I hesitated to even start writing this post. After all, I’m a white guy in England – what do I have to add to the debate, the conversation, the placards? A large part of me thinks that I should just close my laptop, to shut up and listen to the voices that need to be heard. There’s a huge list of names, people of colour killed by American police, but I don’t know how to speak into that, don’t know how to heal the effects of this trauma on young black men and their families. It feels like another world at times; that’s probably part of the problem.
But in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King spared his greatest criticism not for the ardent segregationists, but for the white ‘allies’ who thought that his protests were foolish and needlessly provocative and who hoped that the whole Civil Rights thing would quietly work itself out. It didn’t then, and it won’t now. Peaceful actions are ignored, riots are condemned, the wheel keeps turning.
We celebrated Pentecost last week, the time when the Church was brought together by the fire and the breath of the Holy Spirit, when people from all around the known world heard God speaking in their own language. And yet we celebrated that when American cities burned in the outrage of communities who have been ignored for too long, burned in the counter-rage of those who wanted to make protesters into demons. A week later, two thousand years later and we’re still confronted with the duty as well as the gift of Pentecost; this feels like a time of repentance and confrontational justice and, I hope, a time of deep and genuine healing. It’ll take time but there have already been too many wasted and unjust years.
Jesus traveled through Samaria, despite local racial tensions, because Samaritan lives mattered; the early church had to confront its prejudices towards parts of their community because the lives of Greek widows mattered; Philip baptised the Ethiopian eunuch, despite him being a social outsider, because Black lives matter, and they always have. But throughout our history, we’ve failed to remember that simple truth, that lesson in basic humanity.
So Pope Nicholas V baptised the Doctrine of Discovery so that European Christian empires could take control of any lands they found, no matter who was already living there. That led to the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the American Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan. It led to overflowing coffers for cities like Liverpool and Bristol; it led to ‘Negro collars’ and chains and cuffs being forged in the area in which I grew up, it led to newspaper readers in the city I now live cancelling their subscriptions because the editor called attention to the horrors of slavery. It led to the theologian James Cone drawing comparisons between the Crucifixion and the lynchings that scarred the American south. And, in many ways, it led to more modern words that speak to toxic ideologies and theologies that move virus-like through our society’s DNA: Grenfell, Windrush, Hostile Environment.
Words, of course, have layers of meaning. It’s easy to say, like so many do, that “All lives matter”. It’s a phrase that, on its surface, sounds true. But we live in a world where some lives seem to matter more than others. Some lives are more likely to end up in prison. Some lives are more likely to be animalised by Google’s algorithms. Some lives are less likely to have clean water to drink. Some lives are more likely to be ended by COVID-19. There’s a pattern here that suggests that, actually, all lives don’t matter. And that’s a sin.
Ad so I come back to Pentecost, the birth of the Church, a Church that is made up of people of all races, all nationalities, all ethnicities, a Church that was born in an explosion of different languages. We are one Body, this Church, and if we look at that demographically, that Body is one of colour; if we look like our Saviour, then that Body is that of a brown Middle-Easterner.
Yes, I’m being deliberately provocative here, but it feels like this is a time not only for repentance but a greater appreciation of the Church’s diversity. Because we are brothers and sisters, and some of those brothers and sisters are scared right now, they’re angry and frustrated and traumatised and because we’re bound together by bread and wine, by Blood and Spirit, we can’t remain on the sidelines. We can’t fix this, not as individuals, but we can learn, we can support, we can stand in the gap, we can check our hearts. We can sing. We can amplify. We can pray.
Because Black Lives Matter. And it’s a sin to live as though they don’t.