Black Lives Matter
“Surely all lives matter?” This is a common answer given by some whenever the phrase”Black Lives Matter” comes into the news again. But the only times most of us encounter the “Black Lives Matter” phrase is in response to instances of disproportionate violence directed towards black people. While the phrase might look on the surface of it to be egalitarian, in the context that it invariably arises, saying “All Lives Matter” is spectacularly missing the point when used as a retort to “Black Lives Matter”. Let me put it like this:
Saying “All lives matter” in response to “Black lives matter” is like watching someone drowning and saying that the coastguard should be deploying a lifeboat to everyone in the water rather than responding in a life-saving manner to the drowning person specifically. In that circumstance, saying “All swimmers matter” rather than “Drowning swimmers matter” does not mark you out as having compassion to all. It marks you as lacking compassion for someone who is specifically in trouble and needs society around them to prioritise their needs and respond such they are no longer likely to die. All swimmers do matter. But when one is drowning, we prioritize them. Remember that Jesus went after one sheep that was lost, not because the ninety nine other sheep’s lives didn’t matter. There and then, there was a lost sheep whose needs were his priority.
Listening, learning, praying and acting are at the heart of a Christian response to this issue, as with so much else in life. I therefore invite you to join me in praying for justice, not only in the United States, but also in our own nation, and in learning more about the underlying issues, history and especially the perspectives of black and ethnic minority voices. We can’t pretend this is only an American issue and not relevant here. Black and Minority Ethnic people are still disproportionately stopped and searched by UK police (the latest UK government figures available are that between April 2018 and March 2019, there were 4 stop and searches for every 1,000 White people, compared with 38 for every 1,000 Black people). Even during the Covid-19 lockdown, analysis by Liberty Investigates released on Tuesday 26th May revealed that Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people were 54% more likely to be fined than white people. Clearly there are unjust structures in operation in our own society as well and we need not think this is a problem solely for the other side of the Atlantic.
Why am I, a vicar in England, writing this?
I write this in the context of the President of the United States deciding to use a church as the backdrop of a photocall, wielding a Bible as he did so. The community of St John’s Church, Lafayette Square in Washington had previously been handing out water and snacks and providing an oasis of calm in the city. Members of the congregation report that this oasis of calm and peace was cleared using teargas and flash grenades. The Washington Post reports:
“The Right Rev. Mariann Budde, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, said she learned of Trump’s visit by watching it on the news. “I don’t want President Trump speaking for St. John’s,” Budde said. “I am outraged,” she said, with pauses emphasizing her anger as her voice slightly trembled. “I am the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington and was not given even a courtesy call that they would be clearing with tear gas so they could use one of our churches as a prop, holding a Bible, one that declares that God is love and when everything he has said and done is to enflame violence.” She said the church disassociates itself from the messages of the president. “We hold the teachings of our sacred texts to be so so grounding to our lives and everything we do and it is about love of neighbor and sacrificial love and justice,” she said. Budde said the Episcopal Church had about a dozen clergy at the church and Lafayette Square all day to support protesters and left when the curfew was called.”
So today, I write this because I need to make it completely clear that I stand not only with those calling for justice, but I also stand with my brothers and sisters in the American Episcopal Church in assuring people that Christians are categorically not on the side of power, oppression and racism. Like Mary, mother of Jesus, we are in the Magnificat business of praising God by regarding the lowly, magnifying the seemingly insignificant in society, fearing God rather than fearing earthly power, scattering the proud, putting down the mighty, exalting the humble and meek, filling the hungry with good things, but sending those who have garnered riches and privilege in the world through their own strength on their way. That’s how we magnify the Lord and rejoice in God our Saviour.
How can we respond?
Protests in the United States and indeed around the world following the brutal death of George Floyd have highlighted the need for each of us to respond in prayer and action to the scourge of injustice, and to learn more about the surrounding issues. It is not enough to declare that there are good and bad people on all sides as a convenient way to dismiss this, or to say that most U.S. police officers do not kill black people. There are some jobs where some shortcomings should not be tolerated. A cruise liner company would not get away with saying that the vast majority of its skippers are safe, it’s just a minority of bad apples who capsize ships. A company where a troubling minority of skippers were consistently sinking ships would not be tolerated.
