Apologies are good, but the Church must do more to end racism

(Photo: Unsplash/James Eades)

Ten years ago, black Christian leaders called on the Black Church to "maximise its corporate strength, spiritually, economically and politically", all against the backdrop of racism and racial injustice. 

The ambitious call came in the book, The Black Church in the 21st Century, edited by Bishop Joe Aldred and Christian writer Keno Ogbo.

Although now a decade old, it remains as relevant as ever following the death of George Floyd last year, which triggered protests around the world and much soul-searching in the Church and society. 

The book has just been republished to include new reflections on the seismic events of the past year. 

Dr R David Muir, contributor to The Black Church in the 21st Century and Senior Lecturer in Public Theology at the University of Roehampton, speaks to Christian Today about the impact of George Floyd's death, the road to racial justice both inside and outside the Church, and why he's encouraged by what he's seeing in the Black Church. 

CT: Why republish the book now?

Dr Muir: After the death of George Floyd, everything changed; we now have a cocktail of social, economic, political and racial injustice.

I know that for me as a Christian leader, educator and activist, my own psychological DNA radically shifted and I feel bolder now in challenging racial injustice. I am much more direct and far less diplomatic in speaking out about it. And I feel that as Christians, we have a moral obligation to be much more prophetic and direct when it comes to challenging racial injustice, because racism kills; it destroys people's lives.

But also, some things have changed within the Black Church since the book was first published. For one thing, we now have a premier umbrella organisation for black Christian leaders called the National Church Leaders Forum (NCLF), which is a phenomenal organisation looked after by volunteers and which in 2015 published the first ever Black Church manifesto, a very important document that basically says the Black Church has come of age.

And indeed it has. The Black Church is here to stay and is the most coherent and cohesive institution within black Britain. It's for this very reason that black Christian leaders have a moral obligation to put some red lines in the ground as to what we won't do and what we must do. And of course, we've now got to become the agents of our own liberation and our own empowerment.

We can already see that happening. There is a new form of Christian activism taking shape in which black Christians in the UK are taking their social responsibility much more seriously.

Indeed the issues raised in the book 10 years ago are still really serious issues now. For example, climate justice is the dominant narrative now. What are we going to do about climate change? Can Christians and the Black Church say anything prophetic about creation care?

So republishing the book now is a good thing and I hope more people will read the book through the prism of what is happening now and the challenges we all face, whether you're a black or white Christian.

CT: The book was rallying the Black Church to "maximise its corporate strength spiritually, socially and economically and politically", which was a huge call at the time. Do you think this has been achieved?

Dr Muir: It is a journey and over the last 10 years I think we've made tremendous strides. Young black Christians are much more conscious of the political environment in which they operate. There is a degree of healthy cynicism about some of the practices and theologies of some of our churches, which I think is a really good thing, and people are reimaging what a healthy church might look like and what a church that values God's blessing while not privileging a theology of prosperity looks like.

Dr R David Muir

Young people especially are very attuned to that. My youngest daughter, for example, is of that generation of young people who grew up in church but have become somewhat disenchanted because they don't think the Church is up to very much or doing very much about the issues they think are important, like social justice, climate change and racial justice. She took the initiative to create a social enterprise organisation that is helping to mentor young people and give them a voice.

So there are many young black Christians doing really amazing things to be a relevant Christian voice. They're moving beyond the traditional denominational trappings and they're forcing us older ones to reimagine and re-think what Church could look like and especially given some of the challenges we face.

CT: Going back to George Floyd, it was such a huge event. Why do you think this event in America triggered such a powerful reaction here in the UK too?

Muir: Covid-19 laid bare the disparities and inequities in healthcare and other social economic indices, with a disproportionate number of black people dying from the virus. We could see with our own eyes how poverty and discrimination destroys black people's lives.

Then on top of that came the public assassination of an unarmed black man by a white police officer flippantly kneeling on his neck while he cried that he couldn't breathe and wanted his mother.

If people didn't know the extent of racial injustice before, they certainly understood it after George Floyd's death. It was the perfect convergence of the historical, psychological, political and cultural violence that has been committed on black bodies. It was the perfect symbol of what black folks have known the whole time, namely that Uncle Sam, especially in America, has always had his knee on the black man's neck, choking the life out of them, suffocating their hopes, dreams and ambitions.

