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Taking the knee is a powerful symbol — but it is not enough

by
21 July 2020

It is time to work for real change to address racial injustice in the Church, says Adeola Eleyae

diocese of leicester

The Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Martyn Snow, and colleagues, “take the knee” outside Leicester Cathedral, last month

The Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Martyn Snow, and colleagues, “take the knee” outside Leicester Cathedral, last month

TAKING the knee has its genesis in Colin Kaepernick’s protest against police brutality and racial inequality in the United States. It was in 2016 that the National Football League player first refused to join in the particularly American ritual of standing upright, hand over heart, when the national anthem played before matches, and bent down on one knee instead.

The gesture has travelled far beyond its original context. In the months since the death of George Floyd on 25 May, taking the knee has become a symbol of resistance around the world. It is a symbol that echoes and revisits the shocking way in which Floyd was killed: a symbol of solidarity with black and other minority-ethnic people, who have risen in protest to demand an end to racial injustice and inequality. The locus of the protest is the Black Lives Matter movement, which has gained global support.

Within the Church here in England, several have publicly taken the knee to identify with the cause. But why should we?

Several powerful reasons have been given. It has rightly been argued that taking the knee raises awareness of racial injustice, and may be a catalyst for change. It also demonstrates a recognition of, and sympathy with, some of the most marginalised and disenfranchised in society, many of whom attend our churches and want to see that what matters to them matters to the Church, too.

 

WHILE taking the knee no doubt offers affirmation and encouragement to some, however, it is, of itself, merely a symbol — a powerful symbol adopted by many around the world, but a symbol, none the less. And, as taking the knee becomes the world’s accepted mode of indicating support for the struggle against injustice and inequality, the Church, which in the past has struggled with taking substantive steps to deal with these issues, needs to explore honestly the limitations of this symbolism in its own context. And it must assess critically whether it has real efficacy in the huge task that the Church has in convincing black and minority-ethnic people that it cares about racial injustice and is ready to change.

How does taking the knee deal with the deep disparity and anguish of those who continue to cry out “Have mercy, Lord, have mercy; for we have suffered no end of contempt. . .”, as the full extent of their hurt and humiliation is displayed for the world to see, and yet in many places is still denied?

How does it deal with the anger of those, both inside and outside the Church, who take deep offence, and, unmoved by the cry for an end to inequality, declare that they cannot see any oppression? How does it touch those who argue that the Church should focus on the gospel — a gospel that, in their eyes, somehow excludes the social justice that is repeatedly demanded by God throughout the Bible?

How does it resolve the confusion and anxiety of those who were oblivious to racial injustice, but are now taking tentative steps to understand it, terrified that they might do or say something wrong as they do so?

How does it deal with those racked by an uncomfortable guilt, who, still cloaked in entitlement, rush off to try and craft a solution that absolves their complicity, and makes them look “good”. How does it restrain those whose desire for immediate vindication makes them demand explanations and answers of those who have suffered and continue to suffer, without regard for their thoughts and feelings?

How does it deal with the deep despair and anguish of those who see the validity of their cause degraded, the veracity of their complaints questioned, and their demands for justice dismissed by those who are vehemently opposed to any change in the status quo?

 

TAKING the knee is, like a great deal of symbolism, good. But it is not enough, as it does not do anything about these issues, which are shared by those who occupy our pews as well as our pulpits.

It may well be a catalyst for change, but what sort of change? It is undoubtedly a symbol, but for how long can it maintain its potency? Commendable as it is, taking the knee is, of itself, void of any substance that can show a meaningful way forward. This makes it potentially dangerous, because, like Gideon’s ephod — created as it was with good intentions — it can eventually become a snare, and end up as nothing more than a gesture, a distraction from what we, who call ourselves the people of God, should be doing.

What, then, should we be doing? The Church is called to witness to the risen Christ who came to effect reconciliation between a lost humankind and their God. How, then, do we react to this kaleidoscope of accusation, anger, bitterness, helplessness, guilt, indifference, insincere platitudes, suspicion, disunity, hatred, broken promises, hypocrisy, abuse, mistrust, cynicism, denial, betrayal, and pain?

We should take the knee. But it should be before the throne of God, the God we worship as Jesus Christ, who simply requires us to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with him. We should take the knee before the one who knows our innermost thoughts, fears, and desires, and promises forgiveness to all who repent.

It is only when we do so that we can begin to understand the extent of the damage and destruction that flow from dehumanising others, and open our eyes to the hypocrisy of calling them, but not truly accepting them as, brothers and sisters, and discard all the excuses that we have accumulated for treating them with arrogance and contempt. We should take the knee.

And it should be true repentance. There is little point in doing some things to assuage the immediate feelings of resentment and deep anger — making a couple of appointments, publishing a report, perhaps removing some statues. There needs to be genuine, radical, and sincere change. In the absence of this, we shall ultimately return to what it is that many, but not all, in the Church seek to condemn.

 

PERHAPS the time has come for the Church to gird its loins and begin to effect real change. We can do this only if we respond as a Church and not as an institution, boldly resolved to bring about reconciliation, reform, and reparation.

This goes beyond just generally denouncing racism. As a Church, we should acknowledge that this has happened on our watch, and ask publicly for God’s help and forgiveness, in services of repentance and reconciliation, at national and diocesan levels.

It is also vital, as we seek a way forward, that we listen. The Church must unblock its ears and listen to those who have gone unheard for so long. It is in a perfect position to facilitate Christ-centred dialogue, in which frustrations can be heard, misconceptions explored, and renewed patterns of living together as Christ’s disciples be developed; where we can examine critically our approach to inclusion, and identify how our processes perpetuate unfairness; where we can prayerfully discern how to ensure that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past.

The Church can pay for proper, centrally conducted research into the true extent of its historic connections with slavery, from monuments to patronages derived from tainted legacies, and make reparation. This will take only a bit of imagination. The Church could endow academic chairs at universities in cities closely associated with the slave trade to research racism, or develop non-Western theology. Or it could set up and fund as a national resource a centre for racial reconciliation, which will work along the lines of the reconciliation work carried out at Coventry Cathedral.

 

ALL this will inevitably involve humility, vulnerability, and courage. But it is not until we dismantle the high places of racism in our systems and structures that we shall stop sacrificing and burning incense to injustice and oppression.

And this cannot happen unless there is a change in our hearts and the seeding and growing of a new attitude — an attitude that recognises that we are all created in the image of God, and that to despise others because of the colour of their skin is to despise Him; one that recognises that it is unacceptable and unjust for the positions of leadership, and even positions of employment, across the Church to reflect so poorly the diversity of its membership.

The Church is called to be prophetic and signpost the way to the Kingdom of God. It is meant to speak with an overtly Christian voice, and have a transforming effect in the world.

In our own understanding, cowed as we are in the West by criticism of being irrelevant and out of touch, echoing the world’s ways may appear right. But there can be no effective and lasting change in the Church — or anywhere else, for that matter — unless the actions that we take are rooted in God and his ways. It seems that we have forgotten that we have an effective, much more powerful way to respond: the way of repentance, restoration, and reconciliation, which Jesus demonstrated 2000 years ago.

In following the counter-cultural, outrageous, yet merciful, just, and compassionate lead of its head, Christ Jesus, the Church may yet find a way to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with the Lord our God. Let us take the knee.

 

The Revd Adeola Eleyae is the Vicar of All Saints’, Goodmayes, in Chelmsford diocese, and the Bishop of Chelmsford’s Equality Adviser.

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