In 1857, the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) in South Africa made a terrible decision. Some white members of the church requested permission to celebrate the Lord’s Supper separately from black members. The church authorities didn’t want to be considered conservative and rigid, so they made room for the request, “due to the weakness of some”. As a result, separate celebrations of the Lord’s Supper on the grounds of race started! It was a fateful move. By the 1920’s, the DRC was an enthusiastic supporter of apartheid (a political system that deliberately separated people on racial grounds).
The UK isn’t the USA
Thankfully, the UK has never experienced anything like apartheid in south Africa. Nor is there anything like the ethnic divisions that plague US inner cities here. I can still vividly remember catching the train for the first time from Philadelphia airport out to the suburbs when I was studying at seminary in the USA. Between two stations, there was a sudden change from run down African-American/Hispanic areas to the white-picket fences of the mainly white suburbs. The violence of the American inner-city, and the stark racial divisions are nothing like anything in south London where I grew up. Even today the homicide rates in American cities are far higher than any English cities. I say that because social media can lead us to lump everything together, and doesn’t distinguish differences of place.
Racism in the UK
However, does racism exist in the UK? Of course!
I don’t think there’s a country in the world since the tower of Babel (Gen 11:9) that hasn’t been marked by this sin. And I don’t think there’s a human heart where it doesn’t lurk (Jer 17:9). White Brits can be prejudiced against Black British. Punjabis can hold prejudice against Gujaratis. Yoruba can hold prejudice against Igbo. Afro-Caribbean families hold prejudice against Africans. Iranians aren’t always fans of the Arabs. It is (sinful) human nature to be suspicious of people who aren’t like us and who don’t talk our language.
What is racism?
Racism in the West has become the “ultimate sin”. But try and pin-point the exact nature of racism and it’s not very easy. Standard definitions of “racism” don’t really work. For example, here’s a dictionary definition:
“racism is prejudice, discrimination, antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on a belief that one’s own race is superior”.
Poke that definition a bit and you start to see how slippery it is. In certain respects, some races clearly are “superior” and “inferior” to others. What about athletics? The best sprinters are of west African heritage. The best long-distance runners are east Africans. Is it racism to state that? What about IQ levels? There’s clear data showing that Ashkenazi Jews have a higher IQ than other ethnic groups. Then, there’s the apostle Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, quoting the saying: “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons” (Titus 1:12). It’s simply not an option for us to label the apostle Paul a racist. Clearly, there are differences between different ethnic groups, some of which are good, some of which are bad. Some differences are rooted in biology, others in culture and tradition.
I think what we’re trying to get at when we talk about the sin of racism is the sin of partiality. Racism is a particular species of this wider sin. The sin of partiality is when we treat individuals differently simply because of the group they belong to; as a result, we show an unfair preference to some individuals over others. Some groups get the special treatment, while others are treated as second-class. Partiality is fundamentally about treating people unfairly. It can be for economic reasons (for example, James 2:1-4), and it can be for ethnic reasons (see Acts 10:34-35). This sin may not always be conscious; in fact, it often happens unconsciously. But it is sin. And it’s something we must put to death in ourselves and in the church.
This leads to the whole question of “systemic” or “institutional” racism. The idea of “systemic” racism is that just because I’m not personally mistreating people of other ethnic groups doesn’t mean society isn’t arranged in a way that unfairly favours some over others. So, for example, if you dig back in history, a lot of Britain’s historic institutions gained their wealth in the days of the British Empire. We (Brits) got rich quick from over-powering other nations. Or at secondary school, I remember a number of black friends were stopped by the police, when I’d never had that experience. The English churches did not, on the whole, do a great job of opening their doors to the Afro-Caribbean community who arrived after WW2. For plenty of ethnic minority believers “systemic” racism articulates the thousands of small ways that “normal” British society is stacked against them.
