Adrian Chatfield writes: The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis left me with a welter of emotions: shock, horror, anger, shame, confusion. There are now so many strident voices clamouring for attention following this brutal act that I have wondered whether it is worth saying anything at all. Yet I feel I must, for silence is the greatest evil of all. I am reminded of Martin Niemöller’s oft-quoted observation that ‘First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out —because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.’
I have used it myself in preaching, but in the present context it seems hollow for two reasons. The first is that it suggests unintentionally that our primary motivation for responding is a kind of quid pro quo. I should be moral lest my behaviour come back to bite me. Charles Kingsley gave us the fictional character for this in The Water Babies in the person of Mrs Do-as-you-would-be-done-by. The second is that writing as a white male in the face of violence against an African-American, no one is about to ‘come for me’. I am in a position of great safety, strength and privilege.
Having been brought up in a white minority of 2% in Trinidad and Tobago, I personally never experienced racial hatred, and for that, I want to say thank you to my friends, acquaintances and parishioners. I ought also to thank my parents. My father did not smack me very often, but I will never forget the day when I was rude to our domestic servant, our maid. He slapped me across the face, quite uncharacteristically, and said, ‘Don’t you ever dare to talk to N. like that. She’s your elder and better.’
Lesson #1: Respect is not determined by status.
Trinidad is not perfect; nowhere is, but the love, care and respect which I was shown humbles me. The politics of Trinidad, early introduced by British colonial policies, meant that the Asian community was set against the African community, to weaken the influence of both and to preserve colonial authority. To this day, Trinidadian politics is bedevilled by this history, but Trinidadians themselves regularly rise above the imperative of political loyalty.
Lesson #2: All those Christians who say that we shouldn’t meddle in politics don’t know what they’re talking about. Not to meddle is to confirm the ungodly structures of power.
Fast forward many years to the Vaal south of Johannesburg, in Sebokeng and Sharpeville, we were the only white people, loved, cared for, never mistreated, never laughed at or mocked. Yes, I know we were in positions of so-called authority but truly it wasn’t about power. There was a sense that we were all dependent on each other. We drove 60 kilometres each Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist, which for many of them was the only ‘proper’ service. We were the only available priests, and they needed us. We preached in English, and they interpreted into Sesotho and isiXhosa. Without their interpretation, what we were saying was meaningless. They gave the words purpose and the power to strike home. Until we picked up a little of the languages, we didn’t even know whether they were being faithful to what we said, so we had to trust them. We needed them as much as they us.
Lesson #3: To be truly human in community, we must find the humility to admit to our need of the other, and the grace to recognize their equal need of us.
There is a particular problem for me as a white man. I have often mused on the fact that my own ‘white race’ finds it so hard to love ‘the other’, to speak with grace, to care regardless of circumstances? I know the history as well as the next person, the history of slavery justified by the fact that the people we enslaved were not human in the same way as we are human. 18th and 19th century eugenics (perpetuated in the ridiculous fascination with IQ—intelligence quotient and membership of Mensa) suggested that there is a fundamental otherness about black people that allowed us to treat them as non-people. In that way, some white South Africans used to hunt Bushmen for sport in the way one hunts game. When in the last few weeks I have struggled to understand how Donald Trump can believe that ingesting bleach might help against COVID-19, I have reminded myself that groups of humans regularly use pseudo-science to draw dangerous conclusions and to exclude others from their human care or embrace.
Lesson #4: Don’t think that scientific hypotheses will help you to define or organize your relationship with people, each of whom is uniquely and remarkably created different.
So why do white men (and women, but predominantly men), find it so difficult to relate with grace to people of other races? Forgive me if I generalize, because I guess that many reading this are grace-filled towards all peoples. I do think that our particular history of empire in the West has given the white man the sense that he is the perfect specimen of humanity, brought into being to rule the world. European empires did it for just long enough to allow it to penetrate the cultural subconscious and suggest that people of colour aren’t quite there, not quite perfect, not quite capable. Why else would mixed-race children in the Caribbean be defined by percentages of ‘colour infection’ as mulatto, quadroon or even octoroon? Not quite white, not quite normal, not quite fit to govern, to think, to belong.
