‘For the LORD is righteous; he loves justice…he will proclaim justice to the nations…you neglect justice…he will judge the world with justice’ (Ps.11; Mat.12; Lk.11; Acts 17)
Over the last few days, I have been encouraged by some black reformed evangelical pastors in London, both within and outside Co-Mission, to write in response to the shocking murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last week. This is the most recent example in a long history of systemic racism which has erupted in rioting across the US and in the ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign that has spread to the UK. What more potent image of oppression could there be than a white policeman kneeling for more than eight minutes on the neck of a black man? In chilling film footage, captured in a Washington Post report available online, the policeman shows no concern and ignores the protests of onlookers while George Floyd pleads for his life, passes out and then dies of asphyxiation. It is an act of appalling brutality with the sulphurous stench of racism. Biblical churches on both sides of the pond are searching for godly ways to respond.
I don’t often reflect like this upon current affairs. I mostly keep my observations for my weekly preaching. I’m not an experienced blogger, tweeter or commentator, but I am a pastor of a church and a leader of a church-planting network that both aspire to the glorious cultural inclusivity of the heavenly church. For me to remain silent now begins to make me complicit with the gross injustices I fail to condemn. I recognise there are many great evils in our dark world on which I’ve not commented like this before (though I have referenced them often in sermons). So why speak up on this issue now?
Firstly, because the Bibles says, ‘the LORD is righteous; he loves justice’ (Ps.13) and so being ‘godly’ includes seeking justice. Jesus condemns leaders who are obsessed with trivia but, ‘neglect justice and the love of God’ (Luke 11).
Secondly, because I think my black sisters and brothers in Christ, both here in London and in the US, need to hear white pastors like me, however insignificant, powerless or remote we may feel, stand with them and say something publicly.
The situation in London is different to Minneapolis, and Christians of all backgrounds will want to thank God for the countless fair-minded police officers who serve and protect us, often in extreme circumstances such as this dreadful pandemic. Nevertheless, there are disturbing parallels in the recent history of London e.g. in the deaths of Stephen Lawrence and Mark Duggan, and most recently the death in April of Belly Majinga from Covid-19, after being spat upon while she worked at Victoria station. These deaths are only the more obvious examples of the more subtle social disadvantage along ethnic lines which was exposed in the Grenfell Tower Disaster, the Windrush disgrace, the recent explosion of knife-crime, and in the higher incidence of Covid-19 deaths among key workers from BAME backgrounds (explored by my colleague Rev. Dr. Jason Roach in the article partnered with this one on the Co-Mission website).
I have no wisdom of my own to enlighten the darkness of this world. But in the Scriptures we can access the holy wisdom of God, supremely in our Lord Jesus Christ in whom are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. For a scripture-soaked reflection on these issues I would recommend the article on The Gospel Coalition website by Jamaal Williams, Timothy Paul Jones and Jarvis J Williams – The Gospel and the Pursuit of Justice in Your City.
As my black sisters and brothers in Christ try to reach their own communities with the eternal hope of the gospel of Christ they are often met with anger and suspicion towards the Christian church. Yet, as Thabiti Anyabwile (our illustrious preacher on REVIVE Sunday on 21st June) has so eloquently explained in his recent tweets, becoming a Christian does not require anyone to renounce their ethnicity or distance themselves from the pain of their communities. I want to reassure them that we read the same Bible and worship the same God who delights in justice. I think Christians of every background need to hear white church leaders say that in Christ we will together grieve this crime, listen to those who suffer, proclaim our hope of justice in the gospel of Christ, and bend the knee in prayer to the God who loves us and will bring justice to all humanity on the day when Jesus returns.
Let us grieve with those who grieve. It must be right to lament injustice as the psalmists do. Our Lord Jesus was ‘deeply troubled’ and burst into tears at the suffering caused by the death of his friend Lazarus (John 11). It must be right to grieve, not only with the people of God who are persecuted for our faith in Oman, Pakistan and North Korea, but with all who suffer from other kinds of prejudice – whether apartheid in South Africa, Islamophobia in Myanmar, Anti-Semitism in politics or police brutality in Minneapolis. We must not harden our hearts toward the pain of those who grieve.
