With elections looming, Rev Wale Hudson-Roberts puts forward the case for why people of colour should engage in civic society and become more involved in politics.
I was delighted to hear that a good family friend had achieved her dream of becoming a local councillor. Come rain or sunshine, our family friend knocked on doors, speaking to anyone and everyone in the hope of winning hearts and minds, to get the votes that would secure her position as a councillor.
Hers was a relentless cycle of work, which did not abate after her day job. She worked day and night. The pressures were worth enduring, she would often retort for, if elected, she would be tossed into a position of service and advocacy on behalf of those who elected her councillor. For her, the end justified the means, and she was eventually appointed as councillor.
Like our family friend, Dr Martin Luther King was committed to his theology being worked out in land struggles, in poverty and oppression. His commitment to the poor and disenfranchised shaped and influenced his theology, too. Luther King was a staunch liberation theologian, which is a discipline that has to be lived rather than acquired as a body of information. Luther King, like our family friend, interpreted the world through the prism of God, a theological lens. It was this which inspired them to get involved in civic life, to make a difference to the lives of the vulnerable, to be the change they were looking for.
Granted, Luther King’s legacy has spanned many years, and there are more to span. As for our family friend, she has only just begun to be a voice crying in the wilderness, calling for change. However, one thing they both have in common is a commitment to civic engagement. This concerns the activities of the individual and collective, designed to address public concerns, such as poor housing, inadequate local schools, and discrimination in all its forms. In its most basic sense, civic engagement concerns decision-making or governance over who, how and by whom a community’s resources will be justly allocated, ensuring the growth, one hopes, of a just society. This is a noble project. It is a godly one, deeply rooted in the Scriptures.
My concern is that few Black people appear committed to civic engagement. Is it possible that a lack of belonging might be one of the reasons behind this concern? By this I mean, Black people feeling that, despite having been born in the UK, they still do not feel that they belong to the country of their birth; living a hyphenated existence, oscillating between being British and the birth country of their parents. It’s observable that, when people feel a lack of belonging, they are not easily committed to the thing they do not feel a part of.
The converse may also be true, for I have noticed that those who are born and live in the Caribbean or Africa are often keen to get involved in their countries’ civic activities. They want to make a difference to their world. This is understandable. It makes me wonder if our level of commitment to changing our world is, in part, determined by how much we feel the country in which we live has embraced us and we it. Belonging might just be one of the unconscious conditions behind commitment; the greater our belonging to a country, the stronger our commitment to making practical contributions to its growth and development, to its participation. This is surely basic psychology: the greater our sense of ownership of community, land or country, the stronger our feelings for its protection and preservation.
Yet, whatever our reasons or excuses for disengagement from civic activity, the fact remains: if we want to see our local community change, we need to get involved in it. Perhaps we should allow the facts to speak for themselves. Some of the schools our children attend are not conducive to academic excellence; economic constraints have forced the closure of too many of our libraries; some of our sports facilities are crying out for tender loving care and, to make matters worse, many of our streets have become dangerous places to walk in. Our living standards, too, are increasingly Dickensian. In 2013, three out of every ten people in Britain fell below the minimum living standard set by society.
As Black Christians, we are called to have a distinctive and joyful presence in this our unequal world. Our calling should lead us to seek after truth, and that means facing up to the reasons for our lack of civic activity, as well as holding others to account. If civic engagement is participation in the political processes and the issues that affect them, then it is our duty to get involved in local government and in our local community. There is a need for Black people to sit on local committees, become school governors and aspire to become local councillors, to generally serve their community and make it a better place.
The principal of civic engagement underscores the most basic principle of democratic governance: sovereignty resides ultimately in the people – the citizenry. Civic engagement concerns the right of the people to define the public good; determine policies by which they will seek the good, and reform – ideally, replace – institutions that do not reflect shalom. This is the business of all Black people – not just our good family friend and a crop of other Black activists.