Giles Udy writes: George Floyd’s death was deeply traumatic for many people. In the months that followed as those who had experienced racism found a voice to express the history of their pain, I felt it was important for me not only to listen to them but to educate myself as much as I could, to better understand their experience. I’ve spent many months reading and carefully examining my own reactions to see in what ways I had contributed to their sense of not being heard or understood.
As part of this process I picked up Ben Lindsay’s book We Need To Talk About Race: Understanding the Black Experience in White Majority Churches. I made a conscious effort to approach it with as open a mind as possible but as I read it I found myself feeling increasingly uneasy about some of his statements. Where he gave footnotes, I checked them out and found a number of them didn’t even say the things he said they did. That alarmed me and I began to dig deeper. What I’ve found has really concerned me.
I believe the book is deeply flawed. Far from being distributed to, and studied by, groups throughout the church, my view is that it should actually be withdrawn from church bookstalls. I’m aware this is a drastic suggestion which must be supported with solid argument. I believe it can be. My reasons follow.
I really find myself ill at ease with the idea of criticising a fellow author, especially one like Ben who comes across as a genuinely nice person. But since the summer I’ve been reading extensively in slavery history, black theology, and critical race theory and I am becoming increasingly convinced that the wider church is making a number of mistakes in its well-meaning but ill-informed attempts to address racism, including its partnership with the Black Lives Matter organisation (as opposed to the ‘black lives matter’ idea). I expressed my broader concerns recently in UnHerd.
As I have written in that article, the fact of the existence of racism in the church does not validate every diagnosis of its cause, nor every solution for its eradication. It is absolutely right that the British church pursues racial justice but it is essential that that process is seen to be academically, historically and theologically credible. If it isn’t and that becomes known, there will be resentment and division, rather than healing, in the church. Ben’s book fails drastically on all these three criteria.
It is in that context that I write now about the book. I have found that it to be so poor, in so many instances, that I am still struggling after nine months to put my voluminous notes in some form of order. For this reason, these points may seem somewhat disjointed and I apologise if they come across as such. I will simply state each in turn.
The Problems with Ben Lindsay’s We Need to Talk About Race – A Summary
Ben states that key Black liberation theologians such as Robert Beckford and Anthony Reddie “should be required reading”. Yet they deny both the atonement as traditionally understood and the authority of scripture, and offer a parallel interpretation of the life of Jesus which is unrecognisable to orthodox Christians. Endorsing BLT to church members is a pathway to division. My article gives more detail and my paper will explore this subject at length.
Ben states that “the church was the moral cement for our structure of racism in our nation” and “we have not yet fully reckoned with our Christian responsibility for the legacy of racism in our society” (my italics) and cites ‘Rev Duke Kwon’ as the source. This is a massive accusation. Ben never mentions that Kwon is American and was referring to America. This is a very serious error. British church members reading these words, endorsed by the Archbishop of Canterbury and other senior leaders, will believe them to be the truth about the British Church – on the basis of an American pastor’s contentious comment about the American church.
Many of the footnotes Lindsay uses to support his arguments simply don’t say what he says they do. In one case he cites a Harvard study to support the accusation of police brutality against black people (in America, not the UK which makes it irrelevant anyway) but checking the source I find that the Black author of the article actually says the opposite and debunks the claim – which came not from a prestigious Harvard study but from the British Guardian newspaper. If I was marking a college paper with such mistakes in it, I’d give it a ‘D’. I give other instances of misleading footnotes in some of the points which follow.
Ben has taken many of his core understandings about racism from Reni Eddo-Lodge whose bestselling book is a popularisation of Critical Race Theory:
In July 2017, I read Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge. It is one of the best books I’ve read on race from a UK perspective, covering issues such as the histories of racism, systematic and structural racism, what white privilege is and race and class.
He says he gave the book to his whole church leadership in the days when he pastored a church.
