C. S. Lewis nailed the phenomenon in a 1944 lecture given at King’s London. He clarifies that he’s not referring to the need for discretion or keeping confidences – there are plenty of circumstances which make those wise, if not morally imperative. No, what he’s warning against is what he calls the ‘Inner Ring’, an invisible grouping to which one aspires to belong (for whatever reason) and whose appeal lies largely in the fact that it seems quite exclusive.

And you will always find them hard to enter, for a reason you very well know. You yourself, once you are in, want to make it hard for the next entrant, just as those who are already in made it hard for you. Naturally. In any wholesome group of people which holds together for a good purpose, the exclusions are in a sense accidental. Three or four people who are together for the sake of some piece of work exclude others because there is work only for so many or because the others can’t in fact do it. Your little musical group limits its numbers because the rooms they meet in are only so big. But your genuine Inner Ring exists for exclusion. There’d be no fun if there were no outsiders. The invisible line would have no meaning unless most people were on the wrong side of it. Exclusion is no accident; it is the essence. (The Inner Ring, 1944)

The entire essay needs regular reading because its brevity conceals such importance and weight. But this point towards the end struck me forcibly just the other day.

… if in your spare time you consort simply with the people you like, you will again find that you have come unawares to a real inside: that you are indeed snug and safe at the centre of something which, seen from without, would look exactly like an Inner Ring. But the difference is that the secrecy is accidental, and its exclusiveness a by-product, and no one was led thither by the lure of the esoteric: for it is only four or five people who like one another meeting to do things that they like. This is friendship. Aristotle placed it among the virtues. It causes perhaps half of all the happiness in the world, and no Inner Ring can ever have it. 

He was, of course, perfectly describing his friendship group, the Inklings. But the thing is it was porous and people floated in and out, drawn together by shared interests. It wasn’t exclusive. That’s presumably one reason they would have one of their weekly meetings in a pub.

But I’ve been chewing on the nature of friendship groups. How easily, how inadvertently an innocent and altogether helpful thing can degenerate into an exclusive, social evil. As I say, please read the whole essay which has been posted here. Recent events have prompted me to consider how this operates in so many ways, including within church circles. I need to say more about this with specific reference to evangelicalism in a future post. But it needs mentioning that one notable failure is in the realms of race and racism.

So I was very pleased when a few BAME (for want of a better term) members of the church had instigated a prayer meeting for racial reconciliation in the church. The idea is to meet monthly. Perhaps prompted by that, on Saturday, two of them, Daniel & Karnie, were asked to facilitate a morning’s zoom for our church’s leadership council (PCC) on race. For some reason, to tee up their input, they asked me to contribute, giving a white British perspective on why this was so important. So this is a tweaked version of my notes.

Some thoughts to introduce a discussion on race…

I have found, when addressing issues of race and prejudice, that I need to get some things straight, for my own sake, if no one else’s. You see, what we’re talking about is not a matter of following some external agenda imposed on us by activists; nor is it the result of some new-fangled philosophical shifts that have come to the fore in the last 40 or 50 years; even less is it because of a desire to look politically correct in order to curry favour, or at the least, to avoid any cultural heat. No. It’s none of those (although each unquestionably presents challenges that must be engaged with when the time is right). It’s as simultaneously simple and complex as being

  • BOTH God’s creatures made in his image
  • AND God’s redeemed, granted citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven.

This is not about worldly politics. It’s about Kingdom politics.

God working through church and/or society

We must accept one awkward thing here, though. At various points in church history, wider social trends or cultural dynamics have been used by God to shake up the church. To wake it up when it’s asleep. This is usually necessary at the times when the church has not been faithful in its God-given job of shaking up society. And I think we are clearly living in just one of those times.

I was at a lecture given in London a few years ago by the remarkable novelist, Marilynne Robinson. Her brief was to analyse religion in America. And one (of many insights) that lodged in my brain was the notion of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s under MLK et al genuinely being America’s Third Great Awakening

  • First Great Awakening – a revival associated with George Whitefield in particular and others like Jonathan Edwards’ grandfather, Solomon Stoddard. It marked the first time African Americans came to Christ in great numbers;
  • The Second Great Awakening took place several decades later and was also linked in various ways with the American movements for temperance, slavery abolition and women’s rights.
  • The Third Great Awakening – now other events have laid claim to the title. But Robinson described the Civil Rights movement of the 60s in profoundly theological and spiritual terms. Which is hard to deny if you’ve ever heard recordings of MLK. Perhaps to be more accurate, though, what we saw then is one part of the church being used by God to shake up another part. It’s just taking a stupidly long time for the wider church to catch up. If that isn’t an illustration of the Lord’s astonishing patience, I don’t know what is.

Perhaps that seems overblown. Which is why we need to wheel in another word that often brings more heat than light in the current climate. But it’s important. That word is…  PRIVILEGE.

