Kneeling and toppling – a response to the Black Lives Matter movement

Yesterday I received two e-mails pointing me to the latest suggestion for a gesture of solidarity with a certain group of people: the idea was to kneel outside one’s house in silence at 8pm for the 8 minutes that an American policeman was preventing George Floyd from breathing.   I chose not to join in with this gesture, and I want to explain why.

Of course I agree that black people’s lives do matter and that the death of George Floyd – whether or not he was guilty of a crime at the time of his arrest – was an outrage and a travesty of justice.  No police officer should use more than the minimum necessary force in arresting someone, and every death in police custody must be investigated, with prosecutions where appropriate.

My reasons for choosing not to join in this particular gesture are more to do with the way that society works these days, and the dangers of crowd mentality.  The advent of first the Internet and then social media has made it incredibly easy for ideas – memes as they are sometimes called – to spread around the world.  I don’t expect more than a few people to read this blog, but who knows – the most unlikely things go viral.  The worldwide wave of demonstrations following Floyd’s death, and in the UK the removal by a cheering crowd of a statue to an 18th century slave trader in Bristol, have caught the headlines this week to an extent that nothing else has since the start of the Covid-19 crisis several months ago.  Without social media it would probably have been no more than a brief item on the news.  Twenty years ago we may never even have heard of a similar incident in the USA. A hundred years ago it would hardly have been possible.

As a Christian, I have to ask myself ‘what would Jesus do?’  Of course he didn’t have the Internet or a Facebook account.  But he was familiar with crowds, familiar with discrimination and all too familiar with political intrigue. Let’s unpack that a bit.

For several generations before Jesus’ time the people group he was born into – I’ll call them ‘the Jews’ although that’s a simplification – had been expecting a God-given spiritual leader (often referred to as the ‘Messiah’) and the expectation linked with that was that the Messiah would free them from Roman oppression.  Then as now, the Jews knew what it was to be persecuted.

At the start of what Christians call Holy Week, leading up to Easter, we remember when Jesus came up to Jerusalem for what he knew would be his last Passover celebration. Crowds cheered him, hailed him as the Messiah, and many would be expecting him to overthrow the Romans.  But he didn’t.

Jesus had a bigger agenda, a more important calling.  His task, uniquely, was to give his life “as a ransom for all”, to enable everyone to be reconciled to God.  That is why he would not be drawn into fruitless argument or vain attempts at armed insurrection.  Others had been there and failed.  He silently accepted the praise of the crowd on Palm Sunday, but equally silently accepted his betrayal by a friend, unjust trial by both religious and secular authorities, the calling of a hostile crowd for his crucifixion, and eventually that crucifixion as performed by the Romans.

At the same time, the Jews were not guiltless themselves when it came to racism.  Their scriptures, which still form part of the Christian Bible, include a record of genocide and hatred of entire people groups in the past. And even in Jesus’ day there was widespread discrimination, not least against their neighbours to the north, the Samaritans. The feeling was mutual and it seems the two groups would hardly talk to each other.  Did Jesus show that Samaritan lives matter?  Yes, he did.  But not by taking part in mass protests.  John’s gospel records him meeting a woman of Samaria alone, asking her for a drink (thereby making himself the one in need) and gently persuading her, and through her others of her village, to engage with him.  Later, he told the parable that we know as ‘the Good Samaritan’ through which he challenged his hearers to recognise discrimination for what it is, and that what matters is attending to the needs of other people irrespective of how we may categorise them.

Would Jesus have thrown a statue into the river?  Well, he overturned the tables of the Temple moneychangers when he saw that they were acting unjustly. I don’t think he would oppose the symbolic removal of Colton’s statue.  But the Temple incident was symbolic of all he had been teaching about the love of God, the dangers of wealth and religious power.   Symbolic actions like that do have their place in making a point to support an existing cause, as do demonstrations, vigils and lighting candles.  But in themselves, divorced from any other action, they achieve little, sometimes nothing, and can even harm the cause when peaceful protests turn violent as they often do.