This is not the place to expound on the errors of and damage being done by Critical Race Theory (my article touches on that, albeit briefly). But the significance here is that Ben openly states that he bases his perspectives on the pervasiveness of white supremacy, white privilege and his definition of racism from Critical Race Theory, which is increasingly coming under fire from Black intellectuals such as Trevor Phillips, the Black founding chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission who comments:
Critical Race theory is a Scam. It has nothing to do with improving life for Black people. It makes the issues entirely about white people, what they do or feel. It is great for academics who sell books and go around guilt tripping white people but it makes no difference to the ordinary black person’s life.
CRT is also criticised by Black orthodox theologians, mostly in the U.S. as well as leaders here in the UK. Does Christianity really need to be “disentangled from white supremacy” as Lindsay asserts? He writes
There is no doubt, however, that, historically, the concept of white supremacy has been woven into the fabric and structure of our society, which is to the detriment of black people and the benefit of white people.
Many would challenge that view.
Ben’s footnote supporting this last accusation, that “white supremacy has been woven into the fabric and structure of our society” (i.e., the UK), surely so radical a charge that it must be supported by fact, is puzzling—not least because a number of the evidences he gives are nothing to do with Britain. The comment “See the transatlantic slave trade” ignores the extraordinary anti-slavery mood which swept 19th Century Britain. Queen Victoria even adopted one African child as her goddaughter. Sarah Forbes Bonetta, as she became known, had just reached the age which according to the custom of her captors, the Dahomey, who practised human sacrifice, she had become liable to be one it its victims. She was rescued in 1850 by a naval officer of the West Africa Squadron, which had been stationed off the African coast to put down slave trading.
He then mentions “apartheid” which was South Africa not the UK, “Jim Crow laws”, America not the UK, “The McPherson report” from 20 years ago, specific to the police not the UK as a whole, “hostile immigration laws”, a contentious assertion, which at least needs to be supported by an argument rather than used as argument, “disproportionate incarceration rates in the UK…” a complex issue, but to use these as proof of ‘white supremacy’ is contentious, “and in the U.S.” once again, an American example, “and the UK ‘Race disparity audit’”—there’s no evidence of ‘white supremacy’ in the report – disparity, yes, but not ‘white supremacy’.
In short, yet another Lindsay footnote simply doesn’t support the claim that he uses it to do.
Ben also writes: “Knowing that civilization derived from the continent of Africa … it could be argued that everyone in the Bible is of African descent.” This is not really tenable, though it’s a popular idea in Black liberation circles, where at its most extreme it ends up as version of ‘black supremacy’ in contrast to ‘white supremacy’. Scholars maintain that Mesopotamia, not Africa, is commonly accepted as the first place in which ‘civilisation’ began, and it developed independently in China and Mexico.
I believe that one of the main reasons Christianity is unappealing to some black people in the UK is that, throughout history – and today – black people have been consistently unmerited by the church. This is the same church that, ironically, came from Africa, was cultivated in African educational institutions and produced African theologians.
“Came from Africa”? Abraham was not African; neither were Jesus, Peter or Paul.
The oft-repeated accusation that British theology is ‘Eurocentric’ and ‘whitewashed’ also appears in the book, similarly derived from Black liberation theology and critical theory (as my article makes clear). It is an easy charge to make and everyone nods in agreement but what does this actually mean? Where are concrete examples which show that ‘traditional’ theology is racist? Such assertions must be supported if they are to be taken seriously. They aren’t and so they simply cannot be taken as valid. Anthony B. Bradley’s Liberating Black Theology (2010) is essential reading on Black liberation theology and its critique of so-called ‘white theology’.
Ben Lindsay and slavery history – the major problem with the book
Lindsay places history (or, rather, his interpretation of it) right at the centre of the arguments and purpose of the book – so much so that these are the opening lines of his back cover blurb:
From the UK Church’s complicity in the transatlantic slave trade to the whitewashing of Christianity throughout history, the Church has a lot to answer for when it comes to race relations.
The problem is that Lindsay’s knowledge of history is wafer thin and, given the bold assertions he makes from it, this is deeply troubling. There are numerous smaller examples which I could cite to begin with. Each merits a detailed refutation. Here are just three.
