A Coptic Priest’s Thoughts on Black Lives Matter.

The world that forgets God, brothers and sisters, is ruled by injustice toward neighbours and inhumanity toward the weak … Do not use force because you rule, nor commit extortion because you are able to do so, but show the qualities of justice even while the means of authority are available to you.

~ St Basil the Great, “On Mercy and Justice,” in On Social Justice (Popular Patristics Series Book 38). St Vladimir’s Seminary Press. Kindle Edition, Loc. 1718, 1745.

 

Is there a “Christian approach” to the current swelling of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in response to the death of George Floyd? The issue of social inequality of non-whites is a deeply political one, especially at the moment. I want to make some observations on two questions in this brief post: should Christians get involved in politics?; and how might Christians—particularly Coptic Orthodox Christians—approach the BLM movement?

Should Christians Get Involved in Politics?

As I understand the life and teaching of Jesus and His apostles, to be a follower of Jesus is to rise above the fleeting and ever-changing political attitudes and movements that human beings create for themselves. Jesus’ Jewish listeners saw in Him a political figure, a messiah to liberate them from oppressive Roman rule and restore a Jewish kingdom under God. Jesus refused. His vision was far above this narrow human hope. The Kingdom Jesus established is certainly under the True God, but although it is in this world, it is not of this world—it is not about political or military power, or economic management, or legislating laws. It is not about Roman or Jewish rule, or political rule at all. Jesus did transform society, but He didn’t do it through political lobbying and power plays—He did it by changing hearts.

Jesus didn’t take sides on the political issues of His time. But that doesn’t mean He had nothing to say about those issues. He addressed issues like the unjust Roman taxation system and the racism that poisoned the relations between Jews and Samaritans. But always, His words came from a place above, beyond the merely self-focused political groupings to which He spoke. One reason He was so unpopular by the time He was crucified is that He refused to fully ‘belong’ or identify with any political movement, although He took a strong stand against particular wrongs. Like Treebeard in Lord of the Rings, no one was completely on His side:

 

I am not altogether on anybody’s side, because no one is altogether on my side … and there are some things, of course, whose side I am altogether not on; I am against them altogether.

~ JRR Tolkien, The Two Towers, III.4.

 

No human political movement can be completely good and true, regardless of what its members might claim. Jesus’ role—and therefore, the role of the Christian—is to stand outside the whole political landscape and courageously and lovingly speak the truth, even to power, even if it is unpopular. (It need hardly be said that this must be done with humility. We must not be over-confident that we know the mind of God; we must not presume that the opinion we humans hold today is all and only eternal Truth. We bear Truth in imperfect earthly vessels, after all.)

Politics—in its original sense—is the life of the polis, the city or community. Christians must stand aloof in terms of how they think, but they must be deeply involved in the actual life of the polis. We are meant to be salt and light in this world (Matthew 5:13–16). Just as Christians are above all citizens of God’s Kingdom, they must above all speak and act according to His Gospel of agape love, not slavishly parrot the political thought of this or that movement. The world needs the Gospel of Christ’s love today, as much as ever. And this love must be the guiding principle for the Christian engaging in political issues of the day. Which leads me to my second question …

 

How Might Christians—Particularly Coptic Orthodox Christians—Approach the BLM Movement?

The simple answer to this question is: with genuine unconditional agape love for all parties involved.

Let’s consider a small example before sketching some broader principles. Some have responded to BLM by insisting that All Lives Matter (ALM). That is to say, why should black lives be deemed more important than other lives? BLM proponents often get offended by this response. Where is Christ’s agape love in all this? Perhaps love would lead us to consider both views with a little more charity, rather than jumping to conclusions about what we think other people mean. I would suggest that no one here is suggesting that only one kind of human life matters. BLM proponents are not somehow saying that if George Floyd had been white, what happened to him would have been perfectly acceptable. Of course all lives matter. BLM does not mean “only black lives matter,” but “black lives matter too”—they deserve the same respect as white lives, a respect that has hitherto been far less evident than it should be. And ALM does not mean that black lives are unimportant. It means “every life is important,” something with which no BLM proponent would disagree. So why do they seem to be disagreeing?

Love dictates we take the time to understand the situation a little more charitably and deeply. At the moment, it is undeniable that black lives in the USA and many other Western societies are being lost at much higher rates in unjust conditions (violence, disease, poverty, discrimination, disadvantage, etc.) than white lives. One literature review found that 40 teens aged 14 or younger were killed by American police from 1980 to 2012. That is shocking enough, but consider the racial make-up of these victims: 67% black; 20% white; 10% Hispanic; 3% Asian.[1] This does not reflect the make-up of American society!