Also, crowds are notoriously fickle. Someone this week asked a good question – how many of those who criticised Dominic Cummings for breaking lockdown (the previous week’s cause celebre) were also among those who broke the rules themselves to pack together to call for racial justice?   And how many of those who were in the crowd celebrating Jesus’ arrival into Jerusalem were also in the crowd calling for his death?  The crowd moves on, the news moves on, another issue raises its head, the same or different people form a new protest movement, and last week’s ‘big story’ is in danger of becoming a footnote in history itself.

I am sure that Jesus would have agreed that ‘Jewish lives matter’, but also ‘Samaritan lives matter’ and even ‘Roman lives matter’.  He is here now with those who mourn the death of George Floyd – and countless other innocent victims of injustice.  He is here with those who are passionate for justice in all its forms.

There are many other causes besides those of tackling racism. Each one get its ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ in the media, and occasionally, for reasons that are not obvious, one particular cause gets longer in the spotlight, as racism has this week.  But none of the others have gone away.  Climate change, fair trade, the plight of asylum seekers in the ‘hostile environment’, sustainable transport… those are just the issues that I, personally, give particular attention to.  Those are my calling.   There are many others, no less worthy.  Racism is one.  Then there are animal welfare, LGBT rights, food poverty, nuclear weapons – the list is endless.    None of us can be involved in them all.  If you are involved in any of them, well done.

My reason for not kneeling for “Black Lives Matter”, then, is not because I think they don’t, but because that happens not to be one of the ‘causes’ that I feel particularly called to be involved in, and a symbolic gesture one evening means nothing if it isn’t backed up by sustained action.  So I thank God for all those who do work for this cause, whether or not it is in the media spotlight.

The way that Jesus  – the crucified and risen Messiah – changes lives and changes society is by calling individuals to repent.  Repentance meaning not merely being sorry for what we have done wrong, but starting a whole new way of life based on his ‘two greatest commandments’ – to love God (as creator of the world – if you don’t believe in God, at least love the world), and to love our neighbour as ourselves.  “Who is my neighbour?” someone asked, and Jesus replied with the story of the Good Samaritan – it is anyone whose needs we can do something about.

What each of us should do, then, is firstly to look at our lives and see where they may be harming others, directly or indirectly, and what changes we might need to make in the way we live to minimise or prevent that harm.   Then to pray, or ponder, what particular causes we are called to give positive support to.  And to give those few causes, or it may only be one, our full support, not only by occasional symbolic gestures, but with words, actions, giving of time and money, and changes in lifestyle that prove we really mean it.

All lives matter. Black lives matter.  Your neighbour’s life matters.  Your life matters. To God and each other.

© Stephen Craven 9 June 2020.

The Bible in a Year – 10 September

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

10 September. Nehemiah chapter 9-11

Chapter 9 consists mainly of a recital of the “history of salvation” up to this time – the promise to Abraham, the Exodus and subsequent rebellions and corresponding repentance. Chapter 10 is a covenant of the leaders of the people to follow the Law previously given.  And chapter 11 consists of the individuals and groups of men who were to live in the reconstructed city of Jerusalem.  But I am going to concentrate on one verse from the start of this reading:

“Then those of Israelite descent separated themselves from all foreigners, and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their ancestors.” (Nehemiah 9:2).

This verse sounds worrying at a time when Britain is going through a national crisis about immigration. “Separating oneself from all foreigners” reads as at best a nationalist sentiment, at worst a policy of xenophobia and racism.  Even allowing for the commandment to avoid intermarriage (and therefore prevent the dilution of Jewish teaching) there should be no need to “separate oneself” from those who are different.  The Christian understanding of God’s love for humanity is that it is without borders, and all that matters is faith in God and a desire to live in peace with other people. So how does this statement belong in the Bible?

The nation of Israel was rebuilding itself in and around Jerusalem after several generations, during which gentiles had occupied the holy city.  They felt a need to assert their historic rights to live there.  The newly rediscovered Law was also something fragile, that could be easily forgotten if it was not preserved and reinforced until it had once again been established in people’s hearts.

So this verse seems to be appropriate for the time of its setting.  But that does not mean it is appropriate in 21st century Britain, where practising Christians (or Jews) are as likely to have come from other parts of the world as to have been born here; and where ‘mixed’ marriages can be very successful.

