black lives matter

To knee, or not to knee? That is the question

Some people responding to my celebration of NBA star Jonathan Isaac’s decision to stand during the national anthem while all around him took to their knees have (rightly) raised questions about how my post fits with Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback in the NFL who first took a knee during the national anthem in protest against racism in the United States.

Kaepernick’s actions developed quietly in the pre-season, and became more public and intentional as a result of then Republican candidate, now President, Donald Trump’s reaction to his actions. Trump has a long history of, at best, courting the white supremicist vote for his own political ends, not only through dog whistling tweets and soft responses to fascism (including his response to Kaepernick’s kneeling, but also around the NASCAR “noose” story earlier this year), and at worst, being a white supremicist by conviction.

In the washup of his decision to take a knee, Kaepernick said: “If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.” Love it. Others didn’t. His actions were framed as actions against the Flag, against the veterans, against the civic religion of the United States — they were framed as a desecration of sorts. But, for Kaepernick, they were simply an expression of his convictions that something in the United States had to change before he could feel like he belonged.

While, in my last post, I suggested there’s a parallel between ‘taking a knee’ and adopting a posture of submission, or worship (the greek word proskuneo), one can also adopt a posture of idolatry or worship by standing for a liturgical moment in the cult of civic religion. Kneeling during the anthem can also be a rejection of an alternate vision of the good; an alternate idolatrous regime. Our bodies are instruments of worship, and their postures, especially habitual ones (like kneeling, or standing), form us.

Since my post about Jonathan Isaacs, Israel Folau, no stranger to not bending the knee to idolatrous social pressures, has also drawn the ire of the Twittersphere for failing to kneel before an English Rugby League game, where he plays for a French team. The way new shibboleths emerge, and the mobs who are willing to conduct spontaneous heresy tribes with cancellation looming large is one of the more visible expressions of how deeply religious our hyper-secular society has become; and how much we’re all aggressive monotheists rather than pluralists. The overlap, or faithful presence, of Christians within these movements is an interesting test of one’s political theology.

While the present pressure to ‘take a knee’ feels implicitly, if not explicitly, religious — a call to give bodily expression to convictions about truth and goodness, where those who don’t participate are expressing a rejection of an orthodoxy that leaves the crowd incredulous — the roots of the ‘taking a knee’ movement were also, essentially, Christian. In that Kaepernick is, by all accounts, a man of deep Christian convictions. His decision to take a knee in the face of injustice was a decision not to stand for the values of a country, or its flag, while that country and flag were symbols of oppression; of a sort of beastly Babylonian imperialism. As James K.A Smith puts it in Awaiting The King, politics is inherently religious, he says: “There is something political at stake in our worship and something religious at stake in our politics.”

In Smith’s system, which pays attention to embodied practices as ‘liturgies’ aimed to form us with a vision of the good life, the act of standing for the national anthem is not neutral, it is a civic liturgy. Smith says, of the modern civic religion: “It shouldn’t be surprising when an institution that wants you to “pledge allegiance” is not happy with anything less than your heart. In this case, a liturgical lens works like a cultural highlighter that draws our attention not just to the “laws of the land” or the decisions of supreme court justices but to the rites interwoven in our public life together—the rituals and liturgies that inculcate in us a national myth and habituate in us an unconscious allegiance to a particular vision of the good.” Our Australian equivalent is the civic cultic apparatus that has emerged around ANZAC Day and its mythology; a mythology that shapes the collective Australian psyche (and psyche is just the Greek word the Bible uses for soul). Smith suggests his lens is a useful one because it invites us to “be attentive to the ways we are formed by the rites of democracy and the market, not just informed by their institutions.

Whether one stands or kneels during the national anthem is now loaded up as a civic-religious rite; one is either perceived as joining in and participating in the civic cult, or perceived as desecrating that valuable thing by participating in an alternative religion. And as we intentionally use our bodies in either direction, according to Smith, we are being formed towards some vision of life — then, when the Twitter voices pile on to either celebrate or condemn our actions, that formation process goes into hyper-drive. Our formation is amplified by the filter bubbles we belong to and their reinforcing interpretation of our embodied acts.

How are we meant to live, as Christians, when no public territory is religiously neutral? By being attentive, discerning, and acting with intent as people who belong to a different polis; the kingdom of God. As Smith puts it in his fancy phraseology: “our political engagement requires not dismissal or permission or celebration but rather the hard, messy work of discernment in order to foster both ad hoc resistance to its ultimate pretensions and ad hoc opportunities to collaborate on penultimate ends.” This is quite similar to what James Davison Hunter calls being a “faithful presence,” and is also the sort of leadership Edwin Friedman calls for in A Failure of Nerve, that of being a differentiated non-anxious presence in an increasingly anxious and fractious body politic. We’re to know who we are, such that we can resist being deformed or conformed to the patterns of this world, while seeking to be transformed, and to transform the world around us according to the picture of the kingdom of God revealed to us in Jesus.

