The Church and ‘race’[i]
In the resource material, we have seen how Christian scripture and tradition was used to support and justify the enslavement of African people. We have also seen the ways in which the enslaved used that same faith as a source of hope and an instrument for their liberation. The fact that the more celebrated White abolitionists such as Wilberforce and Sharpe were also influenced by their Christian faith did not bring to an end the problematic nature of the relationship between the Church and its Black members.
There are the stories of those that came over from the Caribbean in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, to what they perceived as the ‘Motherland’ to live and work. Many of these people were from Christian backgrounds and tried to find Churches where they could be among fellow Christians, praise God and find some comfort and support in an often hostile environment. Though some churches were welcoming, it was by no means rare for people to be actively discouraged from coming back, directed towards another ‘more suitable’ church or simply ignored by the existing congregation.
The following extracts are from Mukti Barton’s book Rejection, Resistance and Resurrection: Speaking out on racism in the church[ii]. Here, two women speak about their early encounters with the church in Britain.
The church was packed with White people. Well, one or two people would speak to you, but many didn’t. I used to greet the organist, ‘‘good morning’’, but he would not respond[iii]
In church, no one sat beside me and if by chance I sat beside someone, it was not uncommon for them to change pews. I felt more alone in church than anywhere else[iv]
It is in these stories and others like them, that we can still hear echoes of the experiences of Ukawsaw Gronniosaw over two hundred years earlier. Even in the 21st century, racism is present in the church, though perhaps in a more subtle form.
‘Less than human’
The lack of value placed on Black bodies and lives (beyond the auction block) is another issue that still has resonance today. This is possibly most starkly illustrated by the deaths of Stephen Lawrence and Anthony Walker (though these are by no means the only examples). Here, two young men were violently killed because they were Black; did their murderers harbour ideas similar to those that, hundreds of years before, had made the enslavement of human beings seem so acceptable and justified?
It is interesting to note that, in the media, much was made of the fact that they were from law-abiding, respectable, Christian families. Did this emphasis make it easier for the public at large to be outraged by what had happened to them? Is there an underlying sense in which, in order for their lives to be valued by the general public, they have to be shown to be exemplary citizens, rather than ordinary Black young men? Would lack of achievement or ambition on their part have made their deaths any less tragic?
Questions for reflection and discussion
1. Britain is often described as a Christian country, or one based on Christian values
a) What would you describe as 'Christian values'?
b) What do you think people actually mean when they use this phrase?
2. How does this idea sit alongside the fact that it is also a country built on the wealth generated by slavery and colonialism?
3. Legislation on racial prejudice has existed in Britain for some time but yet racism still exists; changes in the law do not necessarily change people's attitudes
a) Do you think it is worth passing laws against racism and prejudice? Why/why not?
b) In what other ways do you think society can tackle racism?
For access to news stories about Stephen Lawrence and Anthony Walker, go to the BBC News website and use their search facility
[i] ‘Race’ is a social, not biological, construction where people are categorised by skin colour and physical features. Racism is the discrimination or prejudice against or the oppression of one ‘race’ by another.
[ii] Mukti Barton Rejection, Resistance and Resurrection: Speaking out on racism in the church (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2005)
[iii] Mukti Barton Rejection, Resistance and Resurrection p.23
[iv] Mukti Barton Rejection, Resistance and Resurrection pp.25-26