By a curious process of reasoning, following the shocking arrest and death of George Floyd in the United States, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, or at least some of its members, now seems to be calling for the entire population of the UK to abase itself in repentance for the suffering endured by black slaves in the US and the Caribbean a couple of centuries ago.
Let us examine this. In the past Britain was certainly heavily involved in the shameful transportation of slaves from Africa to the new world, and sugar planters in the Caribbean were indisputably reliant on slave labour to produce their crop – so a lot of wealth came into Britain this way. But it was also Britain, led by such men as the Quaker Thomas Clarkson, and the politician William Wilberforce, that spearheaded the move for the abolition of slavery.
Let us also not forget that the practice of slavery had been forbidden in Britain from the 12th century, under edict issued by the Council of London (https://kentquakers.org.uk/quakers-and-the-abolition-of-the-slave-trade-the-abolition-of-slavery-a-timeline/). And later, when slave owners attempted to bring personal slaves into the country, though their status remained admittedly ambiguous, that freedom was upheld. In Somerset’s case in 1772, Lord Mansfield famously said, ‘The air of England is too pure for a slave to breathe, and so everyone who breathes it becomes free. Everyone who comes to this island is entitled to the protection of English law, whatever oppression he may have suffered and whatever may be the colour of his skin.’ (https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/blackhistory/rights/slave_free.htm). So, whatever is maintained, from the 12th century onwards there was never a widespread practice of slavery within Britain, and within 21 years of the passing of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act 1807, almost all men, women, and children held in bondage throughout the British Empire had been granted their freedom. From which we can conclude that black people living in Britain today are not the descendants of ex-slaves who have remained, but are here by choice, they or their families drawn by our culture to seek a better way of life.
To come back to the practice of slavery – the Bible calls us to repent all sin, and the Old Testament lays down clear rules for amendment and restitution for wrong. Admittedly, repentance for slavery is not included, because the practice of bondage in the ancient world – as a way out of poverty, or as result of the spoils of war – was universally accepted and was not at the time seen as wrong. Indeed, realisation that it was inherently evil came only with Christianity, and even then change was slow, as the revolutionary teaching took root and spread. Attitudes had to change – which made Britain’s position in condemning the practice, all the more remarkable.
Many BLM supporters say, of course, that they are protesting about current inequalities – and there have undeniably been problems over the years that need addressing. But more extreme campaigners are increasingly demanding white self-abasement, combined with the removal of statues or monuments to those who have been in any way connected to slavery. Even worse, there are now calls in the US to tear down statues of Christ – because they are a form of ‘white supremacy’(https://www.foxnews.com/media/shaun-king-jesus-christ-statues-white-supremacy)!
At the same time, violent attacks on the police have become commonplace, and there is widespread condemnation overall of ‘white privilege’– which is actually another way of saying that white people are ‘evil’ and have done wrong, so that they must make amends.
This may sound far-fetched, but VfJUK has received a number of emails over the last days expressing such sentiments, and this is not just wrong, but profoundly racist. Colour is irrelevant. All lives matter, and all discrimination – whether founded on race, sex, age, disability or whatever – is wrong and must not be tolerated. Britain today is not the Britain of 200 years, or even 50 years, ago. It is ethnically rich and inclusive, and we are moving into something new. Hopefully it will be better. But this will not be achieved by the wilful and contemptuous destruction of British history and culture, nor by trying to enforce racial divisions and branding white people as ‘white supremacists’. This approach is not about equality and integration at all, but is rather manifestation of an attempt to shift power.
Perhaps more worryingly for people of faith, what we are witnessing is an overt rejection of the teachings of Christ, and a deliberate distortion of faith. In many emails received by VfJUK, BLM supporters have said, ‘If Jesus were here today, He’d be standing with us, calling for an end to white privilege – He’d be tearing down the statues.’ This is wrong. The truth is, Christ was never a ‘freedom fighter’.
In 63BC, Jerusalem fell to the Roman general Pompey, and thereafter, for the next 400 years, Judea and the surrounding area was under Roman occupation (https://www.jpost.com/blogs/why-israel-belongs-to-the-jews/100-years-of-opppression-from-pompeii-to-the-death-of-christ-496410). Unsurprisingly, tensions between the Jews and Rome ran high and, when Christ began His ministry, the Jews were looking for a Messiah who would deliver them from Roman occupation and restore the Kingdom to Israel. When, therefore, followers asked Jesus, ‘Are you the Messiah?’ many were actually asking, ‘Has God sent you to free us from Roman rule and re-establish Israel as a sovereign state?’
Jesus of course knew this, none better, yet the message he proclaimed had nothing to do with throwing off the yoke of Roman oppression and exacting vengeance on the occupying forces. Instead he came preaching a gospel of repentance, and of love towards others and forgiveness. In a nutshell, He came to deliver mankind from the slavery of sin, so that we might enter into life. That is still Christ’s message today and, when we respond and repent, the slate is wiped clean – we are from that moment a new creation.
How could the awful crimes of both these men be forgiven? How on earth could Christ entrust them with His message of love? And how can we be forgiven our sin? Yes, forgiveness is costly, but it wipes the slate clean and gives the penitent a fresh start.
Christ calls us to forgive as we have been forgiven. When someone has wronged us and sincerely says they are sorry, seeking reconciliation, if we refuse to accept their attempt to make amends, we come under bondage to bitterness and resentment. We become a slave to sin. Similarly, if we refuse to accept forgiveness and carry on beating ourselves up… we sin. ‘I’m so awful,’ we cry – perhaps a shade self-righteously, ‘I can’t possibly be forgiven!’ But this is not a sign of how deeply spiritual and good we are – it is a rejection of grace. It is wallowing in the indulgence of self-recrimination and refusing to move on.
Where there has been injustice and wrong, we need to face up to it and, where needed, put things right. Black and white, we need to do this together. But let us build, and not destroy. And let us not dishonour the valiant struggles of those who have gone before, and who truly sought in their actions to glorify Christ and love their fellow men. It is their example we should be following.