Jonathan Isaac decided to not kneel, not because he rejects the idea that black lives matter, but so that he might make the case that racial justice won’t come through kneeling, or perhaps even politics, without the Gospel. His decision was an attempt to be a faithful presence, one differentiated from the world around him and its conforming patterns. In my piece unpacking his actions, celebrating them even, I hoped to qualify both that Christians can faithfully be present, kneeling even, in protest movements, and faithfully present in empires (think Daniel under Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon, and then under Darius, think Joseph in Egypt, think Erastus in Corinth). It wasn’t a problem for any of these individuals to contribute to the common good in an empire, despite the idolatry inherent in these empires, but there is a pressure that comes with this sort of presence; a pressure to bend the knee to idolatrous systems, rather than to king Jesus.

Sometimes this sort of faithful presence isn’t just about joining some sort of pre-existing empire, or political cause, Christians can even start, or lead, protest movements as expressions of our convictions about the nature of the kingdom of God, and the nature of beastly kingdoms set up in idolatrous opposition to Jesus. When Kaepernick first took a knee, the symbolic meaning of his refusal was clearly a repudiation of empire consistent with his faith. One of his (many) Christian tattoos features the words of Psalm 27:3, “Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear though war break out against me, even then I will be confident.” His taking a knee, surrounded not just by players, but an empire, that first saw this as an attack, was an act of courage, coming from convictions he owns as a follower of Jesus.

Both Kaepernick’s kneeling, and Isaac’s standing, were acts of faithful presence. Like the paradoxes in Proverbs in the Bible, where the wise person either answers a fool according to their folly, or does not, the vexing moral issue of our time is captured, in some form, in the question ‘to knee, or not to knee’?

Does one take a knee in solidarity with a brother who sees the idolatrous impact of empire on his people, who refuses to put the nation state — the empire — in the place of God?

Or does one stand, because at some point the act of kneeling has become synonymous with alternative forms of empire, and a religious social pressure just as opposed, ultimately, to the truth of the Gospel as that which it kneels against?

The key is that whatever you’re attempting to do as a faithful presence, your posture reveals a faith in Jesus as king, not in the alternatives; which will mean freedom to do either, and will require charity from within the body of Christ to be directed at those exercising wisdom and freedom in a different direction; not an attempt to eradicate our fellow Christians as repugnant others in a culture war.

This ethical conundrum became a little less clear cut when Kaepernick’s symbolic act was co-opted by two essentially religious groups. First by Nike, in order to sell more shoes through that insidious form of capitalism. This sort of capitalism is the kind where a multi-national company that has a history of using oppressed people to make shoes in the third world for peanuts, can simultaneously make a poster boy out of a member of an oppressed group who took a costly stance on racism to sell more shoes. It’s here that we might note that what often gets called ‘cultural marxism’ is really just another lever pulled by the capitalist machine to sell goods to a different audience, an idea you can dig into further in The Eucatastrophe’s episodes on cultural marxism. And second, when it was co-opted by people wielding essentially the same but reversed, political power against the (racist) empire as an expression of a culture war with a merchandising arm. Those campaigning against racism, and for the dignity of black lives, are certainly more aligned with God, as creator, and the kingdom of God, as the ideal, than those seeking to uphold white supremacy through systemic racism, but there’s an insidious idolatrous agenda, built on worldly power being applied without God in the picture, co-opting this kneeling campaigning, and twisting potential solutions to racism away from the truth, and towards the idolatrous status quo, just with different labels. Whether BLM or Nike, whether one kneels or stands, as in so much modern politicking, the forces of ‘the market’ are in the mix attempting to make more money through social and political posturing. One wonders who is making and selling the shirts that NBA players are wearing during the anthem…

Modern capitalism (surveillance capitalism or otherwise) is just like modern black-hat Russia in its manipulation of discord in western elections; it doesn’t matter which side wins, so long as the fight is happening in a destabilising way, if that happens, Russia wins. Modern capitalism is like the arms dealer in the culture war, selling polarising political-religious iconography to both sides, turning a buck, growing the market, conscripting us not to our political theology, but to Mammon. How dare Isaacs not wear the Black Lives Matter T-Shirt (he did still wear his Orlando Magic shirt, which you can buy in the gift shop for…). Mammon doesn’t care so long as you buy your political merch and wear it loudly in performance of your virtue; the louder and more obnoxiously the better, in order to promote an equal, but opposite, reaction (and more sales).