Similarly, we cannot use the awful looting and violence which has emerged in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd as a reason to ignore deeply rooted structural and societal injustices. This is a time to look at our priorities as people rooted in the ambitious, generous justice embodied in Jesus. If our response is “It’s awful that an innocent black man was killed, but destroying property and businesses has got to stop.” we need to turn this around to saying “It’s awful that property and businesses are being destroyed, but killing innocent black men has got to stop.” It’s not enough to say “two wrongs don’t make a right”. Remember that Jesus completely flipped over and trashed the tables of those who were exploiting the poor in the temple. In doing so, he wasn’t setting a precedent for rioting, or condoning it. He was prioritising justice above power and property, and standing with victims of injustice, as must we.
As a white man, I will never know what it means to be habitually stopped and searched as black friends in the UK have been pretty much their whole life since their early teens. And that’s in a country where the police stopping me would not be routinely carrying guns! I need to learn more from British BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) perspectives. A commitment to pursuing justice and striving for reconciliation is an integral part of our identity as followers of Jesus Christ, not an optional extra. Saint Paul writes in his letter to Christians in Galatia, ‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ (Galatians 3.28). That has to guide our response and the way we look at one another.
Learn, pray, act.
Below are some links to articles and websites to help us learn more about injustice and to challenge ourselves to work out a Christian response in prayer and action, even as we continue to pray for justice, peace and reconciliation in the United States, the United Kingdom, and throughout the world. If you are interested in connecting with others in the churches of the Bramham Benefice who are already committed to learn, pray and act about this and many other issues of social justice, please make contact with our Justice and Peace group.
Look with pity, O heavenly Father,
upon the people in this land who live with injustice, terror,
disease, and death as their constant companions.
Have mercy upon us.
Help us to eliminate cruelty to these our neighbours.
Strengthen those who spend their lives
establishing equal protection of the law and equal opportunities for all.
And grant that every one of us may enjoy a fair portion of the riches of this land;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(American Book of Common Prayer)
O God who created all people in your holy image,
who loves the stranger, who cares for the downtrodden:
walk with those who face discrimination;
protect them from harm,
and help them to see Christ in our church community.
Guide those who fan the fires of discrimination
o open their eyes to the beauty of all your creation
and respect the human dignity of all people.
Open our hearts to those who face hatred and injustice
because of their race, their background, their ethnicity,
that we might better help them belong;
and know that they belong,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
- We Need To Talk About Race: Black Experience in White Majority Churches: A talk from St Paul’s Cathedral Learning Department in 2019
- A.D.A. France-Williams, author of Ghost Ship: Institutional Racism and the Church of England, reflects on the death of George Floyd, and asks how the church will respond. Click here to view the resource.
- “Becoming Beloved Community…Where You Are” A Resource for Individuals, Congregations & Communities Seeking Racial Healing, Reconciliation and Justice (A Resource from the Episcopal Church in the United States).
- Watch the Rev Gayle Fisher-Stewart, an Episcopal priest who was a police officer in Washington DC, reflect on reconciliation, black lives and the Church’s role in the United States.
- Watch Kimberlé Crenshaw talk about the urgency of intersectionality.
Having learned more, pray in a more informed way, then conclude your prayers with a prayer for justice, such as the following;
deliver us from a world without justice
and a future without mercy;
in your mercy, establish justice,
and in your justice,
remember the mercy
revealed to us
in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Over to you… but some ideas…
Chances are you are reading this either because you’re a parishioner of mine, or have followed a link to this website from social media. Thank you for reading, but now that I’ve got your attention, on this subject I really need to pass the microphone so you hear black voices. So, stop reading what white blokes like me have to say on this subject and make a conscious effort to look out for BME voices online. Amplify their voices by sharing their blogs (rather than this one), and share their Facebook posts and Tweets. Listen to them, read their words, and learn how the world looks from their perspective. And I will shut up and do the same: listen, read, learn, amplify, rather than “speaking on behalf of”. I’m glad I got your attention, but really, stop listening to white folk talk about racism.
Support the work of the Runnymede Trust https://www.runnymedetrust.org/ – a leading UK equality think-tank.
http://www.coventrycathedral.org.uk/ccn/ The Community of the Cross of Nails, based at Coventry Cathedral provides other resources.
Some resources from the United States for thinking about how to respond as a community which may provide ideas which can be adapted into our own cultural context in the UK Ten Ways to Fight Hate: A Community Response Guide
The Reverend Nick Morgan, 2nd June 2020