What’s Going On?
John Woods this week on preaching and racism.
Marvin Gaye released the song ‘What’s Going On?’ in 1971, eight years after the famous “I have a dream” speech by Martin Luther King Jr., and three years after King was assassinated.
There’s too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There’s far too many of you dying
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today”
In the second verse Marvin Gaye echoed the words of King:
“For only love can conquer hate”
There is power in a memorable slogan; it can start a movement.
Think of Barack Obama’s “Yes we can!” or “The Audacity of Hope”. Those slogans paved the way to two terms in the White House for the first black President of the United States of America. The slogans kicked off a movement. We will leave history to decide if they produced any lasting transformation.
Bob Dylan has written many protest songs, some of them about injustice toward black people. In 1963 he wrote one of his first songs: ‘The Death of Emmett Till’. Till, a 14-year-old African American from Chicago, was visiting relatives in Mississippi. While there he was killed on August 28, 1955, by two white men, after allegedly wolf-whistling a white woman.
“If you can’t speak out against this kind of thing, a crime that’s so unjust
Your eyes are filled with dead men’s dirt, your mind is filled with dust
Your arms and legs they must be in shackles and chains, and your blood it
must refuse to flow
For you let this human race fall down so God-awful low!”
In 1975 Dylan wrote the song ‘Hurricane’ telling the story of Rueben “Hurricane” Carter, framed for a crime he didn’t commit. It became something of a campaign song that may have contributed to Carter’s eventual release from prison. Yet change was like a “slow train coming”.
2020, in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic another black man dies and there is another slogan: “I can’t breathe”. These were the among the last words of George Floyd as he was filmed being killed by a policeman.
What is clear is that what we don’t need is another heart-felt apology that leads nowhere.
Preachers can be good with words but before we speak, we need to pause, listen and feel. There was an air of weary resignation in the words of the actor Will Smith: “Racism isn’t getting worse, it’s getting filmed.”
Smith did seek to speak some words of hope:
“But there’s a dark before the dawn. When everything gets out, it’s a good thing. It just sucks bad when the truth is out. But I think everybody can see it now. And I think it’s just a little darkness before the cleansing that we’ll have as we move forward.”
Smith is surely right that the solution comes from seeing clearly. His words reminded me what Paul writes to the Corinthian Church:
“For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.
“So, from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5: 14–17)
“For only love can conquer hate”
Paul was a man who hated Jesus and hated Christians. Once he was blind, but now he sees. Love is never merely an emotion; it is a choice. Those who chose to embrace true love find that they begin to see.
“The most difficult thing to get people to do is to accept the obvious”
(Dick Gregory African American comedian and civil-rights activist). Quoted in Ben Lindsay, We Need to Talk About Race (SPCK).
Preachers need to ask themselves and their congregations some searching questions:
What are the obvious things about race that we are not seeing?
Who are the invisible people in our lives?
Who are the despised people?
How can we translate slogans into meaningful change?
Perhaps every church leader could read a copy of Ben Lindsay’s book and honestly answer all its questions; the eBook is now on offer at 99p.
We Need To Talk About Race
From the UK Church's complicity in the transatlantic slave trade to the whitewashing of Christianity throughout…
Other useful resources for reflection:
Jez Field preaching at King’s Church Seaford on Sunday 7th June 2020:
A moving poem by a black theological student in Oxford, UK, and a wise reflection by Tom Wright:
The Death of George Floyd
This poem, by Oyin Olipado, an ordinand here at Wycliffe Hall - and, of course, the events, attitudes, history and pain…