Graham Hunter offers this review of Healing The Divides, published by the Good Book Company here.
When I first picked up a prospectus for London Bible College (now London School of Theology) in 1997 I was struck by the strap-line on the cover: ‘To explain a truth simply you must understand it profoundly’. This sentiment appealed to me given my own conviction that deeper theological understanding and learning should always be put to the end of the mission of the kingdom of God.
I was reminded of this when reading Healing the Divides last week by Jason Roach and Jessamin Birdsall. The book’s subtitle is ‘How every Christian can advance God’s vision for racial unity and justice’. With that stated purpose, I wondered how such a short and succinct book could possibly engage with such an enormous task.
But the authors achieve a rare balance of nuance and clarity. There is plenty of complexity in the issues under discussion, yet they convey this with remarkable brevity and clarity. There is a confidence in their subject matter, which approaches it from the point of view of academic research, lived experience, prayerful reflection and missional conviction.
Jason Roach is an ordained minister in the Church of England, having first trained as a medical doctor. Although currently working with London City Mission, he is an inner-city church planter, former advisor to the Bishop of London, and academic theologian. He is also Black British, born in London to parents who immigrated from Barbados. Jessamin Birdsall is a white American sociologist who was born in Japan. Having lived in multiple parts of the world and worshipped in Christian churches in a variety of different cultural settings, she pursued a PhD in religion, race and inequality (pp 11–12).
They share a commitment to a multi-ethnic vision of the kingdom of God that should be experienced here and now in the local church:
We believe that the church is called to be a place where people of all cultures, languages, skin tones and histories can participate, grow and serve together. (p11)
As Vicar of an inner-city, multi-ethnic, multi-generational and multi-cultural church in Hackney, London, I was immediately excited to see whether the authors could articulate and advance this cause to which I’m also committed. I was not disappointed—and I was impressed that in under 200 pages and just 7 chapters, they were able to cover their subject so comprehensively.
It’s worth mentioning that they include a helpful appendix concerning individual and structural perspectives on racism; a glossary of key terms; and some suggested resources for further learning – including resources for parents to use with children. One of the suggested resources is the very thoughtful blog by John Root, Out Of Many, One People – where this book is also reviewed. (Indeed it was John’s review that led me to buy and read the book!)
If you want to stop reading here, I hope that my preamble might have persuaded you to get hold of a copy and read the book—ideally with some other members of your church. But if you have appetite, interest, or time for a little more, I thought I’d summarise what I believe to be the real strength of the book under three headings.
Soaked in Scripture
A day or two after completing the book, I was left with the impression that there had been a Scriptural quotation on every single page—and a thorough consideration of biblical texts, rather than simple proof-texting. When I glanced back through the book I realised pretty quickly that I was wrong—there isn’t a bible text on every page. And yet in another sense there is—for this book is soaked in Scripture, almost marinaded.
This is an important consideration for me. In our own local church we have begun to consider whether an Equality, Diversity and Inclusion policy might be helpful as a plumb line to measure how we recruit and deploy human resources within the mission and ministry of our church. Indeed, in our church’s values, we have a statement about our commitment to being ‘Relational’, ensuring that our commitment to loving one another as disciple of Jesus (John 15:17).
In our most recent Mission Action Plan, the first draft of this section referred to ‘issues of equality, diversity and inclusion’. But it didn’t quite sit right with several of us—it was as though the values we wanted to articulate as a Christian church were being set and defined by contemporary HR practices. We amended the statement to refer to ‘the biblical justice issues of equality, diversity and inclusion.’
One of the strengths of this book is that it always asserts the biblical justice tradition on which its appeal is founded. The authors are happy to recognise that ‘all truth comes from God’ and that ‘truth can come from secular sources’ (p 56). But despite this hospitality to perspectives and insights from beyond the church, they are deeply rooted in the biblical justice tradition.
The second chapter is entitled ‘The Call To Celebrate Ethnicity’ and provides a foundational focus on the biblical texts which describe God’s work in creation, redemption and the eschatological vision of new creation as being intrinsically multi-ethnic. We’re reminded that the Greek word ethnos is translated ‘nation’ in most English bibles (p 36). Acts 17:26 is cited to remind us of Paul’s assertion that ‘from one man he made all the ethnoi’ (p 34). They also refer to Revelation 7:9 where John sees people from ‘every nation, tribe, people, and language’ gathered before the throne of the Lamb. (p42)
In this same chapter, a non-scriptural but also significant source quoted is John Stott:
It is simply impossible, with any shred of Christian integrity, to go on proclaiming that Jesus by his cross has abolished the old divisions and created a single humanity of love, while at the same time we are contradicting our message by tolerating racial or social or other barriers within our church fellowship. (p 44)
The reason this seems significant to me is that in many ways this book reminds me of the writing of John Stott—which is so often generous to secular sources of understanding and wisdom while committed to a deeply biblical theology; fully aware of complexity and breadth of issues while able to speak with penetrating clarity.
Last year I re-read several sections of my 1986 edition of Issues Facing Christians Today, and I was astonished by the tone of John Stott’s writing, which as well as remaining incredibly relevant to debates of our day, is also in its very generous tone a loving expression of Biblical truth free from polemical posturing or reactionary ranting.
This book stands in the same tradition in my view. It is helpful in demonstrating that Christian concern for contemporary issues of social justice need not find their principal expression in the language of progressive liberalism, but rather can be articulated within the language of the biblical justice tradition of the Torah, the prophets, the wisdom literature, the gospels and indeed the New Testament epistles—in fact, the whole of the biblical witness is full of God’s concern for social justice!
