Overcoming Barriers To Invitation: Pursuing Racial Justice And Unity

God’s vision for church is one of a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic family. But how do we get there without extending an invitation to those who are different from us?

Every Christian can agree that racism is a sin. Our first barrier to working towards racial unity and justice, however, is our tendency to think of it as either mostly an individual problem or mostly a structural problem. ‘Individualists’ believe racism is mainly the result of people’s individual actions and would be solved if we could all simply make the right choices. ‘Structuralists’ believe racism is mainly a structural problem that requires a dismantling of institutions and a rebalancing of power among decision-makers for any real progress to be made.

The conversation between these two groups in wider society has become increasingly polarised, and this spills over into the life of the local church. An individualist might be quick to ignore, scorn or shut down any suggestions that church committees should be intentionally ethnically diverse. Individualists would say, “It’s the behaviour of individual people that matters, not the composition of committees.”

On the other hand, structuralists are likely to dismiss the potential impact of cross-cultural friendships on the life of the local church. “A few people having friends of different ethnicities won’t make any difference to church culture or the way things get done,” a structuralist might say.

Both groups can become wary and dismissive of the other. Direct dialogue can quickly become strained as they seem to talk past one another. This makes the pursuit of racial unity and justice difficult, because people are coming from fundamentally different positions on what the problem is and how things can change.

The idea that the problem of racism is either only individual or only structural is, however, flawed. The two things are inseparable. It is individuals who create structure, and structures that shape individuals. If sin distorts the attitudes and behaviours of individuals, it will distort the structures they create. Sin then becomes embedded into structures, such that those structures continue to damage people long after their individual creators have gone.

Most of us lean towards favouring one perspective (either the individualist or the structuralist) over the other. As a generalisation, members of the majority group (White British people, in our context) tend to have a more individualist view on racism, while members of minority groups tend to have a more structuralist view. Polarised views on this can create a barrier to racial unity and justice in church, because people struggle to agree on what the sin/injustice is, and therefore how to address it and move forward.

Here are some practical steps we can take to overcome this barrier: 

1. Consider our biases

All of us need to be aware of our own bias as we think about racism and seek to learn what we can from the opposite perspective.

For individualists, for instance, this might result in simply being prepared to listen, and not be dismissive whenever someone is speaking to you about, say, the legacy of colonialism, slavery and immigration legislation. It might mean resisting the temptation to recommend a book-debunking ‘woke’ culture as your first response. It might be as simple as not assuming that racism is somebody else’s problem because you would never insult anyone. It might look like reflecting on where the legacy of past sins of racism are still experienced the most in your church and local area, and what you might be able to do about it.

For structuralists, on the other hand, being aware of your bias might mean giving more attention to the progress in equality and employment law in recent history—perhaps there is room for more optimism than you might normally allow for.

It might also result in asking more often, “What responsibility do I have in this situation to bring change?” It might mean being willing to invest in friendship with someone who is different from you, trusting that it could have an impact for others in the church life too. It could look like asking, “Am I walking into situations in church life assuming the worst from those in the majority culture around me and so appearing distant or sceptical?”

Compassion over critique

It’s also wise to reflect on where we put our energy as we address this topic. One danger is that we are drawn into spending all our time critiquing wrong views, rather than working towards solutions. For evidence of this, take a look at Twitter on the issue of racism on any given day! It’s true that if we have the wrong diagnosis, we will offer the world the wrong cure. But we mustn’t draw attention away from the primary issue and so get side-tracked from actually developing and implementing the right plan. Perhaps a very simple question to ask would be, “When I feel I need to engage in a debate on racism, how will my actions (both inside and outside of the debate) show that my desire is to help the marginalised?”

Welcome like Christ

One concrete step towards having the right mindset is simply to cast the net wider in terms of who we invite into our lives and communities. Scripture encourages us to ‘welcome others as Christ has welcomed us’ (Romans 15:7). I’m working with London City Mission to help everyone feel encouraged to invite their friends and communities to know Jesus. We’ve developed some helpful resources you can download for free at: lcm.org.uk/resources

This article is by Jason Roach, Director of Ministries from London City Mission, and is an extract from Healing the Divides, a book by Jason Roach and Jessamin Birdsall, which helps readers find ways to advance God’s vision for racial unity and justice.

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