At this juncture, I have to admit that despite all this, I am not racked with liberal pseudo-guilt. I am aware that as a man, I can fall into the trap of presuming the normality of manhood over against the abnormality of womanhood. The medievals regularly did that. I am also aware that the language I use can entrap me. While I am just a man, he is a black man. But I’m not about to take upon myself the burden of the sin of man’s inhumanity to man (Robert Burns). Guilt paralyzes, and if I am part of the problem, I need to understand myself better so that I can rather become part of the solution. Instead of pseudo-guilt, a little humility might be helpful. I am not the centre of the universe. I’m not even especially important. I certainly can’t think myself into the head of someone who, every time he goes out, is on tenterhooks waiting to be stopped and searched by the police because he’s black.
Lesson #5: Racism is not a problem that will be solved by my confession of cosmic guilt.
I said at the beginning that I felt a compulsion to speak out because silence was the greatest evil of all, a sentiment that Meghan Markle echoed when she said that ‘the only wrong thing to say is to say nothing.’ My own experience of cultural and ethnic diversity means that I find it relatively easy to speak generously of those who are different, and to find racial stereotyping difficult to fathom. What is there not to like in other people’s appearance and way of being? But if it were only my experience that enabled me to speak like this, I would despair, for most people haven’t had the privilege of being a ‘third-culture kid’. Silence is the greatest evil not because I have more insight than others, but because racism is untrue to the Christian gospel.
Here of course I cross swords with the theology of apartheid, which took Acts 17.26 to mean that God created different races to exist in independence from one another:
From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live.
My stance is also a challenge to prosperity theology, which presumes on a misreading of Deuteronomy inter alia that God privileges certain people because of their particular actions in ‘speaking the word’, and creates his own class system of the few fortunate alongside the poor wretched unfortunates of this world.
So in what ways do I believe that racism is counter to the Christian gospel? First, because the image and likeness of God belong to us corporately and not individually. If another individual is diminished or dehumanized by me, I certainly do not deprive her or him of that gift. In a strange way, my action scars or corrupts the body corporate, just as in an abusive relationship, victim and abuser are pulled down together.
Then too, there is something here about God choosing to value the human race, and indeed the cosmos, even when our scarred and corrupt nature and actions suggest otherwise. The act of incarnation is many things: a divine celebration of the physicality of the creation, a participation in that creation and a commitment to transformation. At the heart of it is the astonishing self-emptying of Christ, a bending lower than the low that the low might be exalted. If at the heart of God there is an impulse to bend down to reach those whom God might easily dismiss, this teaches me that if I share in the love of God, my ultimate calling is to bend low too. In the light of this, I have found the images of kneeling police and protesters especially poignant.
And of course there is the ‘small matter’ of the ultimate goal of the incarnation, that we might be restored, redeemed, renewed. A simple theology of identification (which many weak liberation theologies espouse) is a lesson in hollow empathy. It accomplishes nothing. God self-emptied that we might “escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1.4). In the light of God’s mission, we have no choice but to continue to love those who might seem unlovely to our narrow perspectives, to believe in the possibility of change in those who are hopeless cases and to invest all of life with the energy of our hope. For me, this involves embracing a faith in the saving work of Jesus Christ which is transformative individually, socially, politically and economically. Really, the whole creation is groaning in travail…
My original comment (posted on Facebook) ended with the following words, which I want to keep as a personal manifesto, and to remind myself of why I won’t let this issue go in the months and years to come. I owe it to God and to you:
I’m not writing this to assuage some supposed human guilt lurking in the corners of my heart. I just needed to say thank you to all my friends for letting me be me, letting me be different, letting me into your lives even though you were ‘not like me’. In the middle of a coronavirus epidemic, I needed to ask why we are more afraid of dying of that virus than of poisoning each other with the virulence of hatred of the other. I needed also to say, as a Christian, that I really believe that in Christ there is no inferior other—male, female, Jew, Gentile, slave, free—but all are called to be one, in Christ.
Adrian Chatfield taught Church History and Practical Theology at St John’s Nottingham, Systematic Theology in Johannesburg, and Worship and Spirituality at Wycliffe Hall Oxford and Ridley Hall Cambridge. He now lives in Ilkeston, Derbyshire, and divides his time between offering spiritual direction and speaking at retreats and church conferences. He and his wife Jill love discovering what retirement means, through the camera lens, walking, running and by bicycle.
Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?