When the market turns activism into a way to make a buck or two, we should be doubly suspicious of its religiosity; these acts then serve the twin idols of our vision of the political good (our idealism, or empire), and the economic machine. Black Lives Matter is increasingly a monetised social media phenomenon with merch. Kaepernick’s kneeling became a Nike campaign putting “overt” into religious overtones.

Now, to not kneel, but to stand, is its own act of rebellion, or subversion, in the face of another conforming pattern of this world; and it’s unclear whether by standing one is upholding the idolatry of empire, rejecting the capitalisation of activism, rejecting an anti-racist political movement that is, itself, potentially idolatrous, or simply standing as an expression of faith in an alternative kingdom, with its king.

And here’s where Smith’s diagnosis of the modern ‘political field’ is useful; global capitalism means politics isn’t just about the government; it’s not just about a political empire, but also an economic one, our governments increasingly become pawns in an increasingly global idolatry; the worship of Mammon, and the church, or kingdom of God, stands in opposition to all these forces. Smith describes this, again this is from Awaiting The King:

“If the church is a “public” that stands, in some sense, counter to the pretensions of the earthly polis, we can’t narrowly mistake this as a critique targeted only at the state because, in the current configuration of globalized capitalism, the state has in many ways been trumped by the forces of the market and society. Wannenwetsch points out that in Western societies—and globalized societies more and more—the economy functions as a “structure-building force” that shapes everything. The market now constitutes “the inner logic” of society itself: the dynamics of society are “moulded by the laws of the market: as a contest between participants competing for an increase of their shares.” This coupling of market forces and the crowd’s demand for publicity means that everyone dreams of monetizing their Instagram feed. And that effectively becomes the ethos of a society.”

This ethos is on display in a protest movement that is essentially performed for photo opps, and that arose from social media activism, using a hashtag. How can we possibly know if every knee publicly bent is a knee privately committed, as part of a body, to the renewal of society around the issue of race. How many knees bent in public, and knees belonging to people whose behaviours and ideologies in private, or out of the camera’s gaze, are given to maintaining the status quo? Isaacs was right to emphasise the need not just for a change of actions, but of hearts.

How one decides what to do when such pressure is applied, and the stakes so high, is an interesting shibboleth test for life in the modern world. Navigating this sort of climate, where nobody is prepared to give an inch in the culture war, but all acts are interpreted through a hyper-political lens, is almost impossible, and certainly crippling. The key for us Christians is to use our bodies in ways that align with our story — our understanding of their God-given and redeemed purpose; our trajectory, or, as Smith puts it, our ‘teleology,’ which “is an eschatology: a hope for kingdom come that arrives by the grace of providence and doesn’t arrive without the return of the risen King. And this changes everything. A teleology that is at once an eschatology will be countercultural to every political pretension that assumes either a Whiggish confidence in human ingenuity and progress or alarmist counsels of despair. But precisely because Christian eschatology is a teleology of hope, it will also run counter to cynical political ideologies of despair that reduce our common life to machinations of power and domination. Furthermore, a Christian political theology attuned to eschatology will run counter to a kind of postmillennial progressivism to which the so-called justice generation sometimes seems prone…”

Any action, or story, that does not share this teleology or eschatology is essentially idolatrous, which isn’t to say we can’t participate in public alongside people who do not share our worship of Jesus, but simply that we should be careful that the use of our bodies is aligned to the truth, not to truncated visions of what it means to be human, and how to solve the problems we’re confronted with in a world marred by sin.

So, Christian. Kneel in the protest movement against racism, or stand against solutions to racism that don’t include king Jesus. Do so as a faithful expression of obedience to your Lord Jesus. There’s freedom here, and this is a course that requires wisdom — but don’t be so co-opted by worldly agendas whether of ‘political empire’ or ‘economic empire’ (and really, these are just two sides of ‘Babylon’) that you lose sight of what is ultimate. Don’t crucify your brothers and sisters for choosing a political action that is different to yours, but celebrate when ambassadors for Jesus are able to be a faithful presence in any community, pursuing the goodness, truth and beauty of the kingdom.

Because remember, ultimately, there is no choice about bowing the knee; we’re all going to take a knee as we participate in various non-ultimate realities here and now, and those realities are going to be religiously motivated economies, like Egypt, Babylon, and Rome were, but every knee will one day bow to Jesus. And it’s his kingdom that counts, and his rule that offers a solution to the problems of sin, including racism. This is part of that ‘eschatology’ — that future hope — that Smith talks about, a future secured through the death, resurrection, ascension, and future return of Jesus:

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,

    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father. — Philippians 2:9-11

As you choose who or what to bend your knee to now, bend it to him. It’s good training.

