Part of my training to become a pastor involved completing a theology degree. In addition to those elements of the course that focussed on academic study and essay writing we would also complete sessions to help us consider and prepare for the more practical aspects of ministry. There would be sessions looking at funerals and weddings, safeguarding, accountability and other useful subjects relevant to ordained ministry. Over a number of weeks these sessions covered themes relating to racial justice and the role of women in ministry. The group of students was relatively diverse with both male and female, married, single, white, black, east Asian. Together we learned about racial bias and discrimination, as well as gender inequality. We didn’t consider bias and discrimination based on disability, age or sexuality (perhaps due to time constraints, perhaps because the college didn’t consider these significant enough to consider – ultimately biased itself).
During the final session we are asked, in groups of 3 or 4, to look at Bible passages used both for and against the inclusion of women in ministry. After a short time of discussion each group was asked to share the Bible verses they were looking at and feed back to the whole class. I noticed that if there was a male in a group, they spoke for the group. If there was a white person in a group, they spoke for the group. Having all commented on how terrible discrimination is we had all fulfilled our unconscious roles and bias.
Of course we can argue that perhaps some people felt less confident to speak because that is just their way. Others will have had English as a second or third language and therefore preferred not to speak in this context. However, the bias was so blatant; as a class we had clearly not made the space comfortable or empowering for non-white males to speak as freely and easily as the white males.
I share this story as a simple lesson in unconscious bias. As pastors in training we demonstrated our own prejudice. No doubt we demonstrate such prejudice every day without thinking as we did in the comfort of our classroom. Prejudice is sin; prejudice is a deep rooted sin in the church and we need to reflect, acknowledge and repent of our sin.
In 1993 black British teenager Stephen Lawrence was murdered in a racially motivated attack whilst waiting for a bus. His parents had to fight for justice and in February 1999 the public inquiry led by Sir William Macpherson concluded that the Metropolitan Police Service was institutionally racist. To the majority of black people this probably came as no surprise, to the majority white population this was a stark wake up call. Much has changed since but I suspect there is still a long way to go. Almost 20 years after the release of that report lawyer Imran Khan, in his opening statement for the Grenfell Inquiry (5 June 2018), on behalf some of the bereaved, survivor and residents said:
‘We submit that what occurred at Grenfell Tower may be explained as a product of institutional racism, and we consider it right and proper that this should be investigated.’
It is easy to sit back and look from a distance at such inquiries and investigations, to shake our heads is dismay and disgust, but what such instances should do is cause us to look again. To look at ourselves. It is recorded in Matthew 7:4-5 Jesus saying, ‘how can you say to your neighbour, “Let me take the speck out of your eye”, while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye.’
Central to Jesus’ teaching is the law ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ (Luke 10:27) which is often attributed to Jesus but comes originally from the ancient Levitical law. Along with this law is a further commandment to also love the foreigners amongst you as you love yourself (Leviticus 19:33-34).
I’m not sure I can imagine the Church, a denomination, or a local church calling for an inquiry to determine whether it is institutionally racist, sexist, ableist, xenophobic, ageist, homophobic, transphobic or prejudice consciously or unconsciously. Whilst an inquiry might not happen the church needs to reflect upon its own discrimination and institutional sin. The New Testament letters of Paul to the early churches frequently call the churches to repentance and he rejoices when they repent (see 2 Corinthians 7). All to often the church today defends or makes excuses for its actions, scripture is used and we would prefer to say that we are right. Sadly the church has lost its way when it comes to repentance. The church (particularly its evangelical wing) is at risk of becoming hard hearted. The church requires God’s restoration, we have to hope that God will say, ‘I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh’ (Ezekiel 36:26).
As I write I grieve the death of a wonderful blogger, author and speaker Rachel Held Evans. Rachel challenged evangelical culture and wrote about her spiritual journey, wrestling with the faith she grew up with and working things out for herself.
Rachel was brave enough to travel and humble enough to recognise when she was wrong. In 2016 she wrote, ‘I thought God wanted to use me to show gay people how to be straight. Instead God used gay people to show me how to be Christian.’ In Philippians 2 the apostle Paul calls the church to have the mind of Christ, to do nothing out of selfish ambition but in humility to consider others better than yourself. Rachel wrote, ‘Nurture the humility it takes to admit you can get it wrong.’
The church is called to be humble, with humility comes repentance, and with repentance comes a transformed approach revealing Christ.