“How do we engage? If nothing else, we listen and we learn. Read, research and discover what others in the past and today are saying to the church. Listen to those who are different from you.”
The year 2020 brought new vocabulary to our lexicon that we never imagined necessary. Adding to the COVID-19 pandemic, the name George Floyd became symbolic of many things, but primarily of race, power and voice. Tucked away in Asia when the protests were most intense, I was tempted to disengage, treating the crisis as an intractable North American problem. Thoughtful global worker feedback made that impossible to do. The summer is long past, but the issues haven’t changed. (In fact, by most measures, conditions are worse now than in 1968.) So I want to offer a few personal reflections, admittedly as a white male in an Asian context. I do not assert that I have either my thinking or practice fully worked out, but the following are some observations rooted in living and serving across cultures.
The first thing we usually notice about a person tends to be their physical characteristics; we see race. While there is no biological rationale for it—differences disappear at the genetic level—societies have long constructed racial categories and have commonly done so hierarchically. Prejudice may be the cause, but racism is the result. While prejudice is simply bias—rooted, most commonly, in our own limited experience—racism is different. Racism produces institutions of domination that result in structural inequalities and the unequal distribution of power. Prejudice, often invisible to us, gives life and oxygen for racist structures to perpetuate.
Like anywhere, in Asia we have plenty of examples of both. Here, the implications can range from amusingly irritating to tragic. Yes, Canadian global workers can be singled out for special attention, sometimes resulting in awkward but usually harmless consequences. For others the impact is much more severe. In Myanmar, on a daily basis, Rohingya Muslims are killed, beaten, shot, ridiculed and abused by the majority simply because of their identity. Police-sanctioned riots in Delhi in February 2020, primarily targeting Muslims, destroyed entire neighbourhoods. The Tamils in Sri Lanka, the Uyghurs in China, and the Dalits in India have suffered under generations of systemic oppression.
Likely, most Canadians believe that in 2021 we are different and that we no longer see race—that our institutions, including our churches, are colour-blind. We are quick to attribute racial disparity in government, poverty and incarceration rates, family wealth, and even denominational leadership and global worker participation to factors other than structural causes. While any problem may have a number of causes, conversation about inequality is a conversation about power.
Prejudice and power are not the same thing. Many people claim they are victims of prejudice. But that is not the same as when law, rooted in arbitrary assumptions about race, is used to enforce judgment on your person, your value, your community, your mobility, and your potential. For Indigenous children “forcibly removed” from homes by governments, churches and police in order to culturally assimilate them—well, I can’t even begin to imagine the sense of hopelessness, fear, dislocation and shame that comes with that experience.
To be overpowered is humiliating and traumatic. To be overpowered by a corrupt military regime is similarly traumatic, but perhaps understandably predictable. But to be overpowered by the rule of law, often by people believing their actions to be well intentioned, is very different and significantly more dehumanizing. Why is there such a strong visceral reaction to the murder of a Black man by a police officer? Because police, in a democracy, represent all the values that we as a society have agreed upon and enshrined—and we have entrusted them to protect those shared values.
As Canadians we often assume that such abuses of power are behind us. But in a fallen world, it’s impossible to live without bias—I am no exception. Therefore, God has granted authority to government to ensure justice and fairness and to guard against our human tendency toward bias and the racist structures it feeds. The governed, however, are mandated to hold the government to their social contract. That’s what protests, voting, letters, and social engagement do.
Which brings us to the last observation.
The reason why the phrase “I can’t breathe” resonates so powerfully is because to breathe—simply opening our mouth—is foundational to life, worship, and prophetic utterance. George Floyd experienced what we only fear in our nightmares—an inability to gasp enough breath to live. To breathe and to worship are codependent (Psalm 146:2). But we also associate breath with voice. We need to open our mouth to speak. This moment has highlighted a need to speak, to advocate, and to not remain silent.
Speaking out creates tension for many of us. Some prefer to walk the talk. Others fear being misinterpreted. Most of us don’t like being forced into a zero-sum equation where only those who Tweet, Facebook, or blog are considered to be true defenders of justice, while those who remain silent are accused of being complicit with injustice. The West values individuals speaking their mind, getting things off the chest, and being transparent. The public square is viewed very differently in Asia. What do we do? I don’t think we need to take to social media to declare our perspective, but we also can’t remain silent or disengage. Martin Luther King Jr. gets to the point when he said, “In the end, we will not remember the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
How do we engage? If nothing else, we listen and we learn. Read, research and discover what others in the past and today are saying to the church. Listen to those who are different from you. At the University of British Columbia, my roommate was a PhD student from Zambia. Without his explaining to me what he had experienced as a Black man in Canada, my eyes would never have been opened to the subtlety of Canadian-style prejudice. Take the time to listen to this thoughtful and moving conversation between white and Black Christian leaders Christine Caine and Dr. Anita Phillips, respectively, by clicking here (digital issue) or by searching for them on YouTube on the topic “Body language: A Conversation on Race + Restoration in the Body of Christ.” February is Black History month in Canada and the U.S. What would it be like for all of our churches to take dedicated time to learn about the influence of the Black community on our world and nation, and the profound impact on the origins and development of the Pentecostal movement? If we seek the Holy Spirit’s empowerment, what would it be like to fully see all people as Christ does, to cultivate flourishing New Testament communities, and to give voice to God’s justice reigning in our land?
The Lausanne Movement, a leading think tank for world mission, provides some helpful resources. You can find them by clicking here (digital issue) or by visiting https://www.lausanne.org/updates/resources-for-racial-justice-and-reconciliation.
The PAOC’s Call for Unity in North America:
Peter Dove is the regional director for Asia for International Missions. He and his wife, Cavelle, have three sons and have served overseas since 2002.
Resources to Consider :
- Unexpected News: Reading the Gospel with Third World Eyes by Robert McAfee Brown
- Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
- How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western Christianity by Thomas C. Oden
- Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope by Esau McCaulley
- Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times by Soong-Chan Rah
This article appeared in the April/May/June 2021 issue of testimony/Enrich, a quarterly publication of The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada. © 2021 The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada. Photos © istockphoto.com.