On Sunday 13th February, the church will mark Racial Justice Sunday. While many will enthusiastically commemorate a day set aside to remember that justice is for everyone no matter their place of origin or heritage, some will be asking why?
To answer that question, we must return to the basics. We must explore why it is good to remember our Christian imperative towards racial justice and what more the Church and the UK Government can do to tackle racial injustice.
Racial Justice Sunday is at its core a date for us to take at least one day out to remind ourselves and our church families that to treat every human being with love, dignity and justice lies at the very heart of God.
Christians have always taught that God’s love and salvation are freely available to all people and all racial groups. Any call for racial justice must be recognised as based on an explicit theological understanding that God’s kingdom is multi-ethnic, and that it is through our baptismal covenant that we recognise and respect the dignity of every human being and our unity in Christ.
The historic slave trade remains a scar on world history, in the way in which it dehumanised enslaved people from the African continent. Racialized injustice developed into a social and financial construct influencing the attitudes of a large majority of individuals and institutions in white majority countries in their treatment of people of colour worldwide.
The Church of England has recognised and apologised for its part in the slave trade and the colonialism which ensued as part of British colonisation in Africa, the Caribbean and Asia. However, it is yet to respond to the growing calls to pay reparations for the benefits reaped from slave and colonial holdings.
Whilst the UK Government has apologised for its involvement in the slave trade, and even acknowledged the damage done by slavery to the financial systems and people of countries and territories which were used as primary slave economies, reparations for that damage have not been paid to this day. Other institutions have not only owned up to their role but followed up with action, including the University of Glasgow paying out £20million in slave trade reparations.
Added to the call for financial reparations in cash or kind, there is also a growing movement for racial and climate justice, as more and more people recognise the link between poor climate choices in northern countries and its impact on poorer and more marginalized peoples, many of whom were also affected by slavery and colonialism. Organisations such as Christian Aid are at the forefront of work in the area.
At Christian Aid, we lament the racial divisions in our society and our churches and seek to pursue a path of repentance and reconciliation. But it is also worth exploring the role Christians have played in advocating for social and racial justice.
In the 20th century, notable periods have included the Civil Rights Movement in the United States from 1954 to 1968, with Dr Martin Luther King at the forefront, the Apartheid era in South Africa from 1948 to the 1990s, with Archbishop Desmond Tutu as a principal activist.
The civil rights movement in the UK mostly took place in the second half of the 20th century. Examples include the exposure of the institutional racism within the Met Police in its handling of the murder of Stephen Lawrence, with the involvement of Bishop Wilfred Wood, Archbishop John Sentamu, and many others.
Whilst progress has been made in the fight for racial justice, the killing of George Floyd in 2020, along with many other incidents in both the US and UK has led to a wider conversation on racial inequality and shows a lot more still needs to be done.
The Archbishop of Canterbury reignited this conversation in the Church of England in his General Synod apology for the Church’s response to the Windrush generation. And his acknowledgement of the Church’s history of racial injustice. It has recently established a Commission on Racial justice.
The UK Government has also recently established a Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities and last released a report on racism in the UK. The results of the report caused widespread dismay and controversy as it denied the existence of structural racism and claimed that racism in the UK mainly only occurred in single isolated incidents by individuals rather than institutions.
Without a doubt the events of 2020 have brought the topic of racial justice to the forefront in church and society. Despite their actions thus far, the Church and the UK Government both need to do more to act on past transgressions, as well as work on what can be done now to tackle continuing racial injustice.
Racial Justice Sunday reminds us of all that as Christians we have a moral duty to ensure that all are treated equally, just as everyone is seen as equal in the sight of God.
Dr Rosemarie Mallet is the Archdeacon of Croydon in the Diocese of Southwark.