Race, riots and radical economic transformation

I have resisted writing this blog. So much has already been said and so much capital made of the deaths of George Floyd and Collins Khosa that I hesitate to wade in. But I do want to address some words to my own people – to my brothers and sisters in Christ. I want to address those who have the courage to post on social media and to those who silently nurse their opinions and fears. We Christians have an unerring capacity to be so right and yet get it so wrong at the same time.

Pain is real. Pain is personal. I can imagine what it is like to be a black person on the receiving end of racist behaviour. But I don’t actually know. Which is why I have to listen to the stories of schoolgirls from St Anne’s or motorists stopped by the police in the US. Empathy is a dangerous delusion that convinces me I already understand and don’t need to listen any more. But I almost certainly don’t understand.  People in pain need to be heard. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “A riot is the language of the unheard.” (That’s an observation not a justification.)

“Let’s just move on now!” might be a sensible suggestion (or not!), but it translates into, “Your pain is of no importance to me.” Or, “There’s something wrong with you if you still feel pain.” Likewise, “I’ve had a tough life too,” or “<some other group> are really badly treated too,” means I have stopped listening to you.

Listening is not an admission of personal culpability or responsibility to fix things. It’s just listening, which says, “I hear your pain.” Listening to your story doesn’t mean I agree with your interpretation of events (people in pain often blame “the system”). But I can’t listen to your story and fight your thinking at the same time. I have to make a choice to shut up.

Social injustice is real too. Not every pain is caused by social injustice, but some is. The meme which says, “The problem isn’t race it’s sin!” is a flat denial of the existence of social injustice, and people who believe that clearly haven’t read their bible for a while. The story from Genesis through to Revelation is a heart cry for social justice: deliverance from slavery in Egypt, captivity in Babylon or oppression under the Roman Empire. In fact, the very last question the disciples are recorded as asking Jesus was, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”, which was a cry for social justice.

The gospel of the kingdom is God’s answer not just to personal sin, but (possibly more so) to social injustice. It is a kingdom of ever increasing shalom, where every tear will be wiped away. And this is not spiritual escapism, but a coming earthly reality, where the meek will inherit, the poor will possess the kingdom, the mourners will be comforted, the hungry and thirsty will be satisfied.

The church has consistently and rightly been at the forefront of the fight to alleviate the consequences of social injustice. We have inherited a culture of caring for orphans and widows and remembering the poor and showing hospitality to strangers and visiting those in prison. Some of these things we have done well, some less well. But the real challenge is not alleviating the ill-effects of the system but changing the system.

Race riots are not about providing care for George Floyd’s widow or Collins Khosa’s children. They are about changing the system that allowed their deaths (and many others) to happen. And changing the system is problematic because of the law of unintended consequences. Even with the best of intentions things can work out badly when we try and fiddle with things. Communism stands as an object lesson in the perils of social engineering. But I want to make three observations on the subject.

First some major changes to “the system” have worked well. We can name the abolition of slavery, the vote for women and, more recently, the dismantling of apartheid. All of these were fairly radical changes in their time, and I do not believe there can be many who today would wish to reverse them!

Second no one, even from the most laissez-faire economic viewpoint, actually believes in unregulated capitalism. We have already introduced into the system laws to protect us from monopolies, to protect the environment from wanton dumping and to stop children being sent down mines, for example. It is the right and duty of every society to consider how to regulate its activities for the protection and benefit of all its members. Yes, there are trade-offs between freedom and protection, but the conversation is valid and necessary.

Third perpetuating the status quo in South Africa (or the USA or UK) is not an option. Racial injustice is still embedded in our cultures and systems, and the present race riots are witness to that. In South Africa we have a government that is fully representative of the “previously disadvantaged majority”, yet the previously disadvantaged are still disadvantaged, for the most part. Political freedom has not translated into economic freedom.

Is that the fault of the government? Quite possibly. Will “radical economic transformation” work where previous plans have failed? Probably not. But here is the test of our hearts, church: are we willing the government to succeed for the sake of the poor? Or are we fighting a passive-aggressive rearguard action to protect the status quo for as long as possible? When we pray, “Your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven,” we are asking for change. What kind of change do we have in mind? If not “radical economic transformation” (the very name sounds like a recipe for disaster) then what? If we are the “blessed in order to be a blessing”, then let’s have a good look at blessing the most down-trodden in our land. It’s time to see a new Africa. Again.