I hope that those of us who stand within the Evangelical tradition of the church will pay due attention to the biblical vision for justice, and not ignore the mandate of Scripture simply because they associate the themes more closely with contemporary secular concerns. (Readers interested in further accessible writing on biblical justice from an Evangelical perspective might want to read Generous Justice by Tim Keller.)
The second great strength of the book is its awareness of both complexity and intersectionality. This is important because these two terms can be problematic. Intersectionality is a popular term in contemporary culture, largely because it’s helpful for expressing the ways in which different forms of social marginalisation or prejudice may be compounded in certain individuals to intensify the powerlessness or oppression a person may experience. In that sense, it is well recognised and well received term to use with conversation partners to recognise how multiple disadvantages can build up.
Complexity is a trickier term. This is largely because when somebody claims that an issue is complex, it can be used as an excuse for inaction and hand-wringing. With particular regard to the acute focus on racial justice issues we’re experiencing at present, to mention matters being ‘complex’ can look like a way of avoiding justice, action and change. Complexity can sound a bit like ‘all lives matter’ in response to ‘Black Lives Matter’.
But nonetheless, complexity is important to the authors:
What is the most serious division in British society? Race? Class? Religion? Culture? In truth, all these factors can be, and are, sources of division and prejudice in our communities (p 15).
Later in the book, in the chapter on class and culture, the authors describe ways in which two boys growing up in Britain, both with black skin, may actually have very different responses to racism they experience depending on different cultural backgrounds (pp 75–77). They also invite us to imagine two white women walking down the same street, one of whom is a Polish immigrant. They both appear to be part of the majority culture, but the Polish woman may actually experience all kinds of prejudice and marginalisation simply by being viewed an immigrant.
This reminded me of the (possibly imagined) shop window sign: ‘No Irish, No Gypsies, No Jews’. Three different ethnic and cultural heritages but all white-skinned. Although this sort of prejudice which has long existed within our borders is not specifically discussed, the authors do also raise the issue of ‘colourism’ within the black community alongside racial prejudice between African and Afro-Caribbean heritage communities.
Jason Roach invites those who, like him, are from minority-ethnic groups to be willing to repent of racially prejudiced attitudes they have held towards other minority-ethnic people (pp 140–142).
One of the things which is most helpful about this attentiveness to complexity is that it enables us to resist any easy polarisation of oppressed and oppressor. In truth, we have all been guilty of various forms of prejudice towards others—whether caused by difference in class, culture, socio-economic status as well as ethnicity. Our prejudice has been towards those of other ethnicities than our own—but also to those of our own ethnic heritage.
This is another example of the deeply biblical approach to the subject matter:
None is righteous, no, not one… all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom 3:10, 23).
Call to Action
Finally, and very briefly, the book issues a call to action. In this sense it does what it sets out to do—it helps every Christian advance God’s vision for racial unity and justice. Each chapter ends with questions for discussion and reflection. (It would be an excellent book for a small group study or book club.) The two final chapters themselves are specifically written towards those in the majority culture and then the minority-ethnic culture. The call to action is therefore distinctive for each group.
Those in majority culture are encouraged to listen, learn, pray, cultivate friendships across ethnic and cultural divides. Those also in church leadership should think about preaching, liturgy, the staff and leaders we recruit and develop and where we invest our financial resource. Those in minority-ethnic culture are invited to lament, to consider both their speech and their silence, to get emotional support, to practise sabbath and to deal with anger.
But in addition to the direct and explicit calls to action, the sympathetic and balanced support for the Black Lives Matter movement as well as aspects of Critical Race Theory (such as intersectionality) will help readers work out how they can be involved in actions arising from these sources.
Many church leaders have struggled with how to respond to BLM and CRT. They have been clear that they wanted to respond prophetically to racial injustice, but they were concerned about saying the wrong thing, or of being tokenistic in what is said or done. This concern is addressed by the authors in their call to action—recognising that simply issuing statements without taking action is counter-productive.
After the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, we were resolved to respond as a church, especially as it occurred in the week running up to Pentecost—which should be a great celebration of the multi-ethnic nature of the gospel and God’s kingdom. However, we also realised that words alone were not enough. In consultation with a group of church members from minority-ethnic heritage we agreed that we should commit to a ‘movement not a moment’. The call to action in this book and the additional resources will help Christians continue in the movement—on the journey—towards greater racial justice and unity.
The appendix is a very helpful treatment of the tendency for western and evangelical audience to treat racial injustice as an ‘individual’ problem to be solved by personal sanctification rather than as a ‘structural’ problem to be solved by social change. And of course, it also acknowledges that ‘structuralist’ approaches to racism can minimise the importance of individual agency and personal responsibility.
The glossary and suggestions for further learning are helpful, including books, online resources, and even music to listen to! The final pages of the book really give the reader the impression that the authors want us to think ‘what next?’ The whole shape of the book is that of a journey from reflection and understanding to action for change. The book is designed not just to educate but also to equip.
It should be pretty clear that I warmly commend the book. Amongst a wide range of excellent books on racial justice over the past few years, this will be of particular interest to Christians with a deep desire to articulate and act out of a deeply biblical vision of racial unity and justice.
Revd Graham Hunter is Vicar of St John’s Hoxton, an inner-city parish in Hackney, London. He has written Grove Books on charismatic liturgical worship and the use of affective language in worship, and is working on a longer book on broad-based community organising, mission and church growth. His main interests are in worship and doctrine, political theology and Christian social justice.
Other resources on race, racism and ethnic diversity: