As we have passed the halfway point of 2020, what a year this has been so far. First there was coronavirus. The whole world had to make major adjustments. We were told to keep our distance from each other. People had to self-isolate to keep others healthy and safe. The wearing of masks is now mandatory in some places. The pandemic caused by this virus shifted so many things in the way we normally behave. Hand washing was now emphasized especially for those who up to now might have taken that for granted. Trains, buses, and airplanes were now being properly cleaned and, in the latter case, parked up waiting for passengers to start travelling again. Buying groceries at the supermarket became a shopping then washing off production. Parents now thought differently of their children teachers since they were now having to home school their children. People of faith were forced to find new ways of assembling themselves for worship. In just a few months, so much has changed.
And just when we think that the groundswell of changes in 2020 had reached its maximum, the world then saw a video of a man in the USA being arrested by police officers. But this was no ordinary arrest. What we saw was a police officer kneeling on a man’s neck while he laid there begging for his life. And that image of the black man dying at the hands of a white police officer has become like the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. What started as a local city response, over the course of a few short days exploded into a global response. Three words – Black Lives Matter (BLM) – which a few years ago were thought by many as being controversial on the lips of few thousands mainly in the USA, have now become a rallying cry for millions across the world. In the same way that the coronavirus shifted certain normal social behaviours, so too the death of George Floyd has triggered a similar change of attitude towards the BLM movement. And yet though there are BLM marches everywhere and the momentum appears to have shifted I cannot help but wonder if things will really change.
The older generation can readily recall other watershed moments in human history when we started to think differently about each other and made, what we thought, was progress towards racial equality. Yet at times it appears as though in this matter, the movement is somewhat of a yo-yo – constantly up and down; one step forward then two steps backward. In case it sounds as if I am somewhat skeptical, here is why. The response of global protests has drawn attention to the problem of systemic racism everywhere. Central to the BLM protest is the challenge to address how to root out racism when it is so deeply entrenched in our social systems. Yet the more difficult question to answer is how do you change systems which were constructed from the inception to be sustained by racial biases? This does not invalidate that systems can be changed and reconstructed. But today for I am offering what I hope will be another point of entry and engagement in this ongoing conversation – CHANGED PEOPLE CHANGE SYSTEMS.
Systems do not overall themselves. The desire for change, if directed to the system, will in fact result in limited or no change at all. Systems are not magical props that we simply say few magical words and expect things to disappear. That is a delusion! It is foolhardy to want to see something change without first realizing that we are the ones who really need to change. And when we have been changed, then things around us will change. Now I am not here talking about a superficial cosmetic type of change. Neither can such change be mere lip service as one is caught up with the excitement of the moment by virtue of being in the heat of the crowd. Soon the adrenaline of that moment will subside. Lasting and permanent change has its genesis with the exercise of our human will, not our emotions. We must choose to change. And when a decision has been made to change, then that is followed by the desire and will to do whatever it takes to change.
The commemoration of August 1, 1834, marking the abolition of slavery within the framework of the British empire is a moment that ought to cause us to reflect on what has changed over the years. However, we should go beyond simply creating a check list in which we itemize the progress made or for that matter the setbacks. We must I believe use this moment to really examine have people changed. How have the descendants of both the former slaves as well as the slave owners changed? What changes, if any, can be seen regarding facing the pain of history, learning from it and seeking to build a better tomorrow? How do we ensure that these changes in people then become visible in a changed system in which there is equal rights and justice for all? How can the Gospel – which advocates for the power of God to change people thereby ushering in the reign of God – be an effective tool to bring about such profound and impactful change?
The key point is this – transformative Christian discipleship results in CHANGED PEOPLE who then CHANGE SYSTEMS. The Church of Jesus Christ still proclaims this Gospel message that change can be had through the work of the Holy Spirit and faith in Jesus Christ. This is the change that is attested to in 2 Cor. 5: 17, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”. So as believers proclaim this message to the world that lasting change is possible, we must also ensure that when the world looks at our witness, it is aligned with our message. God has changed us. And for systems to change, then God must also change us as people. Maybe then the next public protest ought to be a ‘march of witness’ led by those who profess faith in Jesus Christ. And our clarion call would be CHANGED PEOPLE CHANGE SYSTEMS. That’s what faith in Christ has made us, CHANGED PEOPLE!
Lord, change us and by so doing, change the world. Amen
Rev’d Dr. Mikie Roberts is Programme Executive Spiritual Life and Programme Executive Faith and Order at the World Council of Churches in Geneva, Switzerland. He was born in Antigua and is an elder of the Moravian Church.