If people in Britain don't understand what George Floyd's death has got to do with us over here, then they need to wake up and smell the coffee. Stephen Lawrence was murdered in my borough, the Royal Borough of Greenwich. Joy Gardner had 13 feet of duct tape wrapped around her mouth suffocating her.

So Martin Luther King is right: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." You can't be a thinking, feeling human being and not be moved by the scandal of George Floyd's death. Now is a time for weeping and repentance for how the black man has been and continues to be treated. And I know that the God of peace, mercy, justice and love expects all of us to courageously speak up and speak out. We need to be empowered, encouraged and most of all emboldened not to compromise on these things because racism kills.

CT: In the immediate aftermath of George Floyd's death, there were a lot of protests and statues being toppled. What do you think is the next step?

Dr Muir: Like all movements, people get excited for a while and then things die down. There's always a long march through the institutions to bring about real and lasting change. But politics is about the art of the impossible and the big picture that we need to keep in front of us is ending historical racial discrimination and injustice.

Universities have got to step up and churches have got to be much more vocal, and pulling down statues isn't where it's at. Yes it may be symbolic but the real question is this: how are you going to make sure we have less black men locked up in our prisons? How are we going to ensure that young black people aren't stopped and searched? How are we going to make sure that when young black people come before the courts, they don't get a disproportionately higher custodial sentence? How do we ensure that the attainment gap in universities is reduced and that we give young black graduates the confidence that they will enjoy the same employment opportunities as their white counterparts?

Anyone can pull down a statue, that's easy, but the real work starts after that.

CT: The Archbishop of Canterbury has apologised for the Church of England's own failings with slavery and racial injustice. What do you think about the apologies that have come from white Church leaders?

Dr Muir: I'm the head of Whitelands College at the University of Roehampton, which is an Anglican establishment started by the Church of England. The Church of England had slaves in Barbados, lots of them, and those slaves often had branded on them 'CofE'.

Apologies are wonderful but at the end of the day, apologies are cheap because they are just words. In the Bible, Zacchaeus the tax collector said he would pay back anyone he had cheated several times over.

If the Church is serious about apologising, then we need to see the fruit of repentance. It's something that should grow. And how can it grow? We need to start planting the seeds of opportunity, employment and power. Ultimately, it's about the distribution of power and the allocation of resources. What is the Church going to do to ensure that they have more BAME Anglicans being sponsored, mentored and trained for the ministry? Unless the Church of England is ready to think about how it distributes power, we can talk until the cows come home.

What they really need to do is put their money where their mouth is. The Church of England got a lot of money off the back of slaves from the British Government. Let's now see some of that money going into resources and bursaries to help black and brown people inside and outside the Church fulfil their dreams.

At the end of the day, apologies alone will not change the social reality for black and brown people inside and outside the Church. If we are serious about our faith and what it means to be a Christian in discriminatory Britain then we need to put ourselves on the line and walk the talk. In some ways, we've got to weep before we speak and become like Jeremiah, a crying prophet, weeping and crying because things are so awful you might just do something about it.

CT: The Black Church is also empowering itself. What are you most encouraged about and, looking to the future, where do you see this journey going?

Dr Muir: The end game has got to be confident Christians and to be a confident Christian, whether you're black or white, means you've got to be biblically and theologically educated. You can't operate effectively in a modern society unless you have a level of theological education.

The second thing, though, is that black Christian leaders need to stop beating themselves up about trying to get white people to come to their churches because it's not going to happen. That's just the historical and sociological reality, because some see you as less than and think you've got very little to offer. That's the historical legacy of racism.

It was suggested that God might be using African and Caribbean churches for the re-evangelisation of Britain but that's just nonsense and liberal claptrap. We've been trying to get white folks to come to our churches for 40 years and it hasn't happened.

Now, it may well be that the third or fourth generations who understand the British culture better, be the ones who in the future do crossover, multicultural churches. But for now, I think black Christians should concentrate on confidently discipling the people that God has given them, educating them and celebrating them so that they can be better citizens and Christians. And I see that happening already and I'm encouraged by that.

But whether we're white Christians or black Christians, there are less people going to church now and more people becoming indifferent, so whether black or white, we need to be biblically educated so that we know what God is trying to say to our nation and the big picture of our faith, and how to confidently and competently engage in the contemporary discourse around faith, politics, meaning, citizenship and everything else. If the Black Church is a part of that, what more could I hope for?