Black Lives Matter: church, state and conflict in USA and UK

By Savi Hensman
June 21, 2020

Two photographs, each of an American man holding a Bible, have been widely seen in news reports across the world. The first is of someone who grew up amidst severe deprivation, got into trouble when young but whose life was turned around by faith and love: George Floyd . The second is of someone born to wealth and power, dogged by scandal even before he became US president and afterwards, whose route to the church building where he posed for cameras was cleared by violence: Donald Trump.

The brutal killing of ‘Big Floyd’, a 46-year-old black man, by Minneapolis police on 25 May 2020 sparked protests across the USA and worldwide. As the Black Lives Matter movement and coronavirus pandemic prompt many to examine how racism and other injustices devalue human life, Christians have found themselves not only at odds with the state but also divided among themselves.

A chequered history

In history, the Bible has sometimes been seen as a symbol of oppression, at other times as a sign of hope and inspiration for change. In the USA, Christianity was associated with those who colonised the country, wiping out many of the original peoples under the guise of a civilising mission and leaving many survivors in stark poverty. Faith was twisted to justify enslaving Africans and brutally exploiting those who survived a journey in which millions died.

Yet some found that being Christian gave them strength to keep their inner dignity despite their treatment and to resist. A number of white believers were also moved to protest against the evils of slavery, though not all of these people fully embraced equality.

Even after slaves were emancipated, huge economic and social inequalities remained. As a civil rights movement helped to achieve desegregation and voting rights in states where discrimination had been most blatant, the Episcopal Church (part of a worldwide Anglican Communion), like several others, shifted towards the stance that justice and liberation were central to faith. This encouraged them more generally to move towards equality for women, greater inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT+) people and concern for the poor and the planet.

Yet some Christians held on to the notion that white supremacy and a version of patriotism which saw the US as superior were in tune with their religious beliefs. This made the Vietnam war and other hostilities in Indochina easier, as those bombed or poisoned in such great numbers were frequently seen as lesser humans who could be dismissed using racist labels, as well as part of a supposed Communist menace.

Even when open prejudice became less respectable, disadvantage and prejudice continued to blight lives. The far right continued to organise and sometimes insecure people turned to racism to bolster their status or to stay in with their peers. Anti-racists also varied in how skilled they were at winning people over.

African-Americans, especially men, were often stereotyped as aggressive (perhaps in part reflecting some of the fear and guilt arising from centuries of maltreatment). People of Latin American descent and certain other minority ethnic communities also faced varying levels of racial discrimination, including excessive policing.

In the early twenty-first century, a so-called 'war on terror' led to many minority ethnic Americans who were Muslim being treated with suspicion. This approach was hardly likely to win community support in isolating terrorists but gave the appearance of action, amidst criticism of government failings. Meanwhile far-right terror groups were often ignored until their actions caused visible damage to ‘mainstream’ society.

Though US state actions had helped to destabilise much of the world, refugees often got a raw deal. Among those fleeing violence in Central America, immigration authorities’ separation of children from parents created unease even among some Trump supporters. But many still backed him, including socially conservative Christians who nevertheless believed he championed ‘family values’ because he was whittling away women’s reproductive rights and LGBT+ equality. To complicate matters, for many poorer Americans (or those troubled at home), the police or armed forces have provided jobs and a sense of ‘family’, with pressure to stay silent about abuses – and members of their families and congregations may also be reluctant to dig too deeply.

By 2020, a Black Lives Matter movement had grown in response to police or vigilante killings of defenceless people which all too often went unpunished by the criminal justice system. After other unarmed people were killed earlier in the year, the death of George Floyd – when a police officer knelt on his neck for over eight minutes while he repeatedly said “I can’t breathe”, unworried by being filmed – triggered a powerful reaction in the USA and wider world.

Protests were largely peaceful, though occasionally involving looting or attacks, but often they were met with force; law enforcement officers also physically attacked journalists. Donald Trump joined in with threats of shooting and use of “vicious dogs”, a reminder of violence against black people and anti-racist protesters during the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Trump had previously tapped into racist sentiment and it was possible that this was an attempt to hold on to some of his supporters who might have been unhappy with his mishandling of the pandemic. This has hit many minorities and poor people badly in areas where he has little support but is also causing mass deaths among those who voted him into power. An appeal to white supremacism might persuade some to vote for him again by conveying that, even if their lives count for little in Trump’s America, there are others even lower in status – though numerous white Americans now support Black Lives Matter.

Christian responses to the crises of police and other state violence, the pandemic and broader social divisions vary. Episcopalian bishops and some leaders of other denominations of various ethnicities, along with black clergy such as William Barber, have been vocal in calls for a more just and compassionate society. Meanwhile many white evangelical leaders remain enthusiasts for Trump.

The divide is not always straightforward. Minority ethnic as well as white Christians can be narrowly focused on personal piety or on the needs of their immediate community, without broader social awareness. And churchgoers in denial about the extent of racism and other overlapping forms of injustice, or how love of neighbour ties in with the need for change, can be personally kind and generous.

UK churches and the problem of racism

Numerous Christians in the UK, along with people of all faiths and none, reacted with horror to the photographic and video footage of the killing of George Floyd. The archbishops of Canterbury and York condemned systemic racism. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, wrote that when Trump “stood outside a church this week brandishing a Bible, having walked to the church with his path cleared by tear gas and rubber bullets, posturing before a nation more tragically divided than it has been for decades, wounded at so many levels… this was an act of idolatry – standing somewhere else than in the truth, using the text that witnesses to God’s disruptive majesty as a prop in a personal drama”, in “a context where racial privilege itself has long been an idolatry”.

