This blog is an edited excerpt from Discipleship, Suffering and Racial Justice: Mission in a Pandemic World by the Rev’d Dr Israel Oluwole Olofinjana.
You can also read John Root’s review of Israel’s book here.
The death of George Floyd in May 2020 happened at the beginning of a global pandemic. Whilst the issue of racial injustice has been with us for a while, the pandemic did help the global community to be more conscious of the suffering that many people of colour have been facing for decades.
Many of the questions people are asking today revolve around their humanity and their identity. There are questions around sexuality and identity, gender and identity, disability and identity, race and identity, and so on. It is the last of these questions, on race and identity, that I want to narrow down on in this conversation—because the murder of George Floyd has led to the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. Yet the Black Lives Matter movement, like any of the other issues highlighted above, has become politicised and potentially controversial. Some people view it as controversial because they think saying that black lives matter means saying other lives do not matter.
Let me start to unpack this by reflecting on the issue theologically. An anthropological view of scripture affirms that humanity, that is everyone, is created in God’s image (see Genesis 1:26; 2:7). We are all bearers of God’s image irrespective of colour, nationality, social status, ethnicity, religion or culture. This means that our humanity is rooted in God; in essence, our human identity is derived from God. We bear God’s image because we are the signature stamp of God’s creation—and therefore all lives matter. All lives matter to God and are valuable because we are God’s handiwork. Our humanity, bearing semblance to God, also reveals a collective human identity and therefore a shared human identity.
If we agree that all lives do indeed matter and we share this understanding that we have a shared humanity rooted in God, then it should concern us all when black lives are made cheap. Black lives are made cheap when they are not seen as human, when they are enslaved, colonised, indentured, raped, exploited, seen as inferior, marginalised, oppressed, lynched, segregated, disproportionately imprisoned, murdered, and neo-colonised. The best way for us as a church to understand the message of Black Lives Matter theologically is through Paul’s body metaphor: “If one member suffers, all suffer together with
it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26, NRSV). Black Lives Matter is saying that people of African descent worldwide, as part of humanity, are suffering from various forms of injustices—and their pain matters. Will our collective humanity seek to understand this pain and respond, or will we neglect that part of the human family? For the church, this is an even more pressing issue, because if we fail to address the hurt in God’s family, that is the body of Christ, we are inadvertently neglecting ourselves.
If the UK church in its breadth of diversity is going to be relevant today and be able to speak into issues of racial inequality, we must seek to engage intelligently. The church cannot afford to keep Black Lives Matter at arm’s length. It is important for the church to engage as Black Lives Matter raises questions around the issues of race and identity for many, particularly young people. If the church is going to make the gospel relevant to millennials and Generation Z, then we must engage some of the concerns of Black Lives Matter. During the Windrush period (1940s-1960s), the UK church lost a generation of African Caribbean youth because they saw how the church had mistreated their parents, and many of them turned away. If the UK church does not engage the concerns of Black Lives Matter, we will not only loose black youth, but also other young people, because Black Lives Matter is a multicultural international movement.
One of the impacts of the pandemic is that people are asking more questions about their humanity and their identity. This is because the Black Lives Matter movement has raised critical questions around what it means to be black in a western context. Whilst I am aware that Black Lives Matter is controversial for some, I believe that the UK church must find ways to engage some of the questions being posed because they are theological questions that require missional engagement.