Church has 'blindness' to its own racism, says Aboriginal bishop

Church must first look at itself before it can speak with integrity on BLM or any social justice issues

By Mark Brolly

June 25 2020

Australia's National Aboriginal Bishop says the Church has a blindness to its own racism and if it wanted to speak with integrity about Black Lives Matter, or any social justice matters, it needed to look at itself as well.

Adelaide-based Bishop Chris McLeod, a person of Gurindji descent whose mother Margaret and grandmother Dolly were part of the Stolen Generations, was speaking in a video interview with the Anglican Board of Mission – Australia after issuing a statement about the global Black Lives Matter campaign and its relevance to Australia on 5 June.

“We in the church have a blindness to our own racism in the church," he said in the ABM video. "I want to say that if the church is really going to speak with integrity about ‘Black Lives Matter’, and speak with integrity about any issues around social justice, then we actually have to look at ourselves as well. We actually had to confront our own racism, and who better than me, I guess, to say it?”

Bishop McLeod's statement included an endorsement by Australia's new Anglican Primate, Archbishop Geoff Smith of Adelaide, encouraging the Church and the community to continue to work towards recognition and reconciliation and a just society for all.

In his statement, Bishop McLeod said that the Week of Prayer for Reconciliation, held during the National Week for Reconciliation, had not gone quite as planned.

"Not long after it commenced we were all, I am sure, appalled by the death of George Floyd in America," he said. "It seemed to me to be so violent, senseless and unjust. This senseless action has triggered off a series of protests and riots around America, and protests here in Australia. It also reminded us that since the findings of the Aboriginal Deaths in Custody report (1991) there has been a further 432 deaths in custody. Just in the last few days we have also witnessed the violent arrest of an Aboriginal teenager in New South Wales. We can see quite clearly that reconciliation means far more than saying the right words and uttering the right prayers for one week of the year. Something is very, very wrong with racial equality in both American and Australia, and needs to be changed."

Bishop McLeod said The Aboriginal Deaths in Custody report made for harrowing reading. 

"How I wish that it simply described the past, as bad as that is, and is not in some way a prophecy of the present. I quickly add that not all police officers are violent murderous bullies. There are many fine police officers, just as there are many faithful Christians that make up their number. However, there is something wrong within mainstream Australia and America. Something deeply wrong with our institutions; including those set up for our wellbeing. It is systemic racism.

"Most people I know would not accept that they are racist, and many take deep offence if you suggest that they might be. Systemic racism operates at the deepest levels of our society. Systemic racism, or institutional racism, by another name, refers to how ‘white superiority’ functions as the norm. It is the lens by which we see all things. It shapes the political system, police force, the educational system, legal system, employment practices, and, yes, even our church. It shapes both you and me. All our social contexts are dominated by the, often unspoken and unrecognised, premise that being ‘white’, with all its associations, is inherently normative. This is why ‘Black Lives Matter’!

"People of colour are just not seen as being on the same level of those who are not. The basic institutions of our society were established to serve and protect the dominant ‘white’ culture. ‘Black Lives Matter’ because we need to focus our thoughts and actions on those who suffer the most. People will be quick to say ‘but all lives matter’; and, of course they do. However, it is far too easy to gloss over the particular when we focus on the general. This is why we also focus on violence against women, but we all know violence against anyone is wrong; we focus on the protection of the children, but we all know that all people need protection from any form of abuse. Focusing on the particular helps us to address the universal. Jesus said ‘… just as you did it to one of the least these who are members of my family you did it to me’ (Matt 25: 40)."

Bishop McLeod said the 432 First Nations people who had died since the The Aboriginal Deaths in Custody report was released, like George Floyd, had names, families and stories of their past. 

"Many were arrested for relatively minor crimes. They were human beings with feelings, thoughts and blood running through their veins. They had possibilities for change. They are not just numbers. They were like you and me. They were God’s children.

The Aboriginal Deaths in Custody report made 339 recommendations of which only a few have been enacted, and, clearly, given the continued deaths in custody, have not addressed the core issues. What should we Christians do? For my part, Jesus provides the model. Jesus showed solidarity with the poor, the outcast, the marginalised, and rejected (Luke 4: 18–21). Surely, in our context, that is the First Nations peoples, and other people of colour. As Christians we should be some of the strongest advocates for justice for First Nations peoples, and work tirelessly and prayerfully to see the end of the senseless deaths in custody. Write to your state and federal parliamentary member and ask them what they are doing about it. I am! We also need to ask the hard questions of ourselves. As a church when it comes to systemic racism we also have some ‘logs to take out of our own eyes’ (Matt 7: 5). We have significant changes to make in our own church. As people of the light we can begin to walk in the light, and drive out the darkness (John 1: 4)."

He concluded his statement with a quote from slain US civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King Jr:

"Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that’." 


* Prominent Sydney rector and commentator, the Revd Dr Michael Jensen, said that as one who proudly owned the name "Bible-believing Christian", he didn't think he had ever been more offended by a political leader than by US President Donald Trump's using the Bible "as a stage prop in his pantomime of power" outside St John's Episcopal Church, near the White House, at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests.

In an article in The Sydney Morning Herald on 3 June, Dr Jensen wrote: "The terrible irony is that the President – who, when asked, cannot quote a single verse of scripture – used the Bible further to stoke the situation triggered by the brutal killing of George Floyd, a man who, it transpires, not only read the Bible, but lived by it.

"Well-known evangelical biblical scholar Professor Tremper Longman III is among many Christian leaders who have condemned the President’s use of the Bible, condemning 'the way the White House ordered the clearing of the streets in a violent manner so that the President could walk across the street and, in my opinion, desecrate the Holy Scriptures'.

"The Bible is not a book to be weaponised. It’s not a talisman or a lucky charm. It’s a book to be read and to be lived – or not at all."

Dr Jensen, the Rector of St Mark's Anglican Church in Darling Point, wrote that people can’t make themselves the master of the Bible. 

"It turns out that it doesn’t contain a checklist of suburban values or a recipe for a self-righteous life. It isn’t a document that prescribes a tough law-and-order social policy. It’s not an endorsement of a particular political party, or of capitalism over socialism or vice versa.

"The Bible is a book, someone said once, that you don’t read – it reads you. As a message of divine mercy, it exposes our need for that mercy. It gives great comfort, but it should never leave you feeling comfortable. No person, and no society, and even no church, could ever stand with smug self-righteousness and claim to be reading the Bible.

"The Bible holds up a mirror to human nature and human society. It tells us (as if we needed telling right now) that all is not well. And one of its chief targets is political and religious hypocrisy. To display religious piety while ignoring the poor and the oppressed is the worst of sins, biblically speaking. Jesus was especially critical of exactly this.

"And so, while we’re deploring the insanity unfolding in the US, we Australians should look to our own house. According to the census, still more than half of us own the name 'Christian'. Many of our political leaders, from the Prime Minister down, claim the Bible as an inspiration. The Bible has shaped our legal and political systems, and informed our aspiration to be a just and compassionate society.

"But are we – am I – any better than the President at reading it?"