Those who work at the intersection between faith and leadership have much to learn from the Black Lives Matter movement.
That the groundswell of support for BLM, triggered by the horrific and brutal death of George Floyd, has happened against the backdrop of a global pandemic is no coincidence. COVID-19 has highlighted our interconnectedness, yet mortality rates have shown that we are not all equally affected.
Tens of thousands of protestors up and down our country were prepared to march, in spite of fears for their own health – and that of their families and communities – because of the strength of their convictions on this burning issue. I share the view of doctors, who went from the frontlines of the pandemic to join protests, that racial injustice is itself a health problem. Will the pandemic awaken our collective sense of justice, or will it confirm prejudices and herald a right-wing surge? The answer depends on the willingness of leaders everywhere, from all walks of life, to learn from the spirit of the BLM movement.
This historic moment calls for deft and sustained leadership from the widest coalition of changemakers spanning the full breadth of our society, and especially those in power. Faith leaders are natural allies in this endeavour, because their collective reach and influence on behaviours, emotions and motivations across our diverse society can be a formidable force for good. A campaign of such enormous importance bears a responsibility that goes beyond any one group. Get it right, and this movement for change is a blessing for us all. Given the significance of the BLM movement in our culture, I hope its leadership will accept the extended hands and hearts of faith leaders wishing to learn from and with them.
Having been privileged to spend much of my adult life serving, teaching and being an honest broker between those at the helm of our country’s religious organisations, I’ve seen good (and bad) practice in community organising, and a common pursuit of truth and justice. I am continually inspired by the way that people with huge differences can build deep friendships that can form the basis for collective action. Rabbis, imams, sannyasins and priests all have faith-based responses to BLM, but also practical guidance and leadership experience to share too.
In considering BLM in the context of other racist or prejudiced hate, we must avoid drawing a false equivalence between anti-Black racism and all other forms of prejudice. Doing so veers dangerously close to competitive victimhood – something I would urge everyone, be they from a faith group, a minority ethnic community, the LGBTQ+ community or another persecuted group, to avoid judiciously. I shudder when I hear people who look like me claim a sort of righteous immunity from BLM’s message, because of the discrimination they’ve faced as people from the Indian subcontinent. I’m not saying that the racism we South Asians experience isn’t vicious, sickening or traumatic. I am saying that we must respect each of our inner frames of reference, and acknowledge that the experience of Black communities is not the same as others’, for the racism that BLM points to is not confined to racist attitudes and words. Rather, it is a system invented to exculpate slavery that comes with a pecking order that defines the value of lives to this day. This is why many share my dislike for the administrative term BAME, which ascribes a fictitious group identity to everyone whose skin isn’t White.
So why might those fighting racism wish to build relationships with faith leaders?
Winning the war against racism may take a lifetime, and requires thought now on how to build long-term, coordinated leadership and succession plans. Moral leadership is the area where faith leaders arguably have the most to offer the anti-racism movement. Unlike business leaders and CEOs, faith leaders are here for the long haul. And, like BLM, they refer to deep truths, issues of conscience that stir the soul and are framed in generational terms – not market or profit cycles.
Apart from some of our Christian friends, most of those leading faith communities in the UK aren’t part of the establishment. As the children and grandchildren of immigrants, many religious leaders (including Christians) have to work harder than others to be heard fairly in the public square. They have developed noble and astute strategies to help overcome their outsider status.
A broad church – so to speak
Most faiths themselves are formed of a range of communities of different persuasions. Intra-faith issues can be more tense than inter-faith ones and, at their worst, can undermine the achievement of shared goals. To navigate the ecosystem of our own movements, we need an acute awareness of group and dialogical dynamics, as too must BLM leaders who themselves speak for a diversity of Black people and communities.
Bridging rather than entrenching differences
Notwithstanding the dangers of comparing different forms of hate, there are general lessons that can be applied to dealing with victimisation. Chief among them is the need to pursue one’s just cause, without further alienating those that aren’t yet on board. In an era where seemingly every social or political issue is polarised into those that agree with you and those that don’t, some take a binary view of the BLM movement: police versus protestors; those complying with COVID versus those that aren’t; those that post about racism on social media versus those judged not to care. I’ve learnt from experience, however, that those desiring any form of social change should be careful about using “us versus them” rhetoric. The UK has plenty of room for improvement – particularly regarding institutional racism within our criminal justice system – but we must acknowledge that progress has been made in race relations, and that we should invite into this movement most British people who are decent, fair-minded and fundamentally democratic.
Yet, in spite of progress and the goodness of the majority of British public, racism persists. So how do you deal with the pernicious problem of people who don’t recognise racism in UK society, or those that think racism is a woke conspiracy? These people are both a cause and effect of the problem. On ‘Faith in Leadership’ programmes, religious leaders learn to disagree well, and to tread a careful line that avoids fomenting hate. I have observed that it is the naysayers and those with rigid opinions who become the most powerful advocates for inter-communal cooperation once they’re won over.
Fixing racism within faith communities
Of course, religious and Black leaders are not mutually exclusive groups. In fact, many clerics and worshippers from minority backgrounds, as well as their colleagues, feel the need to combat discrimination within their own institutions. I am witnessing lots of soul-searching within our faith communities about their own track records on racism, and a desire to learn from the BLM movement, whilst getting their own houses in order. One sterling example of this is the unprecedented admission by the Archbishop of Canterbury that his Church is institutionally racist. This has been followed by a recent decision by the House of Bishops to back the creation of the Archbishop’s Racism Action Commission to implement ‘significant cultural and structural’ change within Anglicanism on race. But religious leaders’ actions are not limited to their own communities. These are people with respected voices that can use their power to change society.
Don’t bowl alone
Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam – famous for ‘Bowling Alone’, his 2000 book on declining civic engagement – uncovered the inconvenient truth that the greater the diversity in a community, the worse it performs on almost every measure of civic health. As a society we have to work hard, therefore, to work to create the kind of inclusive communities that can benefit from our diversity. It doesn’t just happen automatically, but when it does happen, diverse communities, like diverse teams, outperform homogenous ones.
The religious leaders that ‘Faith in Leadership’ brings together retain their own identities whilst respecting each other’s differences. Those at the vanguard of fighting racial equality will find kindred spirits among our wise faith leaders. There’s a rich and interlinked history of racial justice being advanced with the support of religious role models – from Mahatma Gandhi, who inspired both Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the legendary Badshah of the Pashtuns and Dr Martin Luther King Jr, to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched with Dr King at a pivotal moment for civil rights, to all the Muslims, African Traditionalists, Jews, Sikhs, Buddhists, Bahais, Christians and Hindus whom Mandela himself credited for supporting the anti-apartheid movement. Together we are stronger; let’s lead together.
Krish Raval OBE is the founder and director of Faith in Leadership – Britain’s main leadership development organisation for lay and clerical faith personnel. He was the inaugural Director of The Churchill Leadership Fellows in partnership with the Moller Institute, and is a regular contributor to BBC Radio’s Pause for Thought. He was awarded an OBE for Services to Leadership Education and to Inter-faith Cohesion.