1st August 2016, Emancipation Day, found me on the beautiful island of Trinidad, where I had the opportunity to attend the island’s remembrance of the millions of enslaved African men, women and children who survived the Middle Passage from Africa to the so-called ‘West Indies’. Here I heard a passionate address delivered by the Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley, who spoke about the brutal conditions of forced labour, how Africans found themselves treated as commercial property – part of a systematic oppressive western economic operation. Dr Rowley narrated the story of how, despite enduring a life of misery, they had faith in a God who hears the cries of the downtrodden and rescues the oppressed. Eventually the systemic operation of slavery was deemed morally wrong and the system was dismantled. There was an acknowledgment that compensation was due, but astonishingly not for those who were enslaved and oppressed, but to the slave owners and those who could no longer generate huge profit based on free labour. It was an incredibly moving address, and I think that history is worth remembering and worth our collective reflection. Weaving the history then with our present-day history, it is no surprise that the 2016 event also carried the hash tag #Black lives matter.
Retelling the story is important for the Caribbean islands because it is part of their living history, and it teaches children that Africans had a history and an identity before the 200 years of transatlantic slavery. This particular history of Black peoples tells of their resilience as a nation, and it reminds the collective that freedom is never given but it is won by ‘the people’ – often with great sacrifice. When human lives are involved, there is always a moral narrative that needs to be written, and told by the courageous.
The purpose of my visit to Trinidad was to attend and participate in the 2016 Transatlantic Roundtable Conference on Religion and Race: a collection of clergy, academics, community activists, FBO practitioners and theological students who come together to wrestle with social justice issues affecting minority and marginalised communities. Together we unpack the analysis and our experience to build a shared aspiration and vision of peace and justice. The analysis is clear: African-descended communities across the globe are suffering the effects of political, economic and social inequities, whose consequences include alarming levels of poverty, disease, unemployment, incarceration and systemic violence.
It’s worth just pausing for a moment to understand a few aspects of ‘Black History’ in 2016. This year is:
- 60 years after the watershed election in Trinidad that consolidated Black political empowerment and charted the course for the nation’s 1962 independence, and 50 years after the independence of its southern Caribbean neighbours, Barbados and Guyana;
- 60 years after the launch of a wave of independence in Africa that, from Sudan’s independence in 1956 to Lesotho’s in 1966, included 30 sub-Saharan African countries;
- 60 years after the successful conclusion of the Montgomery Bus Boycott which helped mobilise the Civil Rights Movement in the USA;
- 70 years since the post-World War II beginnings of mass migration from Africa, the Caribbean and Asia to the UK.
The growing response to Black History Month has become ‘Black Lives Matter’ and, in response, some have felt compelled to reply ‘All Lives Matter’. The issue, however, is not that anyone is proposing that other people’s lives do not matter. Of course, everyone’s lives matter. In the US, the ‘Black Lives Matter’ slogan draws attention to the fact that, in the USA, people of colour – and, in particular, Black males – are systematically treated as if their lives do not matter. In the UK, we have had many community- led campaigns speaking of the growing gap of inequality and how this plays out across race and class. The recently published Race report, ‘Healing a divided Britain’, is the Equality and Human Rights Commission report, which looks at existing evidence and outlines a worrying picture of race equality in the UK today, a case the National Church Leaders Forum (NCLF) have taken up. In a post-Brexit world, race relations will remain on the UK agenda for some time to come.
So what might be a Christian response? A recent Sojourners article makes the point well: ‘As Christians, we should recognise the language of Black Lives Matter. After all, Jesus did not say “Blessed is everyone”, but “Blessed are the poor” (Luke 6:20). He did not say “As you do it unto everyone, you do it unto Me”, but “As you do it unto the least” (Matthew 25:40). Jesus did not say “Love everyone”, but “Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44). Continually Jesus drew our attention not to loving people ‘in general’ but to specifically caring for those we would tend to discount or condemn. ‘Black lives matter’ is exactly the kind of thing I think Jesus would say.’
So why did Jesus emphasise this then, and why should we do so today? Because the heart of Jesus’ mission was to focus on those who were on the fringe, on the outskirts of society, on people who had been marginalised and condemned. Likewise, He wants us to focus on the ‘least of these’, on those who are all too easily discounted and left unheard.
When they share their experiences of being mistreated, and say they ‘can’t breathe’ – both metaphorically and, all too often, literally – we who are part of the privileged class should learn to listen and be ready to believe them.
Looking at how Jesus told us to care for the poor, the least and, indeed, how He told us to “Love our neighbours”, I have no doubt that He would also most certainly declare Black lives matter. If we claim to follow Christ, and can say “Blessed are the poor” even if we are not poor, we should also be able to say “Black lives matter” even if we are not Black.