I suspect like many of you, I have experienced a whole range of emotions in response to what happened to George Floyd in the United States and the international response to the issue of racism.
I experienced horror and outrage watching the video of George Floyd’s life ebbing away as he and bystanders pleaded with the officer with his knee on his neck for his life. What happened to in Minneapolis was an unjustifiable vindictive act of recklessness and callousness. As a former police officer I could not get my mind around the actions of the officer involved. During my police training in Scotland over 34 years ago we were told clearly that we were never to restrain anyone around the neck due to the danger of brain damage and death.
To be honest I have also experienced a certain reluctance to speak out which has not come from apathy about racism. I am aware that I am white and have felt at the moment people like me should be doing more listening than speaking. I cannot claim to have experienced the racism both overt and subtle that people of colour have. I have no experience or expertise that qualifies me to speak out on this subject except my abhorrence of racism.
It is difficult to look for and face your own prejudices, privileges, and biases. I hope that I have never acted in an overtly racist way. Yet I am aware that I may have acted and said things from almost subconscious prejudices I have inherited from my culture. I am also aware that I personally have benefitted from racism, its my share of “white privilege”. The town I grew up in Port Glasgow was built to be the port of Glasgow. It was built in the 18th century by men who had grown fabulously wealthy through sugar from the Caribbean and tobacco from the North American colonies. Growing up, even in history lessons dealing with slavery, we never made the connection between our town and its existence and prosperity and the slaves who worked and died producing the sugar and tobacco that built our town. It seems like in Scotland when it comes to slavery, we have historical amnesia. The truth is that profits from slavery largely financed the industrial revolution in Scotland bringing relatively well-paid jobs and certainly, compared to the life of most of the descendants of slaves in the Caribbean, a comfortable life. In Germany many towns who were involved in the holocaust have publicly repented of their historical role in that genocide. My town has yet to acknowledge its guilt in the genocide that was the African slave trade.
So, I have felt over the past two weeks pulled in two directions- I have felt torn between wanting to speak out in condemnation of racism and wondering whether I have any right to express my voice. Generally, I have felt it has been more appropriate to support my friends of colour in what they are saying. I have been reading some sermons from German pastors who spoke out about the racism and naked narrow nationalism of Nazism in the 1930s and 40s. One of those sermons was by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and as so often when I read Bonhoeffer, I felt a sanctified kick up the pants. Bonhoeffer wrote about responding to the evil of racism in his day “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
Despite feeling wholly inadequate to do so, Bonhoeffer reminded me, that to fail to speak out publicly on racism is a guilty silence. I still want to listen more than speak on this subject, but I realise as a Christian, as a church leader, and as a human being I must say something.
Racism in all its forms is antithetical to the Kingdom of God I claim to be a subject of and is abhorrent to the God I claim to worship. Bishop Desmond Tutu is a Christian whose experience of racism and tireless opposition to it has earned him the right to be listened to on the subject, said this about racism.
“Racism claims that what invests us, each person, with worth is some extraneous arbitrary biological or other attribute, skin colour or ethnicity, and because from the nature of the case such a attribute cannot be a universal phenomenon, possessed by all persons indiscriminately, it thus gives an exalted position to the class that possesses it, to the exclusion and detriment of those others who do not possess it. It is the “Open Sesame” to an exclusive club, access to which gives all kinds of privileges and benefits denied those who have not been fortunate to gain admission. The attribute, without any necessary intrinsic value, endows those who have it with an automatic superiority to all those out there who do not possess it. Whether you deserve it, merit it or not, as soon as you belong to the privileged group, you have it made. You do not have to struggle or sweat for the status. That is yours automatically. To us all it seems so odd, indeed thoroughly absurd, that this should be the case, but even someone as smart as Aristotle though that human personality was in fact not a universal phenomenon because in his view slaves were not persons.
I do not need to demonstrate at any great length the utter absurdity of the racist position. The Bible and Christianity teach a categorically different position. What endows the human person with worth is not this or that attribute. No, it is the fact that each person is created in the image and likeness of God. This is something that is so for every single human being. It is something that is intrinsic, as coming with the package of being human. It does not depend on status, on gender, on race, on culture. It does not matter whether you are beautiful or not so beautiful, whether you are rich or poor, educated or uneducated. This is something that is true for every human person.”
All I can add to that is, AMEN.
I want to end by making three commitments in relation to racism.
I am going to keep listening. Listening to my brother and sisters of colour to try and learn from their experience and perspective how I should understand and respond to racism. I also want to listen as a church leader. I have been pondering if there have been anyways in which the church I help to lead has consciously or unconsciously excluded people on the grounds of colour or race. If you feel it has, I want to listen to your experience.
I am going to try and be more self aware when it comes to prejudice. I am going to be harder on myself in looking at my own prejudices and privileges to see if I am acting from their perspectives.
Secondly, I am going to act. If I can act in anyway to oppose racism I will. If someone tells a racist joke in my hearing or expresses racial prejudice, I will challenge them. I am committed to doing whatever is within my power to oppose and end racism. In my own country of Scotland, I will support efforts to publicly acknowledge our national guilt over slavery.
Many thanks James for this message. I wholeheartedly agree with your comments and can relate to your words on the situation in Glasgow having lived in that area for my childhood years, even though I did not know all the facts you mention re where the wealth etc. came from. I think what has most upset me, apart from the Police action re George Floyd and the general outcry about racism in general, has been the reaction of some hotheads who tried to disfigure the Churchill statue. I lived through the war altho’ only a child and have only admiration for him, who saved Britain from Nazi invasion, especially since seeing the film “The Darkest Hour” recently on TV. Thanks again, Joan Gunby
Thanks Joan, yes I think a lot of this is about education and some times that means we will recognise that many people werent as wholly positive in their contribution to national life as we thought: But there is no excuse for vandalism or violence, only education and discussion. Thank you for taking the time to reply so thoughtfully