By Tim Maby, 2 June 2020
“Religion was not at the centre of the protest, but is now, because the president made it the centre,” according to Bob Smietana, the editor-in-chief of the US Religion News Service.
This was after Donald Trump ordered the military to clear protesters and clergy from outside the church opposite the White House so that he could be photographed holding a Bible. Michael Gerson, a speech writer for President George W Bush, called the act “sacrilegious”.
This is a “crazy time” Mr Smietana told a webinar held by the Religion Media Centre today. Clergy were appearing at protests all over the United States praying, handing out water or getting teargassed. They were in the crowds where the National Guard had been firing rubber bullets.
At the protest in Mr Smietana’s home town, Nashville, the protesters were singing Down by the Riverside and called on the surrounding National Guard to lay down their “swords and shields” according to the song and several soldiers did so. Soon afterwards, the Nashville courthouse was set on fire, but Mr Smietana believed it was started by someone from out of town who came in to cause chaos.
The protests and associated riots have been called the most extreme actions since the time of Martin Luther King and the civil rights marches of the 1960s. But Mr Smietana says it is not the same. The clergy had been at the forefront of the movement in the Sixties, while it was not clear if there was leadership of any kind today. Nor is there obvious religious motivation, though the slogan “I can’t breathe”, the last words George Floyd, whose death has sparked the protests, has been connected to the Christian festival of Pentecost.
The context in the US — apart from the pandemic, in which more than 100,000 Americans have died and millions are unemployed as a result of the economic lockdown — is the changing religious shape of the country. It had been described just before the election of Donald Trump as the “Death of White Christian America”, which was the domination of religious life by white Protestants. The majority of white Christians wanted to stop this change and politically they are Republicans who voted for Trump.
The Rev Ade Omooba of the National Church Leaders’ Forum, representing many black Christians in Britain, told the webinar that what was happening in America had been happening everywhere and we were still waiting for Martin Luther King’s dream to come true.
As the son of a police commissioner in Nigeria he was curious to learn that the policeman charged with George Floyd’s murder had been cautioned before for other incidents. He should have been dismissed then, said Mr Omooba, and we should now put our effort into solving social issues before such disasters happened.
Mr Omooba is an adviser to the Metropolitan police, as is the Rev David Muir of Roehampton University, who co-authored the first black church manifesto in 2015. He said issues such as mass incarceration of blacks and poor education were not new. In 2017, a book by Paul Butler, Chokehold, revealed police methods for controlling black men. We now had, David Muir said, a “kairos” (critical) moment for Christians worldwide, in particular white Christians, to stand up for justice for black people.
The Rev Steve Chalke, who founded the Oasis Global education movement in 1985, agreed. He said that the whole world grieves for George Floyd, whose death is a tragedy and a disaster for the whole of humanity not just America. This is a moment of opportunity to ask questions about our own culture and how we bring about change.
He was able to report to the webinar that his organisation had just negotiated taking over the Medway Secure Training Centre for young people in Kent, which last year was exposed in an Ofsted inspection as using “pain-inflicting techniques” on children held there.
Statistically in Britain the three reasons, he said, that a young man might most likely end up in prison were:
- If he had been brought up in a children’s home
- If he was black
- Or if he was autistic.
The main reason G4S had lost the contract to run the Medway secure training centre was because of their restraint methods and the bullying that was allowed to go on, reminiscent of the way George Floyd died, after a police officer knelt on his neck.