Confronting the reality of racism

Mission partner Becky Reid Rodrigues and her husband Evaldo Rodrigues reflect on where they see racial injustice and how Christians should respond.

We were about to start writing our mission newsletter when George Floyd was murdered by police in Minneapolis. Evaldo and I felt so overwhelmed with anger and sadness that everything I had planned to include in the letter seemed futile.

Evaldo and I see systemic racism and discrimination all the time here in Brazil. We see it in the way that the care system treats black and brown children and the way that the social structures here seem stacked against the growth and prosperity of black people.

Racism in Brazil – and the UK

The sometimes blatantly obvious racism here in Brazil has definitely opened my eyes to the way that it still goes on today in the United Kingdom too. Black and other ethnic minority groups make up a lot of the key workers at the front line during this pandemic and yet they are the ones who are most at risk of contracting and dying from the virus compared to their white counterparts, due to poverty and structural inequality.

In my opinion, I think we can all admit that we have grown up hearing remarks that weren’t obviously racist but had a more subtle undercurrent. Being born and living in York, one of the whitest cities in the country, I can count on one hand the number of people that I grew up with who were black or other ethnic minorities. It makes me feel ashamed that I believed some of what was fed to me on the news about people of other races and that I sometimes listened to comments from people around me about those who I had never actually spent that much time with.

Don’t hide behind Wilberforce

I find that when historical slavery is brought up in the UK, especially in a Christian setting, it’s usually dismissed with a remark along the lines of, “Well we led the way in the fight against slavery with William Wilberforce” – as if that excuses all British involvement in the kidnapping and enslaving of thousands of Africans. I think we as a people forget that racism in other countries today, including Brazil, originated in some ways from a precedent that we British started with slavery.

I think we forget all too easily the deep guilt that weighed on the soul of John Newton for the rest of his life after his involvement in the slave trade.

In the film Amazing Grace, when Wilberforce asks Newton to tell him about his experiences on the slave ships, Newton refuses, admitting that he wasn’t strong enough to hear his own confession: “I’m the last person you should come to for advice. I can’t even say the name of any of my ships without being back on board them in my head! All I know is 20,000 slaves live with me in this little church, there is still blood on my hands.”

Blind but now I see…?

Later in the film, after going blind, Newton eventually writes his confession, giving names, ships records, ports, people and everything else he could remember for Wilberforce to use in Parliament: “Although my memory is fading, there are two things I remember very clearly. I’m a great sinner and Christ is a great saviour. You must publish it, blow a hole in their boats with it! Damn them with it! I wish I could remember all their names…my 20,000 ghosts…they all had names, beautiful African names. We called them with just grunts, noises… I am weeping…. I once was blind but now I see, didn’t I write that? Well now at last it’s true!”

Back in February, Evaldo and I went to see Just Mercy. The film is a biopic of Bryan Stevenson, an African American public interest lawyer, who has dedicated his career to helping the poor, the incarcerated and the condemned. It tells the story of Stevenson’s move to Montgomery, Alabama after graduating from Harvard University to start his organisation Equal Justice Initiative. At the time, it was set up solely to help black men who had been wrongly sentenced and placed on death row. The film focuses particularly on Bryan’s fight to exonerate Walter McMillian, a black man who was falsely accused of murdering a white girl and sentenced to execution by electric chair.

Bryan has gone on to fight against execution of more black men on death row as well as confronting the abuse of the incarcerated and mentally ill and aiding children prosecuted as adults.

Lasting impact

By the time the credits were rolling, I knew it was one of those films and he is one of those people that will have a lasting impact on my life.

Afterwards Evaldo, who is also a lawyer working on behalf of vulnerable people, suggested two videos on YouTube from an event at Redeemer Church in New York called Grace, Justice and Mercy: An Evening with Bryan Stevenson and Rev Timothy Keller.

In his introductory talk, Tim Keller focuses on the question “in an age of mass incarceration and racial tension, how can the Church engage as an ambassador of reconciliation and justice, whilst committed to the flourishing of the city?”

Keller speaks of how dedicating one’s life to social justice is an integral part of the Christian faith and that if you don’t, your faith is meaningless and dead to God. He reminds us that despite this call to fight injustice, most Christians ignore the resources and responsibilities that come with their faith and so are often slow to respond to these issues.

Bring the resources of faith

Later Bryan Stevenson talks in more detail about how if you want to do justly and love mercy as God commanded, then you have to get close to the places where injustice is happening, change narratives, stay hopeful and be willing to do uncomfortable things.

In my opinion I don’t believe that we are very good at acknowledging the atrocities that people in the UK have committed in the past and how they still echo in our society today. However, Stevenson reminds us that as people of faith, we know that acknowledgement of our sins brings us to the path of redemption, forgiveness and liberation. If we recognise the horrors committed in our country’s past and how they continue to resonate both within our society and ourselves today, only then can we begin to move forward towards creating change and a better, more just society for everyone.

I highly recommend that you all take the time to watch these videos, even if you aren’t a person of faith. When we talk about the subject of race, not just when it’s in the spotlight but as we go into the future, let’s not shy away from it but let’s remember the amazing grace that God gives us despite our many faults – and do what is right and just with it.

Prayer points:

  • We want to lift up the families of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others who have become the victims of police brutality in the US. We pray for those attending the protests and those on the ground working tirelessly for justice for these men, women and children.
  • We pray for key workers all over the world who have continued to put their lives and health at risk every day so that we can continue to live while in lockdown and quarantine. Let’s pray that we come through this as a kinder, fairer society that values the capabilities and gifts of every person. 
  • We want to pray for white people, that I and others will be able to be more accountable for our actions and the actions of others in the future. May we be honest with ourselves about the past and move on the path of redemption and liberation in order to lift up those who are oppressed and make society more just for everyone. 

Published 16 June 2020
Region
Latin America

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