The latest reports of shootings and deaths in the United States of America has shocked us into remembering (as if we could forget) that race relations in that great country are as fraught and fragile today as at any time in its long and difficult history.
As America’s first black President comes to the end of his second term in office, no one can be in any doubt about the deep-rootedness of racial tensions in what some had prematurely hailed as a 'post-race' era.
The fatal shooting by police officers of African American Alston Sterling, 37, in Baton Rouge was swiftly followed by the shooting of Philando Castile, 32, in Minnesota. These incidents have themselves been followed by the fatal shooting of five police officers in Dallas as the country engulfs itself in waves of protests over the ease and frequency with which young African American men are killed by the police, it seems with impunity.
Black Lives Matter
That the current happenings are not new or isolated incidents is clear when we recall the fate of Rodney King, Michael Brown and untold anonymous others not fortunate enough to have their unlawful demise caught on camera. And all this on the back of a long and painful history of chattel enslavement perpetrated upon African ancestors, lynchings, segregations, entrenched inequality and legalised racial discrimination.
So many (black and white) have made huge sacrifices and worked tirelessly to end the long night of injustice and inequality in America. It is for this that the Civil Rights Movement worked and for which the likes of Dr Martin Luther King lost his life, again by the bullet of a gun.
It can be nothing short of a national scandal that in 2016 African Americans can lose their lives at the hands of the police in broad daylight - the police who are responsible to uphold law and order and ensure the safety of all citizens. The #BlackLivesMatter campaign should not be needed, but it is. Like the blood of the biblical Abel, every unrighteous act of killing cries out for justice, repentance and change.
But as America searches for solutions where might they find useful pointers?
The British example
From my Christian outlook it is apt to point to the sanctity of life. Jesus implores us to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. I am reminded too of the need to listen to Old Testament prophets like Joel who reminds us that justice and peace are interconnected.
Until African Americans in America feel they are citizens in a just society in which their lives matter and are respected and protected like all other citizens; until the police and legal system behaves accordingly, there will be more of what we now see today as the inevitable result of cause and effect.
Things are by no means perfect in Britain but it’s worth noting that on the back of an inauspicious history of enslavement and colonialism; signs reading ‘no dogs, no Irish, no Blacks’ during the 1950s; the racist killing of Stephen Lawrence and much more.
Britain now has a set of clear and effective anti-racism laws that allow Black African and Caribbean people in Britain to feel a sense of assurance that things can get better even as we struggle with over-representation in the criminal justice system, disproportionate social, economic and political deprivation; witting and unwitting racism in British society.
Progress is possible
On top of the many challenges America faces, the prevalence of guns and the stand-off between African Americans and their police forces is toxic. How to tackle the gun issue is way beyond me as appears to be the case with the President too, whose frustration with the status quo and his inability to shift the logjam between the gun lobby and reform is palpable. But on the subject of police/African Americans there does appear to be room for maneuver and possible progress.
When God initiated peace-making with humankind, God came among us in Jesus. Christians call this the Incarnation, God becoming one of us. This is about insider involvement to bring about change in a toxic relationship. I wonder what would happen were African Americans to deluge American police forces with applications to join and become police officers; and by so doing change the nature, practice and feel of police/African American relations! I believe the Church with its message of hope and reconciliation could lead in this counter-cultural, counter-intuitive but wholly godly pursuit.
Above all hope must be kept alive!
Bishop Dr Joe Aldred is a broadcaster, speaker and author. His latest book is From Top Mountain