

[2] The Guardian has an article detailing some of these deaths: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/02/george-floyd-protests-people-killed.

[3] See for example Lt Col. Sam Andrews of the Minnesota National Guard addressing a crowd: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fjWxmSUNfv4.

[4] https://blacklivesmatter.com/what-we-believe/.