Book Review: Healing the divides

Healing the Divides is such a good and important book, that I’m not really going to review it, merely praise it.

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Healing the Divides: How every Christian can advance God’s vision for racial unity and justice (A biblical perspective on race and how Christians and churches should respond)

Jason Roach and Jessamin Birchall

London: The Good Book Company, 2022

(The rabbis) used to say that God had collected the dust for the human body from all the lands of the earth. Though the image is strange, a true and beautiful thought is expressed in it.

Herman Bavink

Healing the Divides is such a good and important book, that I’m not really going to review it, merely praise it. 

In a review I’d try to be dispassionate, careful, balanced.  I don’t care. If you’re a British Christian, an evangelical church leader (and especially if you are white, like me), you must read, and attend.

Jason Roach is an ordained Anglican, a church leader who was previously a medic, now working as Director of Ministries for London City Mission. He is Black British, born in London to parents who came from Barbados. He is intelligent and able – and I know this, not only because of the quality of this book, but because I count him a friend. Jessamin Birdsall is a white American, born in Japan, with a Princeton PhD in Sociology, and who is currently based at L’Abri.  They have co-written Healing the Divides, which contains frequent autobiographical reflections.

Let me give you seven reasons why Healing the Divides is so good. Apart from it being short, contemporary, easy to read, and profoundly biblical.

First, it is principally UK in focus.  To state the obvious, much of the current rhetoric, argument, and stories which claim the public space on the issue of race are US in origin. Most visibly at the moment, the background is still the ongoing aftershock of the murder of George Floyd.  And that complicates matters for me, as a Brit.  There are patterns, laws, stories, and practices, in that violence which are distant from me. There are heroes and villains who are unfamiliar.

And, in the wake of it, there are explanations and excuses which do not resonate with me. 

Which –  as Jason Roach and Jessamin Birdsall alert us to – is dangerous.

Because, if I think ‘we don’t have that  problem over here’, that’s dangerously close to, ‘we don’t have any problem over here.’ 

A quick Google search should straighten you out on that one. That violence may be distant, but it is unmissable that racism is a clear and current reality in 2022, in the city where I live.  There are differences with the US in history, culture, education, civility, polity, urban planning, and law – which means racism takes different forms, but it’s undeniably an ugly lived reality for many, and violently so for some.

And those differences will mean that some aspects of racism are worse in the UK than they are in the US.

It is to Jason’s credit that he is forensically honest with that, and the fact that I would count him as a respected friend makes me feel – rightly – very uncomfortable. 

Secondly, although this book is brief, it is careful and nuanced.  I have read books on racism which have made me disagree with their biblical exegesis – not this one; it is hard-hitting, and faithful.  

Let me go further.  White people like me have learnt to evade the challenges of addressing racist attitudes, by going on the offensive.  We dismantle the theological agenda of ‘Black Lives Matter’, ‘Intersectionality’, ‘Cultural Marxism’, and by showing how ‘wrong’ ‘they’ are, think we’ve done away with the issue.

Not so much.

Roach and Birdsall have some simple but elegant tables, which provide more granularity.  Take BLM, which is undoubtedly a political movement with an agenda.  Well, they say, are we hearing BLM as a cry of pain, as a political creed, or as a philosophical concept?  Answer, all three, surely  – but if I only pay attention to the second and third, and engage with BLM in that level, I really haven’t heard what is going on for my sisters and brothers.

I need to hear BLM as a cry of pain at injustice.

They have a similar disambiguation with Critical Race Theory.

I found all that really helpful – in practice, because it makes it harder for me to duck and hide.  

Another example. Birdsall’s authorship means we need to bring Japan into the equation, which is also incredibly thought provoking.  It means we have to operate on a much broader set of descriptions than a simple  ‘black/white’ polarity. My hunch is that we reach for that polarity because the American context, with its background in slavery (thereby implicating the British slave trade), is the default explanatory tool.  But we need to invite other people into the conversation, too.  I’m deliberately not going to give names because I haven’t asked their permission, but my Christian friends who live in the UK and are first generation immigrants from China, or Japan, or India, or Spain – have they experienced racism here, even though they may not call themselves black? Oh, yes.  

Let me push further. One quick reaction to Black Lives Matter was to say in a rather aloof way, ‘actually all lives matter’ – which of course is generally true, but misses the pain. Arguably, by design. Instead, a rich biblical doctrine of humanity insists we assert two truths at the same time: one is that humankind is made, both individually and racially, as the image of God. Our wonderful diversity-in-unity is a gift from a splendidly generous triune God. Simultaneously though, the Fall has smeared and smashed every element of that image – not beyond recognition, but beyond our human repair. Persistently some image bearers deface the image of other image bearers. Hating God, we hate those made in his image. We whip, enslave, bomb, lynch, demean, deny, and gas.

Hence it is necessary for Christians to articulate not simply the universal truth (‘all lives matter’) but the particular pains in the present: Black Lives Matter, unborn lives matter, Jewish lives matter, Palestinian lives matter. We need both the generality (because we are one human race) and the particularity – and to articulate the pain of one does not deny the pain of any other.

I’m so grateful for this book allowing us to open the door.

Third, it is honest.  Jason’s experience of being on the receiving end of racism in my city, among people whom I maybe know, makes me stop, and silences me.  I know that stories are powerful as rhetoric, and that it’s hard to argue against them because they are emotionally engaging, but – friends –  park your cynicism.  This is our brother, (my brother and friend), being open and telling us the truth about ourselves (me).  

Because this is not just about racism experienced by members of church. This racism in, at, and from church.