First, he writes “in Bonhoeffer’s time it was clear – the Nazi’s (sic) were the perpetrators and the Catholic Church was the bystander [to, it is implied, Nazi racism]” – this in context of the British church today, and Trumpian racism (the latter having no relevance to the UK). This is simply untrue. While some stayed silent for pragmatic reasons and others did support the Nazi party, Catholic clergy as a whole were brutally persecuted from the moment the Nazis gained power. Clergy, nuns and lay leaders were targeted following the Nazi takeover, often on trumped up charges of currency smuggling or “immorality”. Priests were watched closely and frequently denounced, arrested and sent to concentration camps. From 1940, a dedicated Clergy Barracks had been established at Dachau concentration camp.
Intimidation of clergy was widespread. Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber was shot at. Cardinal Theodor Innitzer had his Vienna residence ransacked in October 1938 and Bishop Johannes Baptista Sproll of Rottenburg was jostled and his home vandalised. In 1937, the New York Times reported that Christmas would see “several thousand Catholic clergymen in prison.” Propaganda satirized the clergy, including Anders Kern’s play The Last Peasant. Jesuit historian Vincent A. Lapomarda writes that Hitler campaigned against the Jesuits, closing their schools and confiscating or destroying their property, imprisoning or exiling thousands, and killing 259 of them, including 152 who died in Nazi concentration camps. The superior of the Order in Germany, Fr Anton Rosch, was imprisoned, brutalised and scheduled for execution when rescued by Soviet troops at the end of the war.
In 1937 anti-Nazi Catholic bishops travelled to Rome where, with the Vatican’s chief diplomat, Eugenio Pacelli (later Pope Pius XII), they convinced Pope Pius XI to issue a German-language encyclical—a departure from the usual Latin—to condemn the abuses of a regime that had promised in 1933 to leave Catholic institutions alone in return for the church staying out of political affairs.
Secondly, Ben comments:
The 32 images of William Wilberforce in comparison to just 4 images of black abolitionists and anti- slavery activists displayed in the National Portrait Gallery tell their own story.
No, they don’t! It’s remarkable, given the very few black abolitionists that there were in Britain, that there are any. This is a simply unsupportable accusation that shows no understanding of British 18th/early 19th century history. Portraiture was a luxury for the wealthy. Ben simply does not understand history, in this instance social history, and makes a potentially divisive statement based upon that lack of understanding. Portraiture was not the 1790s equivalent of press photography, which costs nothing today and is indeed a reflection of popular culture interest.
A much better reflection of popular interest in black abolitionists would be in the popularity of their written memoirs. Olaudah Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789) went through nine editions. Ottobah Cugoano’s Thoughts and sentiments on the evil and wicked traffic of the slavery went through at least three printings in 1787, was translated into French and was revised in a fourth edition four years later. Yet again, a proper examination of history totally discredits Lindsay’s throwaway but inflammatory remark.
Thirdly, Ben writes:
The UK has and continues to benefit from slavery, whether it’s the innovation of the Industrial Revolution, which was a direct result of the wealth generated from the slave trade…
The thesis that the Industrial Revolution resulted from slavery originates with two Trinidadian Marxist scholars writing in Britain in the 1930s and 1940s, the Trotskyite C. L. R. James (The Black Jacobins, 1938) and Eric Williams (Capitalism and Slavery, 1944). Marxism holds that that capitalism is based upon the economic slavery of the oppressed masses. These writers simply applied Marxist paradigms to history and drew conclusions driven by political philosophy, not economics or history. As long ago as the 1970s historians Roger Anstey (Professor of Modern History at the University of Kent at Canterbury, author of The Atlantic Slave Trade and British Abolition, 1760-1810) in England and Seymour Drescher (Professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh, author of Econocide: British Slavery in the Era of Abolition) convincingly refuted James and Williams but their assertions remain in popular thinking.