Let us listen to those who suffer. Those of us who have enjoyed white privileges and don’t live in the daily expectation of prejudice, suspicion and disadvantage need to listen to those who do. I’ve been helped by those of different ethnicities in my church and among our Co-Mission Senior Pastors to realise that rather than trying to be ‘colour-blind’ and live as if there are no cultural issues among Christians, I need to be ‘colour-brave’ - to celebrate diversity - and to discuss how to remove the social barriers which those from socio-economic and ethnic minority cultures encounter in our churches when they try to belong. And to recognise the diversity of the heavenly church (Revelation 7) is not merely a happy accident in God’s salvation plan. It is God’s glorious and deliberate fulfilment of his gospel promise to Abraham (Genesis 12) to extend the glory of his servant King Jesus (Isaiah 42). It is therefore a characteristic that our churches must to aspire to, pray for, and work towards. The trans-cultural global appeal of the gospel of Christ is a powerful testament to the universal truth of the gospel, in striking contrast to the cultural restriction of human religions (e.g. Buddhism requires an Eastern culture, Atheism a western culture and Islam an Arabic culture),
Becoming more inclusive requires me as a church leader to engage and empathise with the experience of racism in its many forms among my own church family and network in London. In truth, this is really a conversation we have only just properly begun. After listening, I need to take advice – to allow the voice of those who have hitherto been ignored to actually influence my decisions. I will need to make appointments from among those qualified to serve in leadership that recognise potential and the value of culturally diverse perspectives, even where there is a lack of experience through lack of privilege. I’ve been greatly helped by Ben Lindsay’s book, ‘We need to talk about race’ and have bought copies for all our church ministry leaders. While I don’t agree with absolutely everything he says (we come from slightly different church traditions), his book has hugely impacted me. Thank you Ben!
Let us proclaim our hope of justice in the gospel. In encouraging both legitimate protest and political action, ex-President Barack Obama writes, ‘I know the past few months have been hard and dispiriting. But watching the heightened activism of young people makes me hopeful. If we can keep channelling our justifiable anger into peaceful, sustained, and effective action, this can be the moment when real change starts.’ I hope he’s right. But Christians know that even if this proves to be a great moment of reformation in criminal justice systems on both sides of the Atlantic (and sadly it may not), sin will emerge in other ways to bring pain and suffering. The only true hope of lasting justice and freedom from sin is in the kingdom of heaven – accessed through faith in the gospel of Christ crucified and risen. Our hope for justice and equality can only be fully satisfied in Christ, who died to reconcile all nations, tribes and classes in himself to bring us home to heaven. There we shall enjoy the glory of God in the victorious unity of the multi-cultural people of the sacrificial lamb, and victorious lion, our saviour Jesus. He suffered the grossest injustice in dying in our place for our sins on a cross to redeem us from the wrath we deserve and the injustices of this world, into the freedom and equity of the kingdom of heaven. This loving Saviour and living Lord, himself a ‘person of colour’, is our hope for ultimate justice and joy and our motivation to pray and strive for it now.
So let us redouble our efforts to gossip the gospel in our chat-rooms and proclaim the good news in our Sunday livestreams. For while Covid-19 has tried to lock us down forever, our God has opened up the airways for the gospel like never before!
Indeed, the gospel is not only our only hope for peace everlasting, it is also our only hope for transforming racist and vengeful hearts in our cities right now. For only the Holy Spirit can change people’s hearts through the gospel to repent from sinful hatred to obey his commands, ‘Love each other as I have loved you’ and ‘Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written, ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay’ (John 15; Romans 12). One black pastor reminded me that the civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King was grounded in Christian theology (whatever you make of his personal faith). Which is to remind us that the hope we hold must not be based on secular thinking, but only in the Gospel of God regarding the Son of God - which is the Power of God to save all who believe it, for in him the Righteousness of God we need to survive the wrath of God is given, and now unites us in him (Romans 1). So let us keep proclaiming the hope of eternal justice and joy that are only found in the gospel of Christ. And finally,
Let us pray to the only one who can bring lasting change. As children of God, let us together bend the knee - not merely in protest but in prayer. For our loving heavenly Father can see what we need and delights to give us what is good for us in becoming more like Jesus when we pray. Let us pray for the comfort of God’s love and peace in Christ for the family of George Floyd and for all those affected by racism and injustice in the USA and here in London. Let us pray that justice will be done and seen to be done for brutal police officers – but also for their personal saving repentance and faith in Christ. Let us pray for peace on the streets and in the hearts of all through faith in the gospel of hope in Christ. Let us pray for courage in presidents, and in civic, community and church leaders, to speak and act for change. Let us pray for yet more patience in those who are weary of being ignored. Above all, let us pray that in this darkness, the glory of Jesus, the ‘light of the world’ (John 1) might shine ever more brightly!
Rev. Richard Coekin
(Senior Pastor of Dundonald Church and CEO of Co-Mission)