Out. Standing

I’m so on the record as thinking Christians can say “black lives matter,” or tweet “#blacklivesmatter,” without being a “cultural marxist” or complicit in everything that Black Lives Matter TM might stand for (according to the about page on their website) that I’m not sure this post needs a disclaimer; David Ould even mentioned me in his dispatches (while he was arguing that Christians should not ‘take a knee’ in the face of pressure to do so).

But I think Christians can, and should, reject systemic racism, the patriarchy, and all other forms of sin that have become so entrenched in the cultures and practices of the west that they have become the status quo; just as a Christian in China should reject systemic sin in China, and a Christian in ancient Rome was called to do the same.

Racism is entrenched in the United States; and in Australia. Systemically.

Black lives matter. There. Here. Everywhere. And yeah, black lives matter because all lives matter, but all lives will only matter when black lives do…

I’m also, I hope, on the record enough as a contrarian who doesn’t like groupthink, or cancellation, or the way people get conscripted into popular ideologies (or systems) that are just other forms of ‘systemic’ sin; the sort of tit-for-tat we see in the culture war, that you’ll understand why some part of this image, though it might be used to undermine the narrative about systemic racism as a deep social ill, resonated with me.

One thing idols do is ask us to ‘bow the knee’ — one of the Greek words we get translated as ‘worship’ in the New Testament is ‘proskuneo’ it’s this idea of ‘falling before’ the object of our reverence; there is something deeply religious about ‘taking a knee’ — and for Christians, if you’re going to ‘take a knee’ to affirm that black lives matter, it’s, I think, important to demonstrate that you’re doing so not out of worship for some worldly god or thing (an idol), but as an expression of your obedience to Jesus, and as an opportunity to listen to and love those around you as an ambassador for Christ. Of course I think that’s both possible and necessary, and that Christians should enter the contest for words and terms and fill out their meaning with the truth of the Gospel; black lives matter because black lives are human lives; and humans are made to reflect the image of God. God loves black lives. Jesus (not white, sorry Eric Metaxas) died for black people. Our use of terminologies, and our involvement in protest movements can be a testimony to the Lordship of Jesus, to the nature of his kingdom, and a way to build a bridge so that others might meet Jesus through our faithful presence in their lives and movements too.

Some have argued that Black Lives Matter is simply another insidious outworking of cultural marxism, classic marxism, some other descriptor mashed into marxism, or just the dastardly left; as though one can’t be faithfully Christian and present in the communities and movements on the left. They are wrong. Both about cultural marxism being a thing, about Christianity being some sort of polar opposite of the left (and so the right). Black Lives MatterTM certainly uses the language of intersectional oppression on its website, and one can decide for one’s self how far to recognise patterns of oppression in the west, and how much those tend to be driven by people who are white, and male (and then heterosexual, and Cis-gendered). Those debates are for another time (or other posts in my archive).

Yet. Some part of the subversive nature of Christianity, and the crucified Lord who would not deny his identity on trial before Pilate, finds its origin story in the story of Daniel, where Daniel’s friends would not take a knee to Nebuchadnezzar and his giant golden statue, and where Daniel would not ‘take a knee’ and pray to the emperor Darius as god. The world is full of powers and movements and idols that call for our worship; and where we demonstrate that worship with our posture.

Jonathan Isaac is an NBA player for the Orlando Magic. He’s an ordained pastor. When his team mates took a knee this week; he stood.

Not because he doesn’t believe “black lives matter” (he says they do in his interview clarifying his stance). He stood as a matter of conscience, and from a position he derived from his faith. When CNN tried to unpack his position, featuring his own words, Isaac, like Daniel, pointed to a greater source of support for Black lives; the object of his worship.

“The television broadcast showed Isaac, who is Black, standing as players and coaches from both teams, as well as referees, took a knee during the playing of the National Anthem. The 22-year-old forward was also the only player seen not wearing a “Black Lives Matter” shirt.

Isaac can be seen wearing his Magic game jersey instead.

He explained his position on Friday ahead of the game versus the Brooklyn Nets, saying that he doesn’t think “putting that shirt on and kneeling went hand-in-hand with supporting Black lives.

“For me Black lives are supported through the gospel. All lives are supported through the gospel,” he said. “We all have things that we do wrong and sometimes it gets to a place that we’re pointing fingers at who’s wrong is worst. Or who’s wrong is seen, so I feel like the Bible tells us that we all fall short of God’s glory. That will help bring us closer together and get past skin color. And get past anything that’s on the surface and doesn’t really get into the hearts or men and women.