The problem with all such erroneous assertions is that they are convincing and together build a picture of a wholly racist past which lingers long after the details have been forgotten. The effect is worrying, damaging and divisive. No one has the time in the church to do what I have done, almost full time for weeks on end, to research each in detail. But only after research like this can we see how misguided so many of Lindsay’s assertions are.
Lindsay’s most serious accusations
Lindsay’s most serious accusations, particularly because he insists that racial harmony cannot come until they are acknowledged and repented of, concern the British Church.
First, he states that ‘without both black and white Christians sharing an agreed collective memory of past racial wrongs by the church, it will be difficult to move forwards in unity’. To fix this “there have to be moments of publicly acknowledging the pain and the complicit racist history in the UK church”.
And he details the wrongs which the British church now needs to acknowledge:
From the UK Church’s complicity in the transatlantic slave trade to the whitewashing of Christianity throughout history, the Church has a lot to answer for when it comes to race relations… the UK church must also acknowledge the crucial and significant role it played in starting the barbaric transatlantic slave trade in the first place … the propagation of slavery by the church … receives minimal scrutiny [here and elsewhere the italics are mine]
These are very grave accusations. Given that Lindsay demands their acceptance as essential if the church is to move forward towards racial harmony, they must be supported by the facts. As I will show, they aren’t.
Before I even respond to these charges, which really form one of the central themes of his book, we need to know Lindsay means by the “UK Church” which he believes bears so much guilt—the CofE, Catholic, Baptist, or Methodist church? New independent churches like the Vineyard? He never defines it, and instead accuses the whole UK church. This is illogical. The Methodist church was founded long after the beginning of the slave trade by one of slavery’s most bitter critics, John Wesley (see John Wesley, Thoughts upon Slavery (1778)). Baptist and Methodist missionaries worked tirelessly among slaves in the West Indies, treating slaves as equals, planting congregations and raising up Black leaders to head them. White Baptist and Methodist missionaries were persecuted by planters, had their churches burned down and in some cases were killed.
Turning in detail to specifics, we are required by Lindsay to ‘acknowledge’ that the ‘UK church’ (whatever that means) played a ‘crucial and significant role’ in ‘starting’ and ‘propagating the barbaric transatlantic slave trade’.
No supporting documentation or references are given to support these charges.
The Church of England and Slavery: The Codrington Plantation
The sole involvement of the Anglican church in slavery was when its missionary society, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG), was left a plantation in Barbados in 1711 in the will of a man who wanted to found an order of medical missionaries to alleviate the plight of slaves, funded by plantation profits. It was bound by the will to maintain the plantation and slaves. If it had closed the plantation down the slaves would have been seized by other planters. The SPG got excited by the prospect of being able to create a new more humane model of a slave-run plantation. But if ever there was a poisoned chalice, this was it. It was mistaken, morally questionable, and ultimately a failure.
This cannot be defended, but it needs to be seen in its historical context. Until Christians in the third quarter of the 18th Century investigated and publicised the conditions in which slaves were transported and then held, virtually no one in England knew much of their plight. This was why the famous print of slaves stacked on the ‘Brookes’ slave ship (1787) created such a stir, was printed in thousands of copies, and was hung in inns and private houses throughout the country. People did not know what slave conditions were until then. They were appalled when they found out. This was even less the case in 1711.
The involvement of the SPG has now become infamous (actually it was quite controversial even in the late 18th Century) but no one has thought to look behind the widely repeated accusations and inferences to establish the actual historical facts. They are complex, nuanced, but don’t support the wilder accusations and give context for the lesser ones.
Suffice to say, there were 400 slaves on the Barbados plantation at emancipation, 83,000 on Barbados itself and 750,000 in the West Indies. But on those figures, the Church of England was never central to slavery. Fewer than 100 out of the 6500 Anglican clergy serving in 1833 received compensation for slaves at emancipation. (The exact numbers of serving clergy are hard to come by; it could have been as many as 10–15,000.)
