“Black Americans watch time and time again how the contract that they have signed with society is not being honoured by the society that has forced them to sign it…”
Taken from a recent podcast by Trevor Noah (The Daily Show), and during this current season of unrest, these words strike a chord with me. They remind me of a West African proverb, which says: “The child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth.” Such powerful words cause us to pause and reposition the lens of lived experience.
The banners and placards, silently pronouncing ‘No Justice, No Peace’, are carried by both young and old. In the midst we hear chants of “I can’t breathe”, and I am reminded of televised scenes from the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. It’s disturbing that 55 years later, Black communities are still marching to uncover and shine the light on racial injustice, discrimination and inequality. On this quest, we are still bound together by a common injustice. Those of you who regularly read my column will know
I am inspired by the work and vision of the Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr. It is his political theology and analysis of the underlying structures and inequalities that speak to me, because, like Dr King and so many other people, I have a deep desire to see a transformational change.
The cry of ‘No Justice, No Peace’ can be viewed through the text of Jeremiah 6:14, where offers of superficial treatments are given for people’s mortal wounds. If we continue reading, we learn assurances of peace are given, but there was no peace. Similarly, today’s message seeks to expose the reality that there is no peace concerning racial injustice, and we are not going to pretend otherwise. By marching together in solidarity, it is a visible disruption of that false peace. It doesn’t mean there should be violence – and I am not advocating or condoning it; I’d like to think that young people on the streets are standing up for what they believe in. Wearing my ecumenical hat, I listened to the stories of young people across London, and many of them grew up in our churches. Today, however, they’re overwhelmed, and for them the Church is silent, and Jesus is absent from the conversations about justice.
When George Floyd woke up on what was to be his last day on earth, he had no idea, as he uttered those terrible words “I can’t breathe” that he would trigger a tremor to shake the foundations of global society as we know it. Criminal justice, health, housing, education, media, sport and culture – they are all under the floodlight now. But we must not take our eyes off the bigger picture; this is not about any one of those causes alone. It is about system change. It is about dismantling unjust systems and reconstructing new, diverse, participatory, green, sustainable and safe systems.
From my many Zoom conference calls and such like, it is clear that many in Church leadership are spending more time and energy examining the question of racial injustice, and in doing so, they have given permission to their congregations to speak out and start a new conversation about how we empower people to become agents of change. This is a good thing, since I have spent much of my adult life engaged in a faith movement calling for a better and just world, re-imagining a future that replicates a Kingdom to come, of which its hallmarks are justice, equity and love.
Beyond the BLM hashtag means thinking about the ‘What next?’ move. Dr King gives some helpful signposts, by guiding our eyes to the big picture: together we must recognise that the problem will not end until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power. This means a revolution of political engagement and Christian values, amongst other things. We must see now that the evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism (ie. investment in warfare) are all tied together; you can’t really get rid of one without getting rid of the others. Securing peace comes at a cost and, although for the believer Christ is the Prince of Peace, we need to find the words and actions to live that out.
What happens next in our nation is important, and the spiritual vision that we share with the world can be and has been a powerful historical force. Prayer has always been an important tool of our faith, but in addition we must continue our introspection and examination. The reason that the church has become as marginal as it is in the life of our communities, lies in part with the diminished and diminutive roles that we assign to the church, and the degree to which we have elided the church’s message with one kind of political message or another, or a lack of! We need to go beyond the basic questions to develop our own vision of what racial justice and reconciliation looks like. We should spend time looking at what our end goal is, and how can we ensure we inhabit our own story. Engaging this process now will help produce longer term strategies that connect activists and decision makers to produces meaningful and effective results in pursuit of peace and justice.
If we can embed a spiritual approach to the challenges we face, then we can reclaim a vision of the church and the work of Christ that not only speaks to this moment but transcends it.