“Black lives are supported through the Gospel.”

In the Foxsports report of the same answer Isaac gave to the question about his stance, he’s quoted as saying:

“For myself, my life has been supported through the gospel, Jesus Christ and everyone is made in the image of God.”

You can watch his inquisition interview here.

It’s bold, gracious, and kinda beautiful. He certainly wouldn’t have had the opportunity to so boldly proclaim his rationale for believing that black lives matter without daring to be different and subversive; while not bowing the knee.

It’s an incredible interview.

Now. I’d have some quibbles with the sort of implication that suggests God wants us to get past skin colour, rather than see his glory reflected in the faithful lives of all those who are gathered by Jesus from every tribe, tongue, and nation as people made in the image of God, and restored to that glorious purpose in Jesus.

I think he’s bang on about the individual implications of the Gospel, and the need for forgiveness of sins, and I’d simply go further and suggest that the Gospel is the answer to the systemic implications of the Gospel, in that in Jesus we have a king who creates a kingdom where barriers that divide are removed, and replaced with the unity brought through the cross, the resurrection and the indwelling of the Spirit in the lives of believers.

I’d want to suggest that ethnicity and diversity are God given realities to celebrate, and that our bodies are intrinsic to who we are; that colourblindness isn’t the goal, so much as seeing each other truly through eyes opened by God. And I probably am happy to affirm his statement and support #BlackLivesMatter as a protest movement (which isn’t to say I think Black Lives MatterTM is the same as either the movement or the statement).

But wow.

What a confounding, subversive, interview. Challenging a new orthodoxy so much that the reporters covering his actions were struggling to understand how he could be so different.

With the whole league, players, officials, lock stock and barrel taking steps to support Black Lives Matter as the NBA resumes, Isaac’s stance is likely to be costly (he’s copping incredulity on Twitter). Not Israel Folau level costly, probably, (and if you’re wondering if there’s some sort of double standard at play here, I thought Folau was brave, and badly misrepresenting Christianity. I had no issue with his taking a stance for his own beliefs, just his beliefs), but costly.

I’ll stand up for him.

On #BlackLivesMatter, colour blindness, centering, and Aboriginal deaths in custody

I’m still learning lots about Australia’s racism problem.

You see, I’m white, I haven’t experienced racism, either overtly, or through my interactions with the structures and institutions that form part of Australian society — and even within the structures of the Australian church.

I’ve had position, and forms of power, given to me through my education, my employment, and my family’s relative prosperity, secured through generations of free education, inherited wealth and social capital, and through my own efforts in securing an education — primary, secondary, tertiary, and post graduate. I am an ordained member of an institutional church in Australia that requires people in my position to have a certain amount of privilege; the type that enables access to and success in an academic context. My denomination only affords this particular positional privilege to men. Its structures are rigid and built on tradition, as well as doctrine. One doesn’t have to be white to be a Presbyterian minister, in fact there are many non-white ministers and elders in our denomination, but it sure seems to help. One does have to be educated, and adhere to certain social and cultural norms. It’s hard for one to not conform to the parts of our culture that look pretty institutionalised and based on credentials that require a certain sort of privilege; the sort that often seems to limit the pool drawn from (you know, like judges and other positions draw from the same milieu, but also the same schools and suburbs).

It’s easy for people in our particular context, where once one has a platform, and so a voice, one assumes a degree of being there by merit, or calling, to assume there’s a sort of ‘colour blindness’ that should mark our interactions within this institution, and then to extrapolate that as a norm we’d like to see in a sort of post-racial society.

We might even project colourblindness on to God; arguing that this is the default way we’re called to see and treat one another, because in Christ there is no Jew or Gentile; we are all one in Christ Jesus. And yet, our oneness in Christ Jesus does not eradicate our difference — it’s a paradox, or tension, we are called to hold that is held up as part of the Bible’s own vision of the kingdom of God.

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.” — Revelation 7:9

The Gospel of Jesus and our union with him does not eradicate distinction and difference, it unifies us across difference in our created purpose — loving God and enjoying him forever.

Today the Australian Christian Lobby’s Martyn Iles made two mistakes in this area; one, suggesting that God is colour blind, the second, suggesting that because the organisation registered as BlackLivesMatter has a radical vision for the end of oppressive structures that might go beyond a Christian desire to see such structures (like family) redeemed and reconciled in Christ, that all use of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag supports the boogeyman of marxism. His post fundamentally commits a kind of reverse ‘genetic fallacy’ in that it links a hashtag that emerged on Twitter, with an organisation that developed around the hashtag and the conversation it linked. Hashtags on social media are a way of participating in linked conversations in a democratised way; and these links can give rise to different movements; but to use a hashtag is to participate in a conversation, and to affirm a truth, it is not to affirm a movement, or an organisation.

