On Being Black British and Christian in the UK
Leeza has asked that you kindly pray for wisdom, grace and humility before reading this article. She has written this article mainly with ethnic diversity in mind, although many of the points made can be applied to other categories such as class or age.
Last year someone involved in the marketing of a Christian conference told me that the leadership wanted to make its images more ethnically diverse.
During this time, I was grappling with my own sense of Christian identity and belonging in a mainly white Christian context. I’d noticed that often, what everyone else considered ‘normal’, was not normal to me.
I felt on the outside and disconnected. I felt there were whole chunks of my personality, particularly related to my ‘blackness’, which nobody knew.
And yet I’d constantly hear Christians championing ‘unity and diversity’ as a beautiful expression of the gospel.
While I don’t question their good intentions, unity and diversity has become a trendy new catchphrase. But it’s interesting that we hear it just as much outside the church – in the creative arts, for example – as we hear it inside.
So if everyone is pursuing unity and diversity, what makes the Christian understanding and pursuit of it distinct? Here are five thoughts.
#1 It’s going to cost us
Half-heartedly pursuing diversity can turn into a cheap opportunity for us to pat ourselves on the back.
But Christian discussions about ethnic diversity in the church can’t ignore the brute fact that it’s going to cost us. It’ll hurt.
What will it look like for a mainly white Christian community in an ethnically diverse neighbourhood to take up their cross together and work toward getting rid of racism and prejudice within the church?
Might it look like letting go of – or changing – some dearly loved age-old hymns, so that the immigrant who is already struggling with modern English can join in praising our heavenly Father?
Could it involve asking a Pakistani brother or sister to show you how they cook their food, and receiving their hospitality?
Could it involve being open to how God is using hip-hop to glorify himself and reach black urban communities throughout the world rather than dismissing it as phony?
It will probably look like some of these things and more. But that comes at a cost and that cost is our comfort and a relinquishing of power.
A good question to ask yourself is: where in your life are you learning from, being shaped by, or submitting yourselves to Christians different to you?
That doesn’t just happen; we need to pursue it. At great cost to ourselves.
#2 This is a spiritual issue
In contrast to the world around us, Christians believe that a reluctance to pursue proper ethnic diversity in our church or Christian community isn’t going to be solved by a policy or other practical changes.
It’s a spiritual issue.
Sometimes we hear things like: ‘We just need a black person on leadership’ or, ‘We just need more Asians to get involved with serving’.
Whilst practical changes are needed, they don’t solve the deeper problem of our tendency to keep people at a distance who aren’t like us.
The problem is sin and our own self-worship. This convinces us that our ways of doing things is superior. Or that it’s the only way.
Sin leads us to gather and maintain power. But Jesus subverts this by giving up his power to come to serve those unlike him (Philippians 2:5-8).
We hold onto our customs and preferences so dearly because others like us have approved of them – and that’s why, in turn, we like them.
But we’re called to be like Jesus – to go after those unlike us. We’re to love and serve them as our own family.
#3 We can face up to the problem
I sometimes find that when I want to raise the issue of racism with my white brothers and sisters, I am met with either awkwardness or defensiveness.
Speaking about racism often leads the conversation to turn to ‘more spiritual things’, such as saying that ‘we’re all one in Christ.’
This is true. But it doesn’t undermine the fact that we live in a broken world with real abuse of power.
I get it – it’s uncomfortable to talk about the legacy of Britain’s colonial rulership and white supremacy. But dear white brother or sister, in that moment when you feel awkward, I’d encourage you not to frantically move the conversation away from race.
Unlike the world around us, in Jesus we’re free to face up to past wrongs as there’s now no condemnation for us (Romans 8:1). We’re free to acknowledge the right anger of those historically and currently oppressed.
We’re free to ask those different to us what it’s like to be them; and even repent if we’ve neglected our pursuit of radical inclusion due to our own blind-spots.
Only Jesus frees us to do this.
#4 Justified anger will drive us to prayer
Sometimes I get in a funk, and I’m tempted to be that sassy and irrational caricature of the Angry Black Woman I feel everyone wants me to be.
Sometimes I just want to be angry. But by God’s grace, I have friends who encourage me to pray for a soft heart, whilst acknowledging my experiences are real and my frustrations are warranted.
If you can relate to this, remember that anger is a terrible thing if it’s divorced from the gospel. So if you feel angry, bring it before your Father who hears you; pray for righteous anger and do not sin (Ephesians 4:26).
This will mean listening well even when it’s difficult, responding to ignorance and racism in grace and praying for your brothers and sisters who do not see things the same was you do.
#5 We will be courageous
But dear black, or asian, or arab minority brother or sister in a mainly white Christian context, don’t settle for what everyone else judges to be normal.
God has placed you where you are for a purpose. He calls us to a firm courage in him. Pray for this courage to speak up, because too much is at stake.
Many blacks are growing tired in seeking to understand Christianity when their blackness isn’t readily embraced. Some are turning to other religions, such as Islam and Hebrew Israelite’s as a more welcoming option.
So gospel unity and diversity isn’t a nice add-on. Real lives, and their eternal relationship with God are at stake.