This particular imbalance is just a reflection of a much broader problem. A recent study states bluntly: “African Americans remain the least healthy ethnic group in the USA, a somber legacy of years of racial and social injustice and a formidable challenge to equitable health care for all.”[2] It describes how American society has all the cards stacked against African Americans, from entrenched poverty to higher levels of arrest and imprisonment to lack of access to quality healthcare. Statistic after statistic paints a picture of millions of people being deprived of opportunity in the so-called “land of opportunity,” simply by virtue of being black. Sometimes, they are deprived of the opportunity just to stay alive.

In my own “Lucky Country” Australia, things are scarcely better for indigenous Australians. Parallel statistics—especially in the area of health—show a similar picture of entrenched inequality, albeit often for quite different reasons. But there is no doubt that to be an indigenous Australian often means to have a very different experience of Australian society than that of a white Australian. Some years ago my wife had to accompany one of her adult indigenous students to the bank because they refused to let him make a withdrawal from his own bank account—just because he was black. And that was not an isolated event. To deny that black people are—by and large, overall—dealt a worse hand in our societies than white people is simply to deny reality.

So Western societies need to focus on this problem. That doesn’t mean that other problems are not important—of course they are. But now is the moment for us all to pull together in love and do something serious about thisproblem. Then we can all pull together and focus on another problem, and so on. That’s the way to actually get things done. That’s what I understand to be the problem with the ALM response. By analogy, it would be utterly inappropriate when visiting your friend’s terribly sick child in hospital to stand by her bed and spend your whole visit hijacking the conversation with her parents to talk about your own ingrown toenail. It would be even more inappropriate to grab the doctor coming to treat the sick child and take him to another room to look at your toenail. Sure, your toenail is an issue, but this is just not the time or place (neither do ingrown toenails fall under the purview of a paediatrician!) It seems to me that love would dictate we put our other issues aside and join with those who are in deep danger and pain. This has certainly been the public response of many Coptic Dioceses, including:

 

” … Mr Floyd’s unjust death cries out to heaven for justice …”
(Joint Statement of the Coptic Archdiocese of New Jersey and Diocese of New York and New England).

“We  … strongly stand with Mr. Floyd’s family and the peace-loving citizens of this great nation expecting long-overdue justice”
(Coptic Diocese of Southern United States).

“… we declare that we stand against all forms of racism, violence, and hatred towards any and all the children of God. The Lord does not see us in categories of race, ethnicity, gender or age; rather He sees all as His own children. And we stand with all those who suffer injustice …”
(Coptic Diocese of Ottawa, Montreal, and Eastern Canada).

 

It seems to me (along with many others) that Copts in particular have more reason than most to care about BLM, for many reasons, three of which I share here. First, we are certainly no strangers to persecution and injustice ourselves, as centuries of history in Egypt attest. More than most, as an oppressed minority suffering normalised daily discrimination and entrenched social inequality, we ought to empathise and understand what the black community is going through and support them as we would wish to be supported.

Second, a rapidly growing proportion of the Coptic Orthodox communion is black. One estimate I saw recently put the number of Copts in sub-Saharan Africa at 5 million. I suspect that is exaggerated, but there is no doubt the missions among native Africans over the past fifty years have been wildly successful, and every one of these Copts is my brother and sister. I am not sure about the statistics for black converts to Coptic Orthodoxy in the West, but these too are fully part of us. What touches them touches me.

Third, and leading on from this last point somewhat sadly, Copts in the west have not had a great track record in welcoming black people into the Church. I can only offer anecdotal evidence here, and I really hope my experiences have been the exception rather than the rule, but I have seen a small section of the Coptic community in Sydney express awful views of indigenous Australians and treat African refugee families who joined our parish just as awfully. I hasten to emphasise that most parishioners welcomed these refugees with open arms, but the strident note of un-Christian, unloving racism (I cannot really call it anything but that) was often enough to sour the whole matter. Neither is this an isolated phenomenon. Egypt’s economy thrived centuries on the slave trade, with Coptic merchants from the south of Egypt capturing sub-Saharan Africans and transporting them north to Egypt and beyond. In the mid-1980s I was fortunate enough to work and study in Kenya for a brief period, where I saw first-hand both the inspiring love and charity work carried out by the Coptic mission there, and the somewhat jarring prejudice and hostility of some (again, a minority) of the Egyptian Copts involved in it.

There are many more examples. We cannot pretend that this strand of racism does not exist within our communities, and perhaps this is the moment when we can—with love and kindness to all—finally address it and purge it from our midst … or at least make a clear statement that it flies in the face of the Gospel of Love.

You see that none of these motivations is ‘trendy’ or politically correct. None of this arises from the contemporary culture of constantly being offended by everything. None of this has anything to do with virtue signalling. Jesus raises us above such motivations. We ought to care about BLM because of love, not to fit in, or to make a show of being more moral than others, or because we are judging others. Just because some people espouse the BLM movement for reasons we may not like doesn’t mean that the movement itself is misguided. This is called the genetic fallacy—a bad source doesn’t necessarily mean a wrong idea. Even a habitual liar sometimes speaks the truth, and the truth is no less true for having passed her lips. And as I pointed out above, Copts have been espousing justice and opposing persecution for millennia. This is nothing new to us.