Facing our privilege(s)

Now, the problem with privilege is you don’t appreciate it until it’s threatened or lost. And until it’s threatened, you probably don’t even recognise you have it. Because it’s normality. Like the oxygen we breathe.

There’s a lot of talk about white privilege and while I might have some philosophical problems with the framework it derives from, I really can’t deny the fact of it. If my brother or sister in Christ (an identity which must trump everything else, surely) is wounded by an unfairness of which I’m simply unaware, I must accept at least the possibility of there being a real problem. Because that is the nature of things. Just because I’m unaware of a problem, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem.

You see, I know that I am given the benefit of the doubt in countless situations by virtue of my skin colour in the UK; perhaps it’s even more so abroad (including the parts of Africa we have lived in and visited); I just know it, and it’s far more often than I care to admit. It does work occasionally the other way around, to be fair. But that is rare. Most of the time, whiteness is an asset. Which is absurd, isn’t it? Why on earth should my skin colour indicate a single thing about my character, my temperament or inclinations? And yet, it does.

So even if this makes us feel uncomfortable, we must at least face the possibility of having unacknowledged privileges, however alien that seems. Of course, as I say, prejudices work the other way around. That’s a fact too. But in this world, for all kinds of reasons, white skin brings privileges. And when these get identified by people in Christ that I respect and love, I’ve got to take notice. Of course, I can’t help it if I have certain privileges, especially if they come as a result of accidents of birth or upbringing. The point is not to send everyone on a guilt trip. We can’t blame people for having privileges; only what they do with them. And if they seek to patrol their privileges in order to preserve their exclusivity, whether on race grounds or any other, then they have succumbed to the lure of the Inner Ring.

Which brings me to the main point. For which I want to make a rather silly analogy. It’s not perfect but hopefully, you’ll get the gist – so please bear with me!

If it’s my brother or sister…

Imagine if one person has a problem with the sound made whenever somebody else chews a biro. It’s excruciating, like that scene in the movie JAWS when Robert Shaw scratches down an old blackboard. It would never have occurred to you that this might be difficult. But still. One describes something that nobody has before. As a friend, you might listen, you might even be empathetic. But you certainly don’t imagine it represents a bigger problem. So you commiserate. And try to remember never to chew your biro in their presence. But then a few weeks later, someone completely different says the same thing. That’s funny – 2 in a month. But when a third mentions, ‘oh well, actually, I find it quite difficult too, but I was too embarrassed to say” that must give you pause, don’t you think? You’re at least going to assume that there are probably others out there with similar issues. So you’ll now be serious about what people have to say. Biro-chewing may be the last thing you lose sleep over. But since it’s affecting people in your wider family, the body of Christ, you’re going to take it seriously.

That’s a silly analogy of course – but I hope you get the idea. But before I finish, let me give it a sinister twist.

What if you then discover that the noise of biro-chewing had been used by the KGB to torture prisoners. Not everyone of course – just those with a genetic predisposition to be sensitive to the sound. And accident of biology perhaps. It works not because of anything to do with their character, apparent weakness, or politics or worldviews. None – just their biology. What if you have some in the church who escaped from the USSR with memories of that torture. Do you see that this adds a whole other level of pain? There are connotations of man’s inhumanity to man, and it brings it all back. Don’t you think that if a brother or sister in Christ had that kind of experience, you will do everything you can to make them feel welcome and prevent biro-chewing in their presence? Of course, you are unlikely to find those in church who do it as torture. It’s probably just being thoughtless or unaware as they blithely chew one biro after another while they take notes in the sermon. So you’ll make them aware, won’t you?

Now, as I say, it’s a dumb and very imperfect analogy (at several levels). But please grasp this. We’re not addressing racism in church because we’ve capitulated or compromised or gone all politically correct. We’re addressing it because we love our brothers and sisters enough to hear them speak. To take them seriously, we must, at the very least, take their stories seriously.

We then heard from Daniel and Karnie, which was deeply affecting, as one might expect. We had some zoomed break out discussions and some feeding back. It was all-too-brief and inevitably hampered by being Zoomed. But it was a start.

But I’m in no doubt that this, coupled with issues of class, is a major blindspot in contemporary British evangelicalism. But the notion that (i) the church contains all kinds of inner rings and (ii) that these might operate their exclusivity on the basis of race or class, is abhorrent for Kingdom-minded people and should be anathema. On which, more anon.

For now, here are a couple of things. One of the inimitable forces behind Veggie-Tales is Phil Vischer and he created a superb video about race back in June, albeit for the USA context. There are of course differences, but they can’t hide the fact that the UK shares many uncomfortable similarities.

Below that is a little reading list I put together for last Saturday.

2020-11-StMM-PCC-Racism-suggested-reading

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