A HOUSE in the Florida neighbourhood I lived in during Covid-19 displayed the sign: “Jesus is Lord therefore Black Lives Matter.” At that time, the world was gripped by two pandemics. We are still to find a treatment for the social pathogen of racism.
Working in the Episcopal Church in the United States at the time of George Floyd’s murder, I witnessed a watershed moment, as people of varied ages, races, faiths, and ideologies united against racism. Similarly, the Church of England embarked on a journey towards racial justice with the publication of the report From Lament To Action (News, 23 April 2021).
The divine imperative for racial justice is clear, and yet the journey towards greater equality, diversity, and inclusion is hindered by a prevailing zero-sum mentality in which gains made by one group are seen as loss for another. This was evidenced in some of the vitriol directed towards the Church over the £100-million impact investment fund related to historic links to transatlantic slavery (News, 10 January 2023).
TO GET beyond this zero-sum mentality, we need to be reminded of the Archbishop of York’s four imperatives for racial justice.
First, the Christological imperative. In Christ, our differences are not erased, but, rather, embraced, valuing the unique ways we each reflect the imago Dei. Every neighbour, regardless of colour, class, or creed, is an image-bearer of God. As a result, matters related to equality, diversity, and inclusion are not à la carte options, where we choose those things we are comfortable with, but are part of the mutuality of the divine imperative.
The Church is not committed to racial justice because it seeks to reflect demographic trends, or because it wishes to be socially responsive to ideas of equality, diversity, and inclusion; nor does the Church wish to engage in a culture war. The racial-justice mandate flows not from a commitment to identity politics, but from our primary identity in Christ.
Second, the ecclesiological imperative. To follow Christ implies a commitment to the quest for wholeness in humanity at personal and collective levels (1 Corinthians 12.27). We are called to be a “household of God” with “Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone,” “built together as a spiritual house” (Ephesians 2.19-22, 1 Peter 2.5); and not just a household, but a single body (1 Corinthians 12.13). Within the body of Christ, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it” (1 Corinthians 12.26).
When fellow Christians are told that the body has no need of them, as happened with the Windrush generation, the whole body is diminished. When brothers and sisters tell us that their voices are not heard, their contributions are not recognised, and their full participation is not welcomed, we are called by Christ to respond to those cries. The bonds of love that unite this body of Christ are essential to the work on racial justice.
Third, the missiological imperative. There is an indelible link between our faith and public life, reinforced at confirmation with the vow to defend the weak and to seek peace and justice. Addressing institutional racism and racial sin is not a theological addendum, or deviation from the Church’s ministry or mission. Rather, confronting the evils in society and embracing the marginalised is essential to our identity in Christ and a missional imperative (Luke 4.16-21).
Despite near-unanimity that racial injustice is a sin, approaches to racial justice are contested because of the impact of wider culture wars. Terms such as “woke”, “equality”, “diversity”, and “inclusion” have been weaponised, and there is insufficient appreciation of the intergenerational trauma and material legacies of institutional racism.
The Church’s commitment to racial justice should begin and end in its commitment to Christ and his Kingdom. Loving our neighbours is an imperative, not an option; and so we have a duty to respond with care and compassion to all people. Immigrants should not be regarded as burdens, or refugees as opportunists.
Fourth, the eschatological imperative. Revelation 7.9 paints an enthusiastic picture of the multitude of every tribe and nation, worshipping together: a gathering of God’s family. This image is not only a longed-for vision, but one to be realised here and now.
It is critical to recognise that the worshippers among this multitude are not required to lose their distinctiveness to be unified in God. It doesn’t mean that we “don’t see colour”, or other social characteristics, but appreciate that God is glorified in our differences.
THE Christian narrative of reconciliation offers us an invitation to confess the sin of racism, and to acknowledge our past and present complicity in various forms of ethnic discrimination and racial prejudice. This is not a struggle between races, but about finding unity across them through our oneness in Christ.
Just as the Good News enabled Peter to enter Cornelius’s house, the gospel empowers us to set aside the charged, politicised rhetoric going on in our culture, and pursue racial justice focused on each person and all people that God created in his own image.
We have to act in love doing good for our neighbours. That sign in my neighbour’s yard rings with gospel truth: Black Lives Matter to God; they always have, and they for ever will.
The Revd Guy Hewitt, a former Barbadian High Commissioner in London, is the Church of England’s Racial Justice Director.
Racial Justice Sunday takes place on 11 February.