The Bible in a Year – 19 August

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

19 August. Ruth 1 to 4 (entire book)

The short book of Ruth contrasts with yesterday’s reading (the Song of Songs).  They are both stories written down (and maybe even composed) centuries after the time in which they were set.  Both tell of relationships between men and women: the Song of Songs was about passionate but unrequited love, whereas this is a tale of family relationships, bereavements and an arranged marriage.  Ruth may or may not have been a real person (we have no way of telling) but like any Biblical story, indeed any good story, it is intended to make a point.

The story starts with Ebimelech emigrating from Bethlehem to Moab (at that time very much enemy country) due to a famine.  No doubt many others did the same.  In those days there would have been no refugee camps or international aid, and immigrants from Judah would not have been welcomed.  So it is perhaps surprising for a start that Ebimelech’s sons married local girls – that would have made them unclean under Jewish law, although the story does not make that point.  But in fact the marriages are successful, so much so that when father and sons have all died, Naomi and Ruth return together to Bethlehem.

Now the boot (or sandal – see chapter 4 verse 7) is on the other foot.  Although Naomi has been welcomed back by her relatives in Bethlehem, Ruth as an immigrant from an enemy country has to establish herself as one of the community.  Gleaning left-over ears of barley after the harvest is the only way for her to gather food to eat or sell.  By a series of coincidences (or God-incidences as many people prefer to say) she meets her late father-in-law’s relative who owns the field, and with careful negotiation by Naomi, what starts as a master-servant relationship quickly becomes a marriage.  Boaz has no hesitation in taking this non-Jewish widow as his wife, and it seems that unlike some arranged marriages, this one was a love match a well.

The lesson here seems to be that welcoming, and even marrying, people from another country, whether they come as refugees from famine or as part of an existing multi-ethnic family, is quite compatible with God’s plans (despite earlier religious laws against such intermarriages). Indeed, little did the characters in this story know that, as we are told in an epilogue, Ruth is said to have become the ancestor of the great king David. Today’s asylum-seeker may herself, or through her descendants, become a great leader of our people. This book therefore makes a welcome change from the black-and-white laws of other parts of the Old Testament, reminding us that there is no place for racism in the Kingdom of God.

The Bible in a Year – 21 February

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

21 February. Numbers chapters 23-25

These chapters cover two stories which show a marked contrast in attitudes to people of other faiths or nationalities.  Let’s take the second one first.


The people of God – the Israelites – have throughout their wanderings been promised the land of Canaan (which they have not yet reached, but getting near). On the way they have been opposed by several other tribes, so especially the Moabites, so it is understandable that they don’t exactly get on well with them.  Except that (as is the way of the world) some Israelite men find that the attraction of individual Moabite women is more pressing than their leaders’ condemnation of the whole Moabite tribe.  This is a tension found in every age and society – as a whole one tribal or national or religious group finds another unacceptable, but when it comes to friendship and especially sexual attraction, individual ‘others’ are found to be more than acceptable.   Add to that the concerns about women attracting men to their own faith (it is true that women tend to be more devout in their religion than men, and more easily share their faith with others) and the result is that Moses issues what we might call a ‘fatwa’ against such mixed marriages (just substitute ‘Muslim’ for ‘Israelite’ and ‘Christian’ for ‘Moabite’ to get the idea).  One of the priests is praised for his zeal in carrying out the fatwa by murdering both partners in such a mixed liaison.


Now to the first of the two stories.  Here it is Israel presented as the ‘other’ in the eyes of Balak the Moabite king – for once in the Bible we see God’s people in the view of their enemies. He has summoned Balaam (him of the talking donkey) to curse Israel as if he can just decide that is a good thing to do.  But Balaam is a true prophet, and with spiritual insight recognises Israel as the chosen people of the true God.  Balak, obviously, is furious – words of blessing (or curse) would have been taken to represent reality and a prediction of the outcome of any impending battle. His judgmentalism, racism even, is being challenged. Sadly the impulse to curse someone on the basis of their religion has not gone away – read one of today’s news headlines about a British Muslim.


It is obvious which of these people, as Jesus put it, loved his neighbour as himself.  But the question I am pondering is, would Moses have been so judgmental against the Moabites if he had known that their king was at the same time being given a prophecy that blessed the Israelites?  If we really knew how “others” saw “us” at our best, we might be pleasantly surprised.