What this does mean is that the attitude or approach of the Christian is necessarily one based on love for all parties involved, and a sincere desire to humbly seek together what is good and true. Being offended by others means (and achieves) very little. Loving others with both word and action means (and achieves) decidedly more, as a certain Roman philosopher-king once noted:

 

It is the gentle who have strength, sinew, and courage—not the indignant and complaining.

~ Marcus Aurelius, Mediations, 11.18.10.

 

I suggest, therefore, that a genuinely Christian approach to BLM is neither to belittle and criticise the BLM movement, nor to be offended and indignant about those who do so, but rather to join with the oppressed and the persecuted and work to change the very culture, the very attitudes of people’s hearts that make George Floyd and all the others like him even possible in the first place.

Is this approach ‘political’? Yes, in the sense that it connects us to others in our shared life as a polis, a society. We are all in this together and we should care about every last member of our society. No, in the sense that we should not engage political issues from ‘within’—by completely and uncritically espousing any political ideology—but we should always stand ‘outside’ those ideologies and espouse the Gospel of Love, seeking to apply it creatively and effectively, and to enflame genuine unselfish love in others, whatever their political leanings and views.

If there is one thing that seems certain in all of this it is that human beings have a surprising capacity to be cruel and unfeeling towards each other, and especially towards who are in some way “not like me.” That brokenness in our natures is precisely what Jesus seeks to heal. He wishes us to see, truly see, that everyone is the neighbour I must love everyone: black or white; progressive or conservative; sensible or fanatical; virtuous or vicious; persecuted or persecutor. If we wish to walk in His footsteps, this kind of unconditional love is what we must strive to fan into flames within the hearts and minds of all those within our circle of influence.

 

Will anything come of these protests? Who knows. It is hard not to notice the parallels between the movements that began with the deaths of George Floyd and of the Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi who set fire to himself in 2011 out of despair at a life suffocated by social injustice. The same bushfire of a shared sense of unbearable, unnecessary injustice seems to be spreading across the world now. And if the consequences of Bouazizi’s death are anything to go by, then the results of this current outbreak of BLM sentiment will be patchy: some places will make lasting, major improvements; others will improve only to fall back again into unjust patterns; others will be hijacked by opportunists seeking their own profit; and others still will weather the bushfire and emerge with their injustice unchanged.

From the Christian perspective, we know that perfection is unattainable in this life. But it matters that we strive for it. It matters that we find ourselves on the right side of history. We may not be able to change the whole world, but we have it within our power to change our own hearts.

Hearts produce words all too easily, but actions speak louder than words. I confess that in the past, I myself have too often been content to respond to this issue with mere words. I hope and pray these words you have read today are the beginning of a more proactive approach for me and you.

 


[1] A. Christson Adedoyin, Sharon E. Moore, Michael A. Robinson, Dewey M. Clayton, Daniel A. Boamah & Dana K. Harmon (2019) The Dehumanization of Black Males by Police: Teaching Social Justice—Black Life Really Does Matter!, Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 39:2, 111-131, p. 114.

[2] Noonan, A.S., Velasco-Mondragon, H.E. & Wagner, F.A. Improving the health of African Americans in the USA: an overdue opportunity for social justice. Public Health Rev 37, 12 (2016)

Rating: 3.4/5. From 5 votes.
Please wait...
Voting is currently disabled, data maintenance in progress.

4 Replies to “A Coptic Priest’s Thoughts on Black Lives Matter.”

  1. Fr Antonious you have captured the true essence of what it truely means to a a Christian in this day and age. I was deeply moved by your comment “that whilst we can’t change the world we have the power to change our own heart”. Having studied the struggle of our own Indigenous population I have truely changed my understanding and perspective about the injustices and “silent apartheid” that many of us within the “Christian” community unconsciously impose on our fellow man due to our inaction or inability to acknowledge or understand their plight. You have made us all stop and think what we do matters. A breath of fresh air!!! Thankyou.

    Rating: 1.0/5. From 1 vote.
    Please wait...
    Voting is currently disabled, data maintenance in progress.
  2. Thank you Mark. I feel a growing discomfort over the plight of indigenous people in Australia. I imagine standing one day before Christ squirming to explain how I could have been so oblivious to the suffering neighbour who walked the same streets I walked all those years. May God help us all turn feelings and words into actions.

    Rating: 1.0/5. From 1 vote.
    Please wait...
    Voting is currently disabled, data maintenance in progress.
  3. started well then sank into an obvious political left leaning bias using statements instead of facts. disappointing.

    Rating: 5.0/5. From 1 vote.
    Please wait...
    Voting is currently disabled, data maintenance in progress.
  4. Completely agree Andrew. It’s nice to see others with discernment

    No votes yet.
    Please wait...
    Voting is currently disabled, data maintenance in progress.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*