47,000 compensation payments were made on emancipation. 97 payments were made to clergy (not all of whom were direct owners of slaves, in that some had inherited shares in plantations). Those 97 represent just 0.2% of the total.
Even though the charge was first made in Synod in 2006 that the Bishop of Exeter was paid for slaves he owned (ever since held up as the ‘smoking gun’ of wider CofE guilt) this is totally without foundation. He was one of a number of executors of an aristocrat’s will, and had nothing to do with slavery (he even presented petitions to parliament for its abolition). It is deeply regrettable that the clergyman who raised was not better informed and that there has never been a retraction. There should be. The story went round the world at the time and continues to be widely repeated, as has the story that ‘the church’ (i.e. the CofE with its full knowledge and on its instructions) branded its slaves – another story which has got twisted out of context. The SPG were absentee landlords and put local managers in place to run the plantation who did brand some slaves. This was discovered by the resident SPG chaplain who was utterly horrified and put an immediate stop to it.
The SPG did receive compensation for slaves on their plantation (not the Archbishop of Canterbury as has been alleged). The SPG was paid £8,558 as compensation for the estate slaves. It then returned over seven times that amount to the Codrington estate (£61,626) and over twenty times that, (£172,047) elsewhere in the Caribbean over the following decade. The money was used to build churches and schools, funding staff for them, to help build the foundations of a stable new society for freed slaves.
Demands for financial reparations continue to be made against the CofE, argued on the basis that the CofE took money for the slaves but left them destitute with no compensation. These figures, which I have found in an old record of SPG mission work, tell a different story.
The UK Church ‘started’ and ‘propagated’ slavery
The accusation that the church started and propagated slavery is unsupportable nonsense. It is based on a complete misunderstanding of the history of the way early white Europeans (not the church) viewed Africans, at a time when the world was little understood, using bible stories to help them find an answer. That fact has been shoehorned to fit the presuppositions of critics, rather than the reverse. Once again, after an examination of the real contextual history, the charge simply doesn’t stack up. Many Black liberation theologians and historians influenced by critical race theory conflate ‘white European’ with ‘Christian’, in the same way people talk about the Muslim world, regardless of their actual faith or unbelief. Christians today would not recognise someone as ‘Christian’ merely because they were born white British or European. Moreover, church attendance was compulsory in the 17th Century and laws restricting appointment to public office to communicant Anglicans were only repealed in 1828, so even the fact of wide church attendance is no proof of faith.
In further support of this accusation, Lindsay repeats Black liberation theology’s widely used accusation that the church (he implies the British church) during slavery subscribed to the ‘curse of Ham’ argument that denigrates Black Africans to secondary status as slaves and inferior beings. There are two major problems with this.
First, the footnote reference Lindsay cites to support this accusation against the British 18th Century Church actually refers to anti-abolitionist preachers in the American South in the mid-19th Century, though he clearly uses the argument to imply a British mid-18th Century context. Once again, Lindsay marshals support for an assertion using a footnote that doesn’t do that. He obviously hasn’t researched it himself and merely repeated what he has read elsewhere.
In fact, by 1850, the date to which the quote actually refers in America, Britain was so gripped by moral outrage over slavery that it was, in effect, according to one historian, an ‘anti-slavery state’. See, for example, Richard Huzzey, Freedom Burning: Anti-Slavery and Empire in Victorian Britain (2012) and Jan Morris, Heaven’s Command: An Imperial Progress (1973). Huzzey’s book is scholarly, fascinating, and essential reading. Black liberation theologians and radical Black historians dismiss British 19th Century history solely as one of imperialist expansion, exploitation and greed. The reality much more nuanced.
Ironically, Britain actually used its imperial power (‘ironic’ because Lindsay clearly adopts the standard anti-imperial/left perspective on British Empire history throughout the book) to send gunboats into foreign ports to suppress slave trading in both Africa and Brazil. (The Brazilian trade was remained substantial even after emancipation in the 1830s although its government had nominally banned slave trading. After one just brazen British naval bombardment of a Brazilian slave trading port the government backed down and completely reversed its former inaction.)