Yet the Church of England’s own track record on racism, along with that of several other churches, has been a mixed one, as was soon pointed out. And where violence by UK rather than US police or other state institutions is concerned, the silence from most leaders (other than those who are black and minority ethnic themselves) has been noticeable, though responses have varied across nations and denominations.

This is not to downplay ongoing efforts by senior figures in various churches to achieve a more humane approach to immigration. But it remains to be seen how much difference the Black Lives Matters movement will make to how senior clergy, moderators and elders address the racism around them in the UK and rest of Europe.

In the run-up to the international protests following George Floyd’s death, Church of England leaders had their own, more low-key, brush with the government of their country. Strict lockdown guidance and laws had been put in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The ‘stay home’ rules were especially tight for everyone in a household where someone showed possible symptoms.

In late May, there was widespread public anger in the UK over government leaders’ refusal to act when the UK prime minister Boris Johnson defended his chief adviser Dominic Cummings, widely believed to have broken the lockdown rules. Cummings had travelled back to Downing Street after spending time with his sick wife, then driven with her and their young son to Durham and later Barnard Castle, at some point becoming ill too.

Few found his excuses plausible and there were wide fears that ministers’ response would undermine public health efforts, as well as leaving many people who made sacrifices to stick to these, feeling betrayed. There were obvious problems too if it appeared that some people were above the law. Several Church of England bishops tweeted their concern and Scotland’s most senior Anglican bishop, Mark Strange, wrote in dismay of Cummings' actions.

Some received death threats. Yet the bishops’ tweets were quite mild, given the catastrophic failure of the UK authorities on COVID-19, leading to mass deaths especially among people who were minority ethnic, disabled and/or on low incomes.

Other church leaders, for instance Bishop Philip North, have since drawn attention to how the pandemic’s impact, Black Lives Matter and overall issues of justice are linked. However racism remains an awkward issue, particularly for the Church of England, because of its close ties with the state.

The British Empire subjugated peoples by force across the globe, seizing their lands and promoting the slave trade (until this was finally abolished), sometimes misusing religion in justification. For ordinary people, the notion of racial superiority could be a source of pride, while diverting them from noticing how badly they themselves were oppressed and exploited; though some showed solidarity with anti-colonialist movements.

As in the USA and some other countries, racism and Christianity became entwined in some people’s minds, especially if the head of state also headed the church and absolute obedience to the monarch was seen as a religious duty, rather than as giving a powerful person priority over God and love of neighbour. Even after colonies gained independence, the interests of the rich and powerful in the West sometimes led to military intervention overseas, further reinforcing the view that the lives of non-white peoples could be treated as expendable.

In the 1960s, as debate intensified about how people of Caribbean, Asian and African descent in the UK should be treated, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey spoke out against racism. Yet the churches’ record was inconsistent, as many black people felt unwelcomed, or as though aspects of their lives and culture could not be expressed in white-led congregations. Young people, in particular, often felt that their impatience with injustice found little echo in Christian circles.

Increasingly in the Church of England, on a variety of issues, the emphasis shifted away from social justice, and enabling the flourishing of all, including the marginalised. Personal conversion which left societal inequalities largely untouched, or unity and reconciliation which meant playing down contentious issues, tended to be seen as more important. As for black-led congregations and denominations, a number were pietistic, though others took a more active role in addressing community concerns.

Over the past decade, as xenophobia became a more open force in UK politics, with a ‘hostile environment’ for immigrants and appeals to narrow nationalism, the position of minorities became even more precarious. Sometimes church leaders would express concern but, much of the time, the priority seemed to be social cohesion among white British people. Meanwhile a movement for a ‘Christian Europe’ was gaining ground, in which religion and racism were intertwined.

Even where injustice was recognised in Britain or abroad, the Church of England in particular often encouraged a very different approach from the Bible’s emphasis on empowering those on the margins to bring about change. Suggested prayers for justice and peace began, “Bless and guide Elizabeth our Queen; give wisdom to all in authority.” What Christians’ duty should be if those in power were oppressive was sometimes sidestepped.

Local church leaders sometimes joined or even helped organise protests against sometimes deadly injustices in the criminal justice system. Theologians, black and white, took on racism and highlighted how this was at odds with good news of God’s love for all. Yet despite numerous Christians, among others, experiencing heavy-handed treatment by police or other public officials and some dying, such issues did not get nearly as much attention as church growth or building maintenance. Unlawful killings in which black men are asphyxiated can happen in Hackney and Hull  as well as in Minneapolis. But these do not usually lead to impassioned speeches by white bishops denouncing institutional racism on the news.

Reactions to the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, against a background of COVID-19 and wider government exploitation of racism, have been different in the USA and UK, though having similarities. The ways in which religion and responses to issues of public concern can be intertwined are complex.

For many Christians, their beliefs are inseparable from the hope for a different world. Amidst hatred and inequality, a newly-released version of a song by the late African-American singer and activist Aretha Franklin, expresses confidence, rooted in faith, that change will come.


© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and respected commentator on welfare and other issues. She is author of the book Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church (Ekklesia, 2016): http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22613 and has been involved in seeking greater inclusion. She wrote on ‘Health or Wealth?’ in Feast or Famine? (http://dltbooks.com/titles/2195-9780232532616-feast-or-famine)

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