I strongly believe that God is not the originator of COVID-19, but it appears that through this coronavirus season He is uncovering some centuries-old injustices that have not been dealt with properly or processed at all.

These social inequalities are present on both sides of the Atlantic. Here, in the UK, the disproportionate representation of Black Asian Minority Ethnic (BAME) people in frontline services reveals that, for far too long, BAME people have been at the bottom of the social-economic scale. Take a look at the US and we see that the police demonisation of and brutality against African Americans, as expressed in the murder of George Floyd, exposes systemic and institutional racism.

As these events continue to gather momentum around the world, with people calling for structural changes, what is the role of the church, and what might God be challenging the church to change in order to speak relevantly and intelligently?

If the church, particularly in the UK, is going to be an agent of social change during this crisis moment, if the church is going to be prophetic, speaking truth to power, then it has to put its own house in order by addressing some of the race and racism issues within the church.

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A good place to start on this journey is to understand God’s vision of a multi-ethnic kingdom. John, in the book of Revelation, gives us a glimpse of this vision when he describes the liturgy sang in heaven by the four living creatures and the 24 elders: They sing a new song, saying: You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on earth’” (5:9 – 10).

This heavenly liturgy describes God’s kingdom in terms of tribes, language, people, and nations, signifying that His kingdom was never meant to be about one tribe, language, people or nation. In essence, God’s kingdom is not designed to be mono ethnic or monocultural – its DNA is multi-ethnic. I also find it fascinating that the heavenly liturgy did not blur the distinctions of the tribes, the languages, the people and the nations, meaning God is not colour blind.

God is not colour blind because He created people of colour in the first place. God created humanity in its diverse expressions. Paul put it this way: From one ancestor He made all the nations to inhabit the whole earth, and He allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live” (Acts 17:26). It seems Paul suggested that God created one human race but put us in different geographic parts of His earth for a reason.

I find it liberating that God created one human race in His image, but yet allowed humanity to be expressed in different geographic locations. God’s idea of one human race in His image, though expressed in different parts of the world, is also what constituted the central worship of the Lamb by a great multitude drawn from every tribe, people and language in John’s vision in Revelation (7:9 – 10). So, God created us differently, but because we are one humanity fashioned in His image, He wants us to worship Him together. This reflects the nature of the godhead itself, which is three distinct persons but one in essence. This is the theology that underpins a biblical unity in diversity that is expressed in God’s multiethnic kingdom.

Putting in the work

But the idea of one human race has been distorted and corrupted through history, particularly the history of navigation, European expansion and empire. As Europeans began to travel the world as merchants, navigators and explorers, they came in contact with people who look different from them. The question of how you define the other became an issue. This led to the idea of different races and racial categorisation that affirms the superiority of Caucasians and dehumanises Africans, Asians and indigenous people in the Americas and elsewhere. The consequence was racism of which we have seen the evil of it in the history of the slave trade, colonialism, indentured servitude, imperialism and neo-colonialism.

How can the church get back to God’s vision of a multi-ethnic kingdom, or more specifically, how can the UK church express this vision in our church networks, mission agencies and theological colleges? Firstly, in order for our churches, mission agencies and theological colleges to become places where God’s multi-ethnic kingdom is expressed, we have to be intentional in our thinking, strategies and action.

People often desire and want a multicultural or multi-ethnic church but are not prepared to do the hard work that it requires. Has your board of directors or trustees intentionally sought to have on the team people of Asian, African or Latin American backgrounds? Does your five-year strategy intentionally include engaging majority world Christians and churches? Does your national leadership team only have PLUS (People Like Us)? The early church was intentional in nominating and appointing Grecian Jews when they felt marginalised by the Hebraic Jews. A study of the names of the seven leaders selected demonstrates this intentionality (see Acts 6:1 – 7).

Secondly, we need to create safe spaces in our church streams, mission agencies and theological colleges to have conversations about race and racism. Churches too many times shy away from having these conversations because it makes people feel guilty and uncomfortable. If we are going to move forward, we need to have these conversations. Can we talk about the issue of race and racism in the church at some of our church meetings? Do our theological colleges have compulsory modules on black theology, African theology or post-colonial theologies? Can our national conferences begin to address some of these issues as the main theme rather than relegating it to a seminar or track focusing on the subject?

Thirdly, our churches, mission organisations and theological colleges need to listen to majority world voices (Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and Latin America). This is partly to understand the pain and hurt that majority world Christians have been carrying or internalised. In a church context that already has a mixed congregation, it becomes imperative to listen to those marginal voices who are not normally heard or promoted.

Pastors and church leaders are to remember this comes under the remit of pastoral care because, as congregants begin to share, issues they have internalised will surface. Therefore, before creating those safe spaces to listen, ask yourself whether your church has support structures in place for those people. This process could also bring healing to the whole church if it is handled with transparency and honesty.

In the case of theological colleges, what sort of theological textbooks do we recommend on our reading lists? It is not enough to have majority world guest speakers teaching the occasional diaspora missiology or world Christianity module. Efforts must be made to recruit as teaching staff majority world Christians. This will mean looking critically at our recruitment processes. This will also apply to mission agencies and para-church organisations.

Lastly, our churches and organisations need to learn the history of racism. Part of this will mean putting into perspective the history of the modern missionary movement in the light of its collusion with colonialism. A reorientation of history is also needed so that we not only see William Wilberforce as the champion of freedom, but the likes of ex-slaves such as Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano. Part of our learning will also include knowing how European history has created people we now call African American, African Caribbean, African, and black British. Our journey towards a multi-ethnic congregation, mission agency or college requires understanding white hegemony (supremacy), and one way of doing that is to learn about black history.

It is important to stress that while God’s vision is that of a multi-ethnic kingdom, which brings together different nationalities, ethnicities, social classes and age groups to worship Jesus, the journey towards this requires intentional hard work. It is my prayer that we will be willing to cooperate with God and fulfil this heavenly vision on earth.

It is my prayer that we will be willing to cooperate with God and fulfil this heavenly vision on earth.