- and I'm glad we haven't
In the wake of George Floyd’s suffocation to death by police officer Derek Chauvin, a global movement of anti-racism sentiment and protest has swept much of the western world, including the churches. Here are some things I haven’t heard church leaders saying:
1) “I’m not ‘pro-racism’ or ‘anti-racism’. It’s not a black-and-white issue. I prefer to avoid polarising language. It’s possible to be both!”
This is so patently non-sensical that it barely merits comment at all.
If racism is violence, which it is, and if human beings are its victims, which they are, you cannot stand against the violence and for the victims at the same time as upholding other people’s right to inflict violence on them should they choose to do so. The only possible motivation for wanting to be seen as both “pro-racism” and “anti-racism” would be to try to stay in with both crowds, to avoid being pigeonholed as one or the other and thus being rejected by one group or the other. But it's clear that one simply cannot have it both ways - it’s absurd - and even if one could, to do so would be to miss the whole point: injustice is not a fashion statement to be worn but a reality to be exposed and dismantled for the sake of the oppressed.
This is so blindingly obvious you are probably wondering why I am taking the time to spell it all out. Well, the reason is that we hear exactly this kind of nonsense all the time when it comes to the killing of babies in the womb: “I’m not ‘pro-life’ or ‘pro-choice’. It’s not a black-and-white issue. I prefer to avoid polarising language. It’s possible to be both!”
Now why on earth is that?
2) “The graphic video of George Floyd’s murder is gratuitous, inappropriate, counter-productive, and downright offensive. You have no idea what people have been through who might have to look at that. It could be immensely triggering. Why are you resorting to shock tactics?”
Of course, the video of George Floyd’s murder is shocking. I was viscerally affected. It was hard to watch it all the way through – I instinctively looked away several times – but I felt somehow an obligation to see it through to the end. Why? For the simple reason that this just happened. Here is a real human being, who has just been killed by another human being. And as Martin Luther King said, “injustice must be exposed”. It’s never comfortable, it’s always upsetting, but it has to be exposed. We have to see it.
It may be that the footage of Floyd’s murder will find its place alongside pictures of the victims of the Holocaust used to warn school children of the capacity for evil in the human heart with the clear message: This must never happen again.
To make an understatement, it is the murder itself that was gratuitous, inappropriate, offensive. The evidence – although it captures and therefore relays those uncomfortable aspects – is a friend, not a foe. The evidence exposes the injustice, brings relief to the oppressed, the wherewithal to convict the offenders. Anyone who actually cares more about these things than their own feelings will welcome the footage painful though it is.
But when it comes to discrimination against babies in the womb, it seems that all the fundamental principles of exposing injustice and effecting social reform are suddenly overturned?
“Graphic abortion imagery is gratuitous, inappropriate, counter-productive, and downright offensive. You have no idea what people have been through who might have to look at that. It could be immensely triggering. Why are you resorting to shock tactics?”
Now why on earth is that?
(It’s worth noting that my friends Laura Mann and Pauline Peachey, to name but two, who’ve both had abortions, regularly call upon churches to show the evidence of abortion. Why so many pastors think they know better than these two post-abortive women what post-abortive women and the rest of us really need I cannot understand.)
3) “Racism is a political issue; we wouldn’t want to be seen as political!”
Fundamentally, racism is not a political issue, it is a question of human dignity, equality, and rights. But of course, as with many significant moral issues, it has become a political issue also.
We adopt a vanishingly small version of Christianity if we think that the moment something has entered the "political" sphere, it is no longer our place to comment. Indeed, to say that we won’t speak into something because it is political reveals how politicised we have really become!
We shouldn’t look or sound the same as those who adopt a more secular or self-centred approach to politics. With the gospel we are equipped to go deeper, sacrifice more, love our enemies, look beyond – “those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away” (1 Corinthians 7:30b-31). But engage we must. We must be more than political - but not less than.
But as I say, no-one has been raising this objection. Why? Because when the humanity of the victim is so apparent, and the inhumanity of injustice is so abhorrent, Christian compassion simply must speak out. There is no time to get hung up on hair-splitting, man-made distinctions.
Which is interesting, because when it comes to the industrial scale slaughter of more than 200,000 human babies a year in England and Wales alone, apparently the fact that abortion is “political” is a good enough excuse to say and do nothing.
Now why on earth is that?
4) “The last thing we’d want to do is let racists – or people who might be pro-racism – feel condemned or judged.”
I don’t think this has occurred to almost anyone, within or without the Church (which could actually be a problem for those of us who say we believe in scandalous grace – how much do we believe in forgiveness for racists?).
The reason it hasn’t is that it would be felt to miss or indeed jeopardise the point. The great pressing need in any injustice is to defend the welfare of the victim, not the feelings of the oppressor. If the feelings of the oppressor are paramount, no-one will ever move to stop the injustice.
It is quite right that we don’t allow the feelings of racists to direct our engagement on racism, though we’d do well to remember that we are no more deserving of the grace of God than the worst racist on the planet. “There but for the grace of God go I.”
But when it comes to abortion, this is precisely how our engagement is directed: according to the thoughts and feelings of more or less everybody apart from the primary victims of the injustice, the babies. Justice for the unborn is utterly scorned in the name of preserving the emotional status quo of adults, including the very ones who are oppressing them.
Now why on earth is that?
5) “Racism is a very divisive issue. This isn’t going to help with church unity and harmony. It’s not the right time!”
There are only two basic concepts of racism: God’s view and some other view. At best the latter can approximate quite closely to God’s view in form or conclusion, but it struggles to find a strong foundation for the utter equality of all human beings regardless of ethnicity, ability, sex, etc.
The only way racism can be a divisive issue in your church is because people are not yet sufficiently aligned with God’s view on it. This is all the more reason to address it head-on. It is a discipleship opportunity, a discipleship necessity.
For the pastor who prefers the “peace” of blissful ignorance as to what their people really think or do in private over striving for conformity to Christ and readiness for his return, it will never be the “right time” to address a contentious issue.
I’m reminded of Martin Luther King’s words:
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can't agree with your methods of direct action;" who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a "more convenient season."
This surely has been a problem in the past with regard to racism, even the very recent past, but since Floyd's death I haven't heard anyone saying that now still isn't the right time to confront racism.
(As an aside, one has to wonder whether we ever question the schedule and tenor of conversation as dictated to us by the prevailing currents of the culture around us. The UK Church sadly tends to confront issues only when forced to by those outside; this is often when it’s too late. How much slavery was tolerated, how much child abuse has been covered up, because the institution was put first? Confronting injustice will always harm the institution, in the short term at least...)
Rightly, thankfully, most of us now acknowledge that killing racism is far more important than preserving any kind of “negative peace”.
But when it comes to abortion, apparently it still really isn't right time, it still is just too divisive.
Now: why is that?