Some reflections on the recent protests

The news this Sunday morning featured yesterday’s protest rally in Hyde Park with angry speeches by members of the black community, reports of violence against the police and over 100 arrests. What should Christians make of all this and how closely should we align ourselves with the BLM movement?

The trigger for these particular protests was the appalling killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, USA by a white police officer. This was and is a huge tragedy for his family and the whole black community. It is a huge tragedy for the Minnesota Police force whose very function is to protects and serve the people and to enforce justice. It’s also a huge tragedy that this has happened at a time when we are all facing a common enemy – the Covid virus. Surely our hearts go out to all who have been affected.

But the response it has generated raises several questions for Christians in the UK also. To what extent should failure and injustice in American policing affect our approach to black people? How closely should Christian people align themselves with the BLM movement itself? Are protest gatherings or marches the best way to respond to the issue when they are so easily hijacked by people with different agendas? If we really want to make a positive difference to our fractured society what is the best and most constructive way of going about it?

I would like to devote this week’s posting to offering some observations and thoughts on the issue of BLM, protest marches and the role of the church. They are a personal opinion and certainly not the last word. We’re all digesting this and thinking it through.

As Christians, we know from our Bibles that God loves the world. The first 11 chapters describe the problem.  Genesis 12 onwards deals with God’s solution; His plan is to bless all nations to be outworked with the participation and cooperation of his people. In verse 3 we read the promise to Abram, “and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” God’s purpose is to bless all peoples. Turning to our New Testaments, we know Jesus commissioned and indeed empowered his followers to take the good news to the world. It is very clear that although Jesus, himself had a particular mission to the Jewish nation, his heart was for all people. He reached beyond to the Syrophoenician woman, to an officer of the occupying Roman authorities and even within his own people he reached out to the marginalised and poor. Breaking the social conventions of his day he included women, young children, lepers, the sensory impaired, people living immoral lifestyles and exploitative tax collectors. He encouraged his followers to love even their enemies and included amongst his circle of disciples an individual who would eventually betray him to death. Moving on in the New Testament, the apostle Paul in his letter to the Ephesians, looks forward to a day when the whole cosmos, all things in heaven and on earth are united in Christ.

So, my first observation based on scripture is that for God, ALL lives matter. For Christians, the mandate is surely ALM which includes BLM but so much more. To reduce the focus so narrowly on one group inevitably excludes the others. BAME-LM  (Black, Asian Minority Ethnic) lives matter! ELM (Elderly lives matter)! ULM (unborn lives matter)! WLM (women’s lives matter)! GLM (Gay lives matter)! DLM (Disabled lives matter)! And what about our planet? OEM (Our environment matters!) To sign-up to an ALM agenda is not to diminish or exclude black people, it is to set the issue in its proper context. If George Floyd had been a white man killed by a black policeman, it would have been just as tragic. My reservation about the BLM agenda, important though it is, is that it is too narrow and too reductionist. It’s not that it’s wrong but that it is too exclusive.

My second observation is that the starting point for much BLM thinking is a position of hurt and of anger. It’s a protest about injustice.  It’s an expression of pain and frustration. Christians need to take note of this. Many do, and for them their marching is an expression of solidarity. “Weep with those who weep.” “Mourn with those who mourn.” So far so good. But it shouldn’t stop there. God’s call on the lives of Christians is that they should be his agents of reconciliation and healing. Jesus expressed his mission in the words of Isaiah. “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.” The role of the church is to bring the healing of Jesus to a broken and fractured world. What we are seeing with some of the marches and protests are other people with pain and anger agendas getting involved and distorting the message and in effect hijacking the protest. So, my second caution about the BLM agenda is that is incomplete. Christians are called to move beyond protesting and from a different starting point, a sense of call and mission, become seriously committed participants in those things which lead to change.

But, given the front pages of our newspapers, what about marching and protesting? Do they have a part to play in modern society at all? I believe they do but I also believe that we need to be clear about what they can achieve and what they cannot. (Marches of course, are not necessarily protests. The marches for Jesus between 1987 and 2003, where an estimated 50 million people worldwide marched, were both proclamations and celebrations.) But protest marches are a wake-up call. They raise awareness. As with an alarm clock, they demand a response.

The right to freedom of speech and the right to associate are now fundamental human rights enshrined in the International Bill of Human Rights which came into force in 1976. History is replete with examples of protests that have led to positive change. The Boston Tea Party, Gandhi’s salt marches, the Washington march of 1963 with Martin Luther King’s, “I have a Dream” speech. In recent times we’ve seen the Chinese protest in Tiananmen Square, where over a million people, mostly students protested peacefully until the tanks rolled in and killed several hundred. Protests are most effective when there is an identifiable and specific issue that needs changing. In the UK the Suffragettes are perhaps a good example of an effective protest march.

However, in the case of BLM, the types of changes needed are more pervasive and not those that can be fixed so quickly and easily. To take an example the under-representation of black people in the police and criminal justice system. That is something that will take time, patience and a lot of hard work. Underpinning this is the issue of educational opportunity, also a long-term project. Educational progress and educational achievement are of course related to other factors such as a family and community culture that fosters aspiration and encourages the habit of reading and study and of course housing, – space to complete homework without distraction. Such things are complicated and do not change overnight. Attention has also been drawn recently to the under-representation of black people in the governing bodies of sports institutions. Similar points apply. My point is this. It’s complicated. The roots of our troubles go deep into our past, our culture, our history and our experiences. These things have shaped our present over a long time.

So, my third observation is more of a pointer. Perhaps instead of (or as well as) protesting and marching, Christian people should, without losing the big picture, give greater thought to taking practical actions that contribute to these larger aspirations. Between us we have some time, some experience and some money, in varying proportions. With thought and prayer, perhaps asking a few questions, most of us can find a way to make a contribution. If we take to heart the message of the protesters and find a way to make a personal response to their anger and pain, then their voice will indeed have been heard.

This is not easy, but neither is it pie in the sky. It is God’s plan for the fullness of time. To be sure it seems a long way off, but it is something with which all Christian people can align their prayers and actions. That would be far more constructive than defacing statues or even worse, – turning a deaf ear.

Sunday 14th June 2020

Since you are my rock and my fortress, for the sake of your name lead and guide me.