Memories of racism
Memories matter. This month marks the 50th anniversary of Enoch Powell’s speech in 1968 which caused a storm by publicising and promoting fears of immigration. The 22nd June this year will be the 70th anniversary of the landing of HMS Empire Windrush bringing 492 people from Jamaica, to make a new life in Britain.
The passengers on the Windrush were the first of the many who were recruited, from the West Indies and the Indian subcontinent, as workers to help rebuild the UK economy after WW2. Now the plight of some who cannot prove their (or their parents’) date of entry to the UK (and therefore their right to remain) has hit the news headlines. This is made worse by the strange and politically sensitive decision in 2009-10 to destroy the landing cards of ‘the Windrush generation’ which would now be vital evidence.
Much has been written and said on these anniversaries and related issues, but how do we as Christians remember these events?
Some of the memories are painful
- the misunderstandings and hostility faced by Black and Asian immigrants in the first generation, even in many churches
- the fear of “the stranger” felt by many White Britons,
- the changes and confusions in Government policy.
Some memories are positive
- the new lives enjoyed by those leaving poverty behind,
- the general increase in mutual understanding
- increases in economic activity and wealth, and
- above all the gradual steps towards inclusion and celebration of diversity.
In All Nations, we are blessed to have many members from Caribbean and Indian backgrounds along with White British and people from Africa, China and many other places, worshipping and growing in friendship together. We are experiencing some of what Jesus prayed for - “that they may be one” (John 17) - one in heart and united by the Spirit even though expressing and enjoying the different backgrounds and cultures.
The world seems very different from 1968, when the Race Relations Act was passed, outlawing some forms of discrimination for the first time, despite the vocal opposition of Enoch Powell (who was then the MP representing Wolverhampton SW). He argued it would stop people integrating into a British way of life. He wanted those coming into the country to change their ways and become just like the White British majority.
Wolverhampton now seems - on the whole - a genuinely integrated community where differences are celebrated, not squashed. It seems that the world is so different and in ways that we as Christians would be glad about.
The world has changed. Or has it?
It does not take much for fear to take hold and for various groups to close ranks.
In 1968 the opinion polls estimated that between 66% and 82% of the population agreed with Enoch Powell that immigration of people who would retain their cultural identities could damage British society. Now of course society is too “enlightened” to think that. Yet fear of further immigration has emerged very recently again as part of normal political debates. And according to The Migration Observatory (Oxford University) recent polls suggest that over three quarters of the UK population think immigration should be reduced.
Not all of these people are motivated by fear or discrimination. Many are happy with diversity but fear there is not enough room in the country. But the fact remains that people who are not being transformed by the love and power of God are at risk of behaving in very un-Christian ways.
It seems that Government policy since 2011 has been to make Britain a “hostile environment” to those in the country who do not qualify for “right to remain” under the complex immigration rules. Unfortunately this has led to institutional hostility to many other applicants too. Worse, there has been an increase in discrimination, through making teachers, doctors, landlords and employers enforce immigration rules. They must deny services to any who cannot prove their right to live and/or work here. They are naturally more likely to question those with a “foreign sounding” name or darker skin. So Britain has changed from being a place of refuge and welcome to a place of suspicion as a result.
We cannot just rely on the laws on diversity to change attitudes, nor just the efforts of people of good will.
So how should we in All Nations remember and respond to this environment around us? Let me suggest three things:
1. We need to listen carefully to people of different backgrounds from us. Let’s ask about and hear one another’s stories.
2. We need to pray for - and stand up for - victims of the hostile environment and discrimination. We are called by God to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves and this might mean campaigning for change in the law or how it is enforced, even if it makes us unpopular.
3. We need the power of God released through prayer and the prophetic example of the people of God, to bring about real love in us and in the communities around us - real love that welcomes and produces change that lasts. (Rom 15:5-7 and Gal 6:10 are just two examples of scriptures on this theme). By living in genuine unity we can fulfill our calling as church.
We are a “city set on a hill,” Jesus said (Matt 5:14). One theologian (JH Yoder) put it this way: “The church is called to be now what the world is called to be ultimately … she is called to be a microcosm of the wider society, not only as an idea, but also in her function.” In other words we are to live now as though the Kingdom has come, a Kingdom in which diversity is celebrated, so that we are a prophetic model or example of how to live. Our vision is of “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” (Rev 7:9)
That is worth living and praying for - remembering the past well helps us look to the future!