I have now spent nine months reading on this subject intensively, reviewing 18th/early 19th Century SPG annual sermons, Christian tracts, and Bishops’ speeches in the House of Lords and nowhere (beyond a few exceptional and totally unrepresentative opponents of abolition in the late 18th Century) have I found any mention of the ‘curse of Ham’ thesis or sympathy with its core idea—quite the reverse.
Lindsay also repeats, without any supporting references, the accusation made originally by the first Black liberation theologians in the US (e.g., James Cone) that Christianity was used to suppress slaves and make them more compliant:
Religion was also a driving force during slavery in the Americas. Once they arrived at their new locales the enslaved Africans were subjected to various processes to make them more compliant, and Christianity formed part of this … minimal evangelism actually took place in the early days of slavery.
I have researched this subject in great detail too. The facts, at least in the Caribbean, the only region which is relevant to the British church, are very different from the myth. Ben’s mention of slavery ‘in the Americas’ is not only irrelevant but ignores the complexity and lack of uniformity of Christian practice in 17th/18th Century America – where at its most extreme the Puritan leaders of Boston condemned three Quakers to death for heresy in the 1650s. Later on, Quakers refused to admit anyone who owned slaves to their congregations.
From the early 18th century, sources (such as Arthur Dayfoot, The Shaping of the West Indian Church, 1492-1962 (1999)) make it abundantly clear that the planters in the Caribbean were, as a whole, deeply obstructive to Christian missionaries and mission among the slaves, fearing that Christian teaching would cause the slaves to rebel—exactly the reverse of Lindsay’s accusation. When they did, the planters’ hostility often was directed against clergy, particularly Methodists and Baptist pastors (at least one was killed) and their churches were burned down. Anglican clergy were not paid by the CofE but received their stipend and housing from the planter establishment. Any Anglican clergyman who stepped out of line was impoverished, at worse thrown out of his living.
‘Minimal evangelism’ was certainly due, on occasions, to the worldliness of some of the local clergy (a fact bemoaned by a number of devout Christian pastors, missionaries and even bishops back in England) but more often it was because planters strongly resisted it wherever they could.
What is true is that, in seeking to overcome planter hostility, clergy said that converted slaves were less likely to be involved in violent uprisings. They said this in order to gain more access to slaves. But this fact has got twisted into the opposite – the accusation that Christianity was used to suppress African resistance. It wasn’t. Given the contributions made to slavery history by Marxist historians and Marx and Lenin’s insistence that the ruling class use religion as ‘opium’ to neutralise the resistance of the oppressed, I personally wonder if Marxist theory, rather than historical evidence, is at the root of this allegation.
In passing I would also note that Lindsay even gets his basic figures wrong:
Just before the start of the 20th century, the transatlantic slave trade was responsible for the enslavement of approximately 24 million African men, women and children.
Modern research puts the figure at 12.5 million. The footnote Lindsay provides with this is to a book which states that “24 million” represents the whole trade over history including the Arabic/Islamic slave trade not just the transatlantic trade. This really is sloppy writing and, sadly, yet again characteristic of the book as a whole.
There are many more points I could raise but I will conclude with just one final example, the one that first alerted me to question the book. Early on, as an emotive re-told example of the historic racism Black people have experienced in Britain, Lindsay recounts a story about a white churchgoer’s conversation with his mother about Nelson Mandela.
I remember an occasion in the 1980s when my mum had come home from her midweek prayer meeting. There had been a discussion about Nelson Mandela … a white church member had described Nelson Mandela as a terrorist and said he should be locked up.
