Black Church political manifesto – a new form of Christian activism? by Dr David Muir

The NCLF recently published the first ever political manifesto produced by the Black Church.  Dr David Muir looks at the reason for this development and what it signifies about Britain’s Black community

Election fever is here again. In less than nine months from now, the 2015 General Election will be upon us.  October is not only Black History Month, but it is also the season for annual party conferences and a lot of political posturing and name-calling. It is the season when party leaders, spin-doctors and spokespersons tell us why we should vote for them, and how important it is to exercise our democratic right by placing our ‘X’ on the ballot papers. And, given the low turnout recently for the election of the new Policing and Crime Commissioner (PCC) in 2012, they are right to goad those who are eligible to vote to do so.

Ahead of the party conferences and the 2015 General Election, the National Church Leaders Forum (NCLF) has produced its own manifesto for action. The document is called ‘Black Church Political Mobilisation – A Manifesto for Action’ and it focuses on a number of key social and political issues. But what exactly is the purpose of the manifesto? Why was it produced, and what does the NCLF hope it will achieve?

This manifesto represents a ‘first’ for the Black Church in the UK. This is the first time that African and Caribbean church leaders have produced a document like this to politically mobilise its constituency. For some, it demonstrates that the Black Church has ‘come of age’, signalling its willingness and commitment to fully engage in the wider social and political issues of the day.

In the history of the Black Church in the diaspora, especially in America, there is a rich tradition of the Church taking the lead in the fight for justice and equality. We think of radical and prophetic people, like David Walker, Sam Sharpe, Sojourner Truth and Martin Luther King, Jr, to mention a few. We also call to memory a time when, according to the African American scholar Eric Lincoln, the church was the ‘organising principle around which life was structured’ as it became the ‘school’, the ‘forum’ and the ‘political arena’ for individuals.

This is the first time that African and Caribbean church leaders have produced a document like this to politically mobilise its constituency.”

Because the Black Church in the UK is often perceived as being silent — failing to speak out on social and political issues, and challenging major injustices faced by the Black community — it is sometimes referred to as ‘a sleeping giant’. The manifesto challenges this view in two ways. Firstly, by highlighting the range of social and community projects leaders of the African and Caribbean have established and led, it demonstrates what the churches have done and continue to do. Secondly, it advocates and recommends specific ways the church constituency should tackle some of the major problems facing the community.

Looking at the content of the manifesto, it is clear that important issues are raised, but the document does not pretend to be comprehensive. It is anticipated that the document will be a ‘live document’, with other issues added to it nearer the 2015 election. Questions will be raised in regard to its operationalisation, communication and resourcing.

In eight sections, it deals with topics including: Church and community; Policing and criminal justice; Mental health and marriage; Youth and education. Each section is divided into three parts, providing what it calls ‘The current picture’, ‘The biblical picture’ and concluding with ‘Where do we go from here?’

As a ‘manifesto for action’ and ‘political mobilisation’, it recognises the importance of voting and political engagement. It sees no dichotomy between the Christian faith and political engagement. Indeed, it argues that political engagement is ‘a part of our civic duty and Christian responsibility’. This is certainly meant to be a challenge to those, both inside and outside the Church, who say that Christians should ‘keep out of politics’.

Indeed, the manifesto argues that being ‘salt and light’ (Matthew 5:13-16) and taking seriously the welfare, peace and prosperity of ‘the city where I have sent you’ (Jeremiah 29:7), demands radical and prophetic Christian engagement in the political process. To this end, it calls upon BMC leaders to do more to promote and teach ‘the importance of active civic and political engagement for the common good’, as well as to host hustings, vote and support the National Voter Registration Campaign.

We all know that political parties often forget about the electorate until elections loom large on their agenda. The manifesto challenges them not to play games with our constituency, but rather to engage with BMCs and BME communities in the political process on an on-going basis, ‘and not just during the election season’.  And, given the fact that Operation Black Vote (OBV) has identified around 168 marginal seats in which the BME vote could play a critical deciding factor in who wins and who loses, it is important that politicians take this message and our presence seriously.

The Black Church manifesto was produced in anticipation of the 2015 General Election, but it is more than that. It says that the Black Church is making a step change; that BMCs have ‘entered a new era in their development in the UK’, and that the BMC community is ready to engage and resource a new form of Christian activism for the common good.

The NCLF hopes that the manifesto will make a small contribution to this process, providing some initial resources for discussion, prayer, strategy and action on a range of key issues before and beyond the 2015 General Election.

Dr R David Muir, Co-Chair of NCLF

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