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.