The historical context shows that at the time this was a not unreasonable thing for a British person with limited access to detailed news to say and was quite possible to say that without being racist. Mandela refused to renounce violence in the 1980s; his wife Winnie Mandela called for ‘necklacing’, a hideously cruel form of murder where a tyre full of petrol was placed round the wretched victim’s neck and set alight, of other Black South Africans that opposed her (and was implicated in one such infamous murder in 1989); the UK was under terrorist siege by the IRA – including the bombing of the Grand Hotel in 1984 in an attempt to assassinate PM Thatcher. This was the climate at the time and might well lead a South Londoner in the 1980s to quite reasonably conclude that Nelson Mandela was a ‘terrorist’. Given what was known at the time, there was no reason to believe it was not true.
Then comes the following: “That was a view shared by the then UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher.” That’s where I raised my eyebrows. Lindsay’s footnote on the Thatcher quote cites an article in the Independent newspaper. The Independent piece doesn’t mention Mandela—it mentions the ANC (Africa National Congress), stating that Mrs Thatcher called the ANC a ‘terrorist’ organisation. Not Mandela. Yet again, Lindsay uses a footnote to support something the footnote doesn’t say. In fact, even that story was untrue. A simple fact-check uncovers multiple articles, even in the Left press, which show that the Thatcher quote is a myth. Mrs Thatcher never said it. The Observer had to issue a retraction (which it did on Sept 10, 2006). As we now know Mrs Thatcher was actually privately urging the white South African government to end apartheid. It just needed a simple Google search to uncover the truth of the story. Sadly, this is typical of the book.
Does this matter?
If these were exceptions rather than typical examples of poor scholarship which are found throughout the book, they would not; however, there are many more that I could cite.
If the book had not been so highly acclaimed (even as a ‘must read’ by Justin Welby; “This is one of the most important books to have been written in recent years and is essential reading for every Christian and especially every church leader in the UK.” Selina Stone, lecturer in political theology, St Mellitus College), these examples would not matter. If Lindsay’s book and the ideas it contains were not being used as the go-to for Anglican churches seeking to address racial justice, they would be of little consequence; and if Lindsay was not addressing staff and congregations in some of the leading churches in the country and even theological colleges (Lindsay is to give the prestigious annual Moule Day Lecture at Ridley on 9th June 2021), they would not matter.
A number of churches are now either using the book in their home groups or proposing to do so, together with study notes written by Ben Lindsay. And we do not have to look far to guess what those notes will say. In his book, each chapter already ends with study questions. On page 50, we find this one:
White church member: were you aware of the UK churches role in the transatlantic slave trade and its implications for today? Are you aware of the privileges you have inherited as a result of the ideas that initiated and maintained slavery?
As I have shown, the answers Lindsay provides to respond to this question here are based upon fiction rather than historical fact. Most church members will not have studied slavery history, especially with regard to the church’s involvement in it. If the book is promoted to church groups as ‘excellent’ (as the group leaders of one large church have been told) and then recommended to congregation members as a set book for home groups they will believe Lindsay’s version of both slavery and modern history is correct. In fact, it is deeply flawed.
Many churches have now, commendably, made it clear that they are committed to racial justice. In the process they are adopting a book which states that in order to achieve racial justice and unity in the church, white Christians must first accept “an agreed collective memory of past racial wrongs by the church”, which include its “whitewashing of Christianity throughout history”, its “complicity in the transatlantic slave trade” and acknowledging “the crucial and significant role it played in starting the barbaric transatlantic slave trade in the first place” and the “propagation of slavery by the church”.
If they do so, the church will be responsible both for deceiving them and for persuading them to assent to what is, in reality, untrue—a lie.
None of this negates Ben Lindsay’s commendable work over the years with gangs and in developing strategies to combat serious youth violence strategy. And he is clear that his aim in the book is to facilitate unity among Christians of all ethnicities, something every Christian would share, as I do. The flaws are with the ideas he promotes and the history he retells, not that aim. As I wrote at the start of this, it is essential that every church’s approach to racial justice is seen to be academically, historically and theologically credible. If it isn’t it will only lead to resentment and discord. Ben’s book fails drastically on all these three criteria. Once church members become aware of these flaws, the book is in danger of increasing division rather than healing it.
(The image at the top is from the print of the Brookes slave ship which caused such a stir on its publication.)