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Comment: Racism should not be explained away

by
03 July 2020

The Church needs to address the roots of its ideologies and its understanding of history, says John Perumbalath

“WERE you born a Christian, or . . . ?” That was the first question directed to me from the dean of a cathedral when I was being interviewed for the post of residentiary canon, ten years ago. I asked whether he had the same question for the other three candidates, and his response was quick: “No, I just assumed . . .” A brown-skinned person could not possibly have any Christian heritage! When I explained that my community had been Christian for more than 1900 years, he dismissed it as a joke and just looked away.

Ignorance is at the root of the cultural insensitivity and discrimination that I witness in the Church of England. What is worrying me is that we do not seem to be keen on addressing our ignorance, but are often keen to use it as a justifiable excuse for our behaviour. That is unbecoming for a group of people who call themselves disciples. Disciples are learners. There is no excuse for not learning.

It was interesting to notice the reactions from within our churches to the current Black Lives Matter movement. In general, there was overwhelming support for the cause. Those who expressed their considered distaste for the movement did so for various reasons.

Some said that it was divisive to affirm that “Black Lives Matter,” and so we should say that “All Lives Matter.” Some others held the view that the issue was not racism, but violence, which is common in the United States. George Floyd was a victim of violence, not racism. A few others separated Floyd’s case from the wider context, and emphasised that he had some criminal background. The assumption was that he did not deserve our sympathy.

Do all the criminal acts receive the same treatment in our society? Or does it depend on who commits them? The comedian Dara Ó Briain wrote on Twitter on 3 June: “Just found out that George Floyd was originally stopped by the police because he handed over a counterfeit note in a shop. I did that once! They handed me back the note as a souvenir, and later I told the story on a stage in a comedy routine. That’s some privilege right there.”

Surely, violence is a big social problem in the US, but how do we account for the disproportionate use of police brutality and the general history of violence against black people? And we know, as Christians, that focusing on the people whose lives are in trouble is not to deny anything to others. Otherwise, the parable of the lost sheep would not make any sense.

 

IT HAS become common to minimise the issue of racism, or to explain it away. Our discourse about white privilege or unconscious bias has often gone in those directions. I have attended several sessions on unconscious bias where the trainer kept on giving examples of the biases we have, and saying that it was OK to have them. Many of these biases are based on assumptions that are sinful, and our Christian calling is not just to be aware of them, but to repent of them, or turn around.

We need to address the very roots of our ideologies and our understanding of history. In religious communities, it is in theology and liturgy that we see our particular ideologies and understandings finding a natural home.

Our theology is still largely imperialistic. It does not easily recognise the “God of all peoples” we find in the Bible. We distort God’s plans when we absolutise our context over against other human situations. Our ecclesiology has not yet grasped the implications of understanding the mystery of Christ which the Apostle Paul talks about — a mystery in which Gentiles and Jews are fellow heirs of one body. There is that necessary journey from Babel to Pentecost which we hesitate to undertake. It will massively help us if we read the Bible as sojourners rather than approach it as settlers.

There are also questions that we will need to ask about our strategy and vision for God’s mission in this country. In many urban situations, race and class are interlocked. It would be wrong to dissolve race issues into class ones, but they cannot be separated in many urban areas of economic and social deprivation. If the amount that a parish can pay decides what it will receive in terms of ministry, we will be failing in Christ’s mission and leaving many BAME communities behind.

 

NOT to be valued as part of the body that you belong to is a painful experience. The Church is an intercultural body, and we must understand what it means in our national and local contexts. To be monocultural is to be blind to the reality. Multiculturalism, in practice, is about tolerating other cultures and letting them be there, as long as they do not challenge the dominant culture. We are called to walk together, learn from one another, and grow together into a new culture.

No one should feel less Christian or less human in this family. The dean came back to me with another question, later on. Looking at the black mole on my forehead, he asked, “Did you have that mark when you were born, or . . . ?” When I asked what he meant, he said that he had noticed Hindus wearing such marks on their foreheads!

It suddenly dawned on me that, to some of my colleagues, I wasn’t Christian enough in my appearance. It is alarming that this is a storyline shared by many of my brothers and sisters in our beloved Church.

 

Dr John Perumbalath is the Area Bishop of Bradwell, in Chelmsford diocese.

Features: Is the Church of England racist?

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