I am actually colour blind. Red-green. Just, not on issues of race. A few years ago I was invited by Common Grace and Aunty Jean Phillips to speak at a seminar in Brisbane, and there I repented of the idea that to be a follower of Jesus is a call to be colour blind on issues of race. You can read the talk, which drew on the super-powered Mantis Shrimp, an animal that sees a much greater spectrum of colour than I do, to suggest that we are more aligned with God, and the kingdom re-imaged and re-imagined by Jesus, when we see colour (and ethnicity) than when we pretend not to. But here’s a passage from it…

“I want to confess.. For a while I did believe that when it came to issues of race in Australia — colour blindness was my super power. I grew up in a small town in northern NSW and had plenty of Indigenous classmates — friends — even. I’ve always been convinced of the full equality of our first nation’s people. I was so proud of myself that I told myself I don’t see colour… I think this is symptomatic of a view of race issues in Australia that focuses on the responsibility of the individual to not be racist in the way we think of or speak about others; we can tell ourselves ‘I’m not racist because I have Aboriginal friends.’

And then I realised that’s a massively limiting decision in terms of what sort of change might be required in our nation — an imagination limiting decision… and a limited view of what is actually wrong with the world when it comes to race — the systemic side of life; and that I’m blind to the experiences of that system. So I had to try to get past this colour blindness; and to some extent that’s the journey I’m still on today.

If we Christians collectively want to free our imaginations and to be able to work for real change in our nation as people with renewed imagination, who are perhaps able to discover something ‘super human’ — we need to be to be more like the mantis and less like colour blind me.”

In my ongoing process of confessing, and listening, and learning, I’ve continued to journey with Aunty Jean Phillips, and with Brooke Prentis, who is now the CEO of Common Grace; Aboriginal Christian leaders who have worked hard to draw the Australian church’s attention to racism at work in our nation and in our churches.

I find myself facing a dilemma now, because the more I listen and learn, the more aware I am of the privilege afforded to me; as one occupying a position ‘at the centre’ of power and influence in my denomination, with some platform in the wider church (because apparently some people read stuff). I enjoyed one of my institutional colleagues’ reflections on white privilege on Eternity News a couple of days ago, James Snare wrote:

“What I’m suggesting is that the ethical imperatives of Christ, the growing awareness of my own privilege and seeing the consequences of not addressing racism and sexism in culture – and in the church – has led me to believe that people like me can’t let our privilege go unused for others any longer.”

I feel similarly. And yet I’m increasingly aware of the challenges facing people like me, with platforms, occupying positions close to the centre, that speaking up, even attempting to use one’s privilege for the sake of others, can be a form of what is now being called ‘centering’ — it can be a tool that people like me, at the centre, use to keep ourselves at the centre beyond an awakening. We can, in exercising our voices, continue to de-centre the voices of others. I’m aware of how tempted I am to speak up before listening, and how much that speech, even well intended, can be hurtful. I’m also aware that black Christian friends are often commodified as a sort of ‘resource’ in times like this; those we turn to only when it’s convenient and we feel there’s mileage to be made in centering activities; or those we only reach out to when it’s popular to do so.

It’s a fraught space to step into, especially if it is perceived as coming at the cost of those from the margins who have had to work for a platform, or to be listened to, in ways I can’t imagine — whether they are women, or from minorities, or in this particular case, women who are Aboriginal Christian leaders; those whose counsel I’ve sought, who have taught me as I’ve been on the journey with them.

Last week Aunty Jean Phillips phoned me about a rally being held in Brisbane over the weekend; a rally reported as a #BlackLivesMatter rally. She told me she would be attending, and she wanted to draw it to my attention. I didn’t go, partly as a result of my privilege — where I was still trying to decide on the efficacy of rallies, partly because life with small kids, in ministry, in this weird semi-lockdown age is confusing enough, life in ministry is challenging in this season, and for a whole bunch of other reasons that as I spoke to my friend Brooke today, just sounded a whole lot like the excuses I can make as a result of privilege, and only being indirectly effected by structural racism, and by Aboriginal deaths in custody. I admit that another large reason for not attending, for me, on Saturday, is that I think practicing social distancing is still the right thing to do; which is why I’m also not campaigning for restrictions to be lifted faster when it comes to church gatherings. And yet, Aunty Jean went. She’s in two significant risk categories. But how could she not? How can I not?