The strength of this book is that it comes from so close to home.

Fourth, it is linguistic. I can’t get the right word for this (which is ironic!), but the book gives me the language that I can use, without being patronising, inept, offensive, or out of date. For instance, I described Jason as ‘Black British’ – which is his own self description.  So I don’t need to mumble or feel awkward about using the phrase.  I am informed, equipped, liberated (and constrained) by the many words this book gives me – permission is given and trust is extended, and I need to build on that. And engage.

Fifth, it is uncomfortable reading. Let’s talk about privilege – and this is going to be a bit longer.

I don’t usually count myself as an especially privileged person.  My parents were a car salesman and a dental receptionist, and I went to local state schools, Edinburgh University, and to Durham for ministry training.  I’m not exactly posh, public school, and Oxbridge. On that scale of things, I’m pretty ordinary. 

But that scale of things is weird – and look at the scale of privilege I am on.  Most Brits did not have the incredible educational chances I had, the contacts I made on the way through, or the invitation to cultural openness. On the way, doors were opened for us, and connections made.  It’s what’s called ‘social capital.’  My classmates have gone on to senior roles in healthcare, education, the arts – and three of us are pastors. It’s why I’m on first name terms with our MP, and I don’t think that’s odd.

It’s that easy assumption which is the privilege of a pretty ordinary bloke.

Now, before we go on, let’s parse ‘privilege.’  Some kinds of privilege are just the luck of the draw, with no blame.  I’ve grown up without my country being invaded, in the presence of antibiotics, and under the rule of law.  Growing up in London, in the 60s and 70s, I can’t remember in an entirely white friendship circle. Few of my ancestors had even one of those privileges, and around the world, many people still don’t.

The fact that I enjoy those privileges isn’t necessarily either the cause or the consequence of others not having them.  There isn’t a limited supply of the rule of law, for instance.  Nor is there a fixed amount of aggression which needs to happen somewhere.

Some privilege is limited, though.  Take that education.  State school, yes, but in what is called a Grammar School – that is, we got in by competitive examination.  The fact that I was there meant that someone else wasn’t.  I squeaked in, but someone else was pipped at the post. Ditto University – limited places available, and so it was the first across the line that got in.  Was it for the rich?  No – in fact, in those days the government paid the fees and gave me a hefty grant precisely because we weren’t that well-off – but it was still zero-sum game.  

Now, being white in C21 Britain has its own penumbra of privilege.  I don’t mean the legacy of empire – my family doesn’t have a stash of loot and lumber tucked away, and – as far as we can tell – none of our principal forbears were directly implicated in the slave trade (indirectly, of course – I’m a Brit).

There are some stories that Jason tells –  and that others of my friends tell – which I don’t have a counterpart to.

I mean, that there are some stories that Jason tells –  and that others of my friends tell – which I don’t have a counterpart to.

  • I’ve never been held up by the police, because I’m a white man, out on my own, late at night or early in the morning.
  • I’ve never had my colour be the first thing that people notice about me.
  • I’ve never had to wonder if I’m only in the room to make up the numbers, or to make someone else look good.
  • I’ve never had to teach my sons what do if their car is stopped.

That is privilege. If you’re white, too, you have shared those privileges too.

The good news has to be that the kind of justice and rebalancing we need isn’t of the limited kind.  Meaning, I don’t want there to be more injustice against white people, so that there can be less against black people.  We all know we don’t need that.

If you’re not white, you’re allowed to be irritated with me for being so slow. No, not irritated, cross. No, angry.  And you’re right, you don’t need my permission. You’re angry, and who am I to even speak in anger’s presence.

Bless you, Jason, for your patience. This book is such a gently worded rebuke.

But I cannot any longer deny that I’m privileged.

Sixth, this book is a modest, calm, but direct call to action. The authors really do believe that the gospel is the answer to this mess, and therefore that the local church should be the place where these conversations should be happening, the relationships rebuilt, and honesty and love being modelled. The only place? I hope not.  Christians need to be out in the public square, repenting, speaking, challenging, thinking, laughing, and creating, together.  We need to show a watching world that we can come to terms with our past, together, repent and forgive, together, make reparation, together, and forge new societies, together, on the gospel.

But we need to do it in reality, in our gospel communities.

Seventh, therefore, I must hear that call, and act. I cannot assume that the challenge of promoting good racial relationships in the local church is someone else’s responsibility.  I cannot leave the commenting on (yet another) injustice to a black church leader. It is not the victim’s responsibility to end the oppression.

At the risk of virtue signalling, if the gospel produces racial unity (which it does – it’s the second fruit after union with God), then I as a gospel pastor must embed that in the lived reality of the church I am accountable for. If you’d like to see one stumbling attempt, see my response to our church, to George Floyd’s murder.

How?  I don’t know.  I need to listen. But we must. And then we must act.

You can buy Healing the Divides here.

I’d love to know what you think; please pile in.

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4 comments on “Book Review: Healing the divides”

  1. Thanks Chris as ever for a thorought and honest engagement with the book. Buying my copy now!

  2. Thanks for this. I heard Jason speak on this at Keswick a couple of years ago and he was excellent.

    One observation and I’m not quite sure what it means, but as a white man working in northern mill towns for the last 13 years, when I read the section on privilege I went through your bullet points and realised that I have had those sort of experiences really quite a lot. The relationship with the police is different, but it is complicated and I have had to care for and teach my children in particular ways. Certainly my colour has frequently been the first thing noticed about me, and I have often been there to make up the numbers!

    I’m not denying my privilege, nor the experience of others of course. I suppose I’ve spent a few years seeing some of the complexity.

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