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By Sir Nicolas Bevan
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Steve Baker, John Brown and the role of white Christianity in Black History

8 min read

Throughout history, white Christians have proved both spectacularly malevolent and truly inspirational in the battle for Black equality. Nels Abbey sets the scene

Although their flagbearers seem to be self-destructing in spectacular fashion (think: Kwasi Kwarteng and Kanye West), from Britain to America the most fascinating political power base is, with some ease, Black conservatives. Far from a monolith, they differ vastly in politics, presentation and motivation. Some are fairly moderate, a few are inspirational people; then there are those who are firmly to the right of Oswald Mosley. From their political origins to their oratory to how they attain office, they make a fascinating subset of political humanity for ideological, psychological and, occasionally, satirical examination.

I was probably more excited than most people when I learned that Black members of the Conservative Party had launched their very own mothership, the 2022 Group. Founded by moderate Black Tory and gentleman (in the truest sense of the word), Samuel Kasamu – a former adviser to then-prime minister Boris Johnson, the purpose of the 2022 Group is to “increase numbers of Black Conservatives in national and local government and influence party policy”. The most interesting moment during the launch of the 2022 Group came in a speech from the last person you would expect to see at a Black event: the hard man of Brexit himself, Steve Baker MP.

“People understand that footballers taking the knee are not neo-Marxist ideologues. They are people saying ‘no, I won’t have racism. No, I won’t allow my friends to suffer racism’. Like Martin Luther King taking a knee in prayer they’re just saying ‘this is where I kneel. This is where I take, in a sense, my stand with my friends. And so we’re going to go forward together as equals. That is what the 2022 Group is all about. It is about us as equals having equal opportunities together, being friends together… and my goodness you look beautiful!”

From the transformatively lucrative catastrophe of slavery to the mass crimes of colonialism, the established church has played a notorious role in Black history

It's not unusual to find the odd-white person at an ethnic minority political event. As a passionate and politically intrigued teenager from gentrified and dour west London, I would occasionally venture into Black political get-togethers in north, east and south London (the politics and snacks were usually more delicious in North, so I moved there). But if it was hardly unusual to see a white person in attendance, it would normally be someone with views more akin to Jeremy Corbyn (often Corbyn himself) – the political polar opposite of a Steve Baker.

In Britain and much of the West, people like Baker, a right wing (although he claims to be a “free market left-winger”), white male born-again Christian political figure, have often been positioned as the antithesis, indeed antagonists, in Black history. Homing in on the Christianity front, there is good reason for this.

From the transformatively lucrative catastrophe of slavery to the mass crimes of colonialism, the establishment church has played a notorious role in Black history. Christianity was weaponised against Black people. It became the silk glove to the iron fist of white supremacy – the ideology that fuelled slavery, colonialism, neo-colonialism and anti-Black racism. Slave Bibles, meaning Bibles with stories of emancipation and resistance to oppression removed, were created and printed in London “for the use of Negro slaves in the British West India Islands”. Enslaved Africans were stripped and robbed of everything but were encouraged, through the prism of Christianity, to accept their fate as “God’s ordain with an emphasis on the ‘power of forgiveness,' while downplaying the power of liberation and justice. In fact, the first slave ship used by John Hawkins, an English naval commander credited with being the first Englishman to participate in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, was literally called Jesus of Lübeck.

Jesus was chartered to Hawkins by its owner Elizabeth I, who happened to be the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. Elizabeth offered enthusiastic royal support, sponsorship, supplies, guns and a coat of arms for Hawkins’ venture into the business of the capture, inter-continental transportation and commodification of Africans.

Christianity, as a weapon of capitalist racial exploitation and subjugation, was pushed on the colonised to such an extent that it is today more buoyant in Africa and the Caribbean than it is in the United Kingdom. The established church in the UK is now largely a ceremonial backdrop (or, occasionally, holy red tape) to the established, but it is actually kept afloat in churches up and down the country by the descendants of people who were colonised and enslaved by Britain.

Despite this, the established church does not advocate for reparations for the descendants of enslaved Africans. Somewhat ironic, given the church, itself a former slave owning entity, earned the equivalent of £46m (in today’s money) when slavery was outlawed, and British slave owners were compensated for losing their “property”.

Arguably the most heroic white person in Black history was driven to act by his devout Christian faith

Christianity weaponised to further the course of capitalism-fuelled racism led to a racialised Christianity. The very concept of the “Black church” exists primarily in response to the historically racist nature of the establishment church.

White Christianity however does have redeeming figures in Black history. In fact, arguably the most heroic white person in Black history was driven to act by his devout Christian faith.

John Brown was an American abolitionist of Welsh descent, born in 1800 and executed in 1859. Brown was firmly convinced that slavery was an afront to the word of God, specifically the Golden Rule (“do unto others as you would have them do unto you” – Matthew 7:12) and the United States Declaration of Independence (“all men are created equal”). After learning more about the evils of slavery from prominent formerly enslaved African Americans, mainly Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, he was strongly convinced that slavery had to be abolished no matter the means. He believed he was God’s instrument to make this happen. Unlike many of his white abolitionist peers, Brown did not believe that slavery would be ended by pacifism, compromise and appeasement. So, taking his conviction further, he did the most American thing known to man: picked up his gun as well as his Bible and, alongside his sons and a multi-racial group of men, went from plantation to plantation leading raids against slavery, freeing the enslaved and killing the enslavers.

In October 1859 Brown audaciously (“suicidally” in the view of Frederick Douglass) attempted to spark a slave revolt across the South by raiding the US armoury in Harpers Ferry. The plot ended in the disaster it was predicted it would end in. Led by Israel Greene and staffed by the likes of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson (all of whom would go onto become senior figures in the Confederacy), the US army defeated Brown and his men.

John