What I did promise Aunty Jean is that I was working on a letter about Aboriginal deaths in custody; following the urging of Brooke on the Common Grace website (there’s even a template). Brooke has been asking Australian Christians to pay attention to Aboriginal deaths in custody for years now. I’ve been to several #ChangeTheHeart services around January 26 where this is one of the key calls for prayer and action, alongside other initiatives that might close the gap. Brooke consistently urges us to listen, to learn three stories of Aboriginal Australians who have died in custody. This sort of listening is an act of de-centering; so to is acknowledging that listening is something you have been led to by those leaders who have been speaking up against racism in society and the church for years.

So I’m hesitantly offering this letter that I sent as an act of using my privilege for the sake of others, but also as an act of being on the journey with Aboriginal Christians; of listening, of seeking to not put my voice at the centre but to amplify others. Because Black lives do matter, and Australia still has structural issues that are the ongoing result of a time where nobody even paid lip service to that idea. We can’t jump from there to being colour blind; repentance and reconciliation are a process where we do have to examine the institutions, laws, cultural expectations, and practices — and the results they produce — that are the fruits of racism, whether that examination is in the church or society at large, and we must keep committing ourselves to reforming these structures.

I produced this letter because I told Aunty Jean I would, and I wrote it in consultation with Brooke — having asked her first if she, as an Aboriginal Christian Leader, was happy for me to not use the template (she was, so long as it rightly acknowledged a connection to a request from Common Grace, in connection to hearing first nations voices), and if she was happy to give advice as a first nations person — which she is, because to blunder in without such advice perpetuates a marginalisation of Aboriginal voices, and because part of ‘being on the journey’ together is a commitment to relationship and listening, and she gave me great advice on non-centering — particularly that always acknowledging those who have taught you is a good way of not making yourself the centre of attention.

Having witnessed, on Twitter, occasions where transgressions around centering behaviour and feeling the weight of the dilemma, I am thankful for the way that Christian leaders, powered by the Gospel, practice forgiveness around the bumbling efforts of privileged white blokes like me to escape the blinkers of colour blindness and privilege. Brooke and Aunty Jean are both consistently gracious in their responses to me, and others, in a way that without the unity we share in Jesus would be, evidently from Twitter, much more difficult. As Aunty Jean often says, there is no hope for reconciliation or a different Australia around these areas without the cross of Jesus.

Before you read my letter, can I encourage you to do six things:

  1. Commit yourself to listening to Aboriginal Christian leaders, not just privileged white blokes like me and Martyn Iles. There are good resources on the Common Grace website.
  2. Learn the stories of three Aboriginal deaths in custody — like Brooke has been urging us to for years. Here’s a starter on the issue.
  3. Write your own letter, using the template as a starting point, and ask for help from Brooke at Common Grace — join the journey (before you ask, Brooke has put plenty of resources for you to read on the website over the years. Read them first).
  4. Follow the example and call of Brooke, and Aunty Jean, and pray for our nation in this area.
  5. Don’t make this an issue of culture war/social justice ‘woke Christians’ v conservatives; make it an issue of seeking to learn our nation’s history and seeing the ongoing effects of that history, and committing yourself to act as someone shaped not by our nation’s story, but by the Gospel.
  6. Consider donating to the Common Grace 20 for Twenty campaign to employ an Aboriginal Christian Leader to work in this space.

To the Hon Mark Ryan MP, Minister for Police, Fire, and Emergency Services, and Corrective Services,

CC: The Hon Craig Crawford MP, Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships, The Hon Daniel Purdie MP, Shadow Minister for Police and Counter-Terrorism, and Corrective Services, the Hon Christian Rowan MP, the Shadow Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships

My name is Nathan Campbell. I live in Upper Mount Gravatt, in the Bonner Electorate. I am an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church of Queensland, and my parish meets in Annerley, in the Moreton electorate. My parishioners come from across the greater Brisbane area.

For a few years now I have been “on the journey” with Aboriginal Christian Leader, Aunty Jean Phillips — that’s what she calls it when white blokes like me are prepared to sit with her and to listen. Her generosity in thanking me for being “on the journey” as I listen blows my mind, because I feel like I am powerless to change much at all when it comes to structural inequality and its experience here in Australia. I often feel like I’m doing nothing. Common Grace, a movement led by CEO and Aboriginal Christian Leader Brooke Prentis has invited Christians to speak up, particularly about Aboriginal deaths in custody.

