Saturday, June 20, 2020

Race, Identity and Grace

England Rugby fans may be banned from singing Swing Low Sweet Chariot. It has slavery connotations, apparently. Which it does. But not in a William Colson kind of way. According to anti-racism campaigner, Trevor Phillips, the song was composed by a freed slave just after the American civil war. The ‘Sweet Chariot’ was the Underground Railway, a network of secret routes that helped runaway slaves escape to freedom. Swing Low was a favourite of Louis Armstrong and Martin Luther King. As well as celebrating the Underground Railway, the song was probably an allusion to a dramatic episode in the Bible, when chariots of fire appeared and the prophet Elijah was swept up to heaven in a whirlwind.  

You’d have thought the English rugby authorities would be pleased that fans had adopted an anti-slavery anthem as their song, but no. Writing in The Times (19 June), Phillips argued that an obsession with symbols has overtaken a desire to change the world. Toppling statues and banning songs won’t deal with the issue of racial equality. But such gestures may help us to feel better about ourselves.

Is it just attention deflecting 'whataboutery' to ask why aren't people taking to the streets to protest against modern slavery, rather than vandalising public iconography? The killing of George Floyd was an outrage, but in recent weeks scores of Christian villagers were slaughtered at the hands of Boko Haram in North East Nigeria. See this Open Doors report. You won't hear a lot about that in the media. Christians don't tend to rank very highly when it comes to oppressed victimhood status. 

Welcome to the increasingly febrile world of identity politics. Martin Luther King famously dreamed of a day when people would be judged not on the colour of their skin, but the content of their character. With identity politics, race itself is politicised. The effect is to further divide, rather than bring healing and reconciliation. The hip hop artist Kayne West was denounced as ‘not black’ because of his support for the Republican Party. Closer to home Labour MPs wrote to Home Secretary Priti Patel, questioning her authority to speak out on racism, here. The Black Lives Matter movement has Marxist sympathies. 

Why am I wading in on the subject of an England rugby song? You wouldn’t catch me singing it, anyway. I’m Welsh and can happily sing, Bread of Heaven, knowing that it’s author, William Williams Pantycelyn (1717-1791) wasn’t tainted by slavery in any way. Williams was caught up in the Evangelical Revival that swept across the United Kingdom in the Eighteenth Century. He was a physician turned preacher and a prolific hymn writer. Many of the leading campaigners against the slave trade were Evangelicals such as John Newton and William Wilberforce. 

Their argument against the vile trade was based on the Bible. The Bible teaches that all human beings are made in the image of God, whatever the colour of the skin. There is only one race, the human race. Scripture teaches that we should love our neighbour as ourselves. Jesus was crucified, enduring the death of a common slave to save the world from sin. In the church, a person’s primary identity is in Christ, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

In the light of those beliefs slavery had to go. The icon of the anti-slavery movement was a black man in chains with the caption, "Am I not a man and a brother?" In the light of those same beliefs discrimination on the basis of skin colour has to go. But virtue signalling identity politics isn't the answer. Identity politics tends to be quick to denounce and tear down, but knows little of grace or forgiveness. The Christian faith offers hope to a broken and divided world. The preacher John Newton was once a captain of a slave ship. Later in life he bitterly regretted his involvement in the trade and worked with Wilberforce to campaign against it. Today’s ‘cancel culture’ would show him no mercy, but in advanced old age Newton could say this, 'Although my memory's fading, I remember two things very clearly: I am a great sinner and Christ is a great Saviour.' 

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