The question is: what do with do with something like “systemic” racism? I think it can serve as a legitimate diagnostic tool. “Systemic” racism verbalises and articulates a real problem. But careless use of this tool comes with a number of dangers attached:
- it can work as a stick with which to beat the privileged. At its worst, it can be used as a power grab. The angry, young teenage boy who walks around London, resentful of the “success” of others, blames the UK government for his ills. It ignores commands to submit to unjust rule, like Jesus did (1 Peter 2:18; 1 Tim 6:1).
- it can produce a faux guilt. Those with “white privilege” who say “sorry” are apologising for what previous generations have done. But apologising on someone else’s behalf can easily be a form of moral superiority disguised as pseudo-guilt.
- it can absolve us of moral responsibility. A system is an abstraction and cannot be held morally responsible. God won’t judge any “systems” on Judgement Day; he will judge people. Ezekiel the prophet challenged people who were using systemic sin as an excuse (Eze 18:2, 19).
- it sniffs out a particular sin with a sensitivity that we’re not prepared to do for (m)any other sins. Abortion, anyone? Sabbath-breaking anyone? Idolatry, anyone? Sexual immorality, anyone?
As Christians, surely we need to say: yes, it’s possible to trace back some of the inequalities today to the actions of the British Empire, but that doesn’t trace the problem back anywhere near far enough. The most “systemic” problem of all is the covenant of works with Adam. The Bible teaches that the actions of our covenant head have brought sin and misery on us all. “One trespass led to condemnation for all men” (Rom 5:18). That’s our real “systemic” problem. “Systemic” racism is correct to point out that we can’t ultimately treat individuals in isolation from how a wider society is arranged. But confining that context to “Britain” or to “white people” is far too narrow. This isn’t ultimately a “white” or “colonial” problem. It’s an “Adam” problem. And we’re all complicit in it and guilty.
This is why we need to be clear that the only answer to racism is Jesus Christ, the “last Adam” and “second man” (1 Cor 15:45, 47). He reconciles us to God in one body through the cross (Eph 2:16). The church needs to make clear that the grand political project of the West, to build a united nations, where men “beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks” (Isa 2:4), while leaving God out of the picture (Isa 2:3), is doomed to failure. Racism will not be eradicated by political protests and group hugs. The only solution to racism comes from Jesus Christ. And Jesus Christ was not a white man. Neither was he a black man. He was a Jew. But in this one, particular man, who doesn’t share my skin colour, and didn’t speak my language, is the source of healing the wounds of our divided race (Gal 3:28; Col 3:11).
The UK Church and racism
“But the UK church is no better. It’s riddled with racism”, some might say. But that is a very hard assertion to quantify. Sure, we can quote statistics about the number of BAME speakers at various conferences, but statistics don’t prove the sin of partiality.
I have no desire to exonerate the UK church. I’m sure this is a sin (though only one among many) which needs tackling. But the best place to tackle racism in the church isn’t online (via a blog post like this). It’s not tackled by “tokenism”, by sticking unqualified men in as elders, or making theological compromises. It’s not going to be fixed by singing some choruses in another language. Or by eating “multicultural” food. It’s got to be tackled with the nitty-gritty gospel of repentance and faith. The church needs to lift up her voice and preach Jesus Christ as the only mediator between God and sinful men and women, and boys and girls, and his one, catholic church (Eph 4:4-6), marked by the word, sacraments, and prayer, as the only place of salvation. It’s tackled by the oh-so-hard work of loving the difficult people who sit next to you in church.
The best place to tackle racism is at the Lord’s Table. It was there that Paul tackled Peter, for withdrawing from eating with the Gentiles (Gal 2:11-14). But it’s there that God tackles each of us with our sin, and with his grace. It is at the Lord’s Table that an equalising and levelling force is unleashed that political campaigners can only dream of. There I sit with brothers and sisters, who are different to me, but who are all equal recipients of the grace of God, each equally justified by the work of Christ. We shouldn’t be naïve. Tackling family sins takes time. Family sins don’t disappear overnight. We won’t undo the dysfunction of three generations in 5 years. But the church cannot afford to ape the world’s moral agenda on racism. Only pushing further in to the gospel of Jesus Christ and his word can help us.
The best place to tackle racism is at the Lord’s Table.