As a Christian I believe that each human, regardless of tribe, tongue, or nation, is made in the image of God; that our lives should reflect his goodness and love in the world, but also that each person has a dignity bestowed upon them by something beyond the self. This dignity cannot be taken away — but we humans can be good at not seeing it in ourselves, or in others. For too long, our western society has claimed to be developed from this idea that each person has inherent dignity, that each person is created equal, while not considering how an inter-generational failure to recognise that dignity in the other has become embedded in our structures, and in the experience of those at the margins of our society.

In recent weeks, as we marked Reconciliation Week, and witnessed the Black Lives Matter rallies around the world, we have all been reminded that one way this failure to recognise dignity, equality, and even the humanity of our first nations peoples manifests is in the ‘gap’ that is yet to be closed here in our country. We have also been reminded about the supreme goodness and necessity of genuine reconciliation, and our desire for it — another bedrock of any society that has been influenced by the Christian message of repentance, forgiveness, and new life together built on love. We are in need of deep, structural, repentance in Australia; in need of turning from an old way to something new, and we must, as we make these changes seek reconciliation with, and forgiveness from those we continue to wrong, our First Nations peoples.

While the Black Lives Matters movement gained momentum because of George Floyd’s death at the hands of the police; the arms of government; we have our own very similar issues here in Australia. Aboriginal deaths in custody.

In 1991 a Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody that began in 1987 delivered its findings on 99 Aboriginal deaths in custody. 99 Australian Australian ‘George Floyds,’ with their own names, and stories. Since the Commission handed down its findings there have been hundreds more Aboriginal deaths in custody; many harrowingly similar to George Floyd’s death. Brooke Prentis and Aunty Jean Phillips challenged those on the journey to reconciliation with them to learn just three names and stories of first nations people who have died in custody. I wonder if you might be able to name three? Or whether you might learn three stories?

So I remember Trevor King, a 39 year old man from Townsville, who couldn’t breathe after officers spear tackled him into the ground, whose wife had called police because Trevor was talking about self-harm. Who died in the ambulance police called in 2018.

I remember Shaun Charles Coolwell, a 33 year old from Kingston, who, during his arrest was pinned, handcuffed, and injected with a sedative, before he had breathing problems. He died in hospital a few hours after his arrest in 2015.

I remember NRR, a 37 year old from Cairns, who was pinned to the ground by six neighbours after a violent altercation, and restrained face down with zip ties. By the time police arrived the Coroner’s Report says that Mr Reading was unconscious, and no longer a threat, however police handcuffed him and shortly afterwards his breathing stopped, he was unable to be resuscitated.

The idea of custody is an interesting one; that those who were the traditional custodians of our land, responsible for stewarding this part of God’s good creation are dying in what should be our nation’s care is a profound problem that should lead us to consider, for example, whether our police should be a “force” or a “service.” The Royal Commission’s report in 1991 made many recommendations that have not yet been implemented, including many that would have resulted in a different approach to policing in these three stories; recommendations about the decriminalisation of public drunkenness (recommendation 79), and of arrest being a last resort in situations like the ones in these stories (recommendation 87a). The report also recommends that officers should receive training that involves listening to Aboriginal people in “appropriate training and development program, designed to explain contemporary Aboriginal society, customs and traditions. Such programs should emphasise the historical and social factors which contribute to the disadvantaged position of many Aboriginal people today and to the nature of relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities today. The Commission further recommends that such persons should wherever possible participate in discussion with members of the Aboriginal community in an informal way in order to improve cross-cultural understanding” (Recommendation 96).

As the Minister for both the Police, and Corrective Services departments here in Queensland, I urge you to consider the urgent adoption of these recommendations. There have been 28 Aboriginal deaths in custody in Queensland since 2008, many in situations paralleling George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. Implementing many of these recommendations would require the sort of partnership between states, territories, parties, and the Federal government that we have seen displayed in the recent efforts to combat Covid-19 here in Australia; we now know such action in response to a health crisis is possible, and so I call on you to exercise the same leadership of our nation in this area by listening to the voices of First Nations people, and the Royal Commission, and ensuring we do not see another George Floyd, or TK, or Shaun Charles Coolwell, or NRR, here in Queensland.

I would love a reply to my letter outlining how the Government intends to reduce Aboriginal deaths in custody, and where it stands in the ongoing process of implementing the recommendations of a Royal Commission that concluded 29 years ago.

I will continue to uphold you and other members of the Queensland Parliament in prayer as you seek to lead us in listening and seeking reconciliation with our First Nations people. I would be happy to arrange contact with Aunty Jean Phillips and Brooke Prentis should you wish to join us on the journey.

Yours Faithfully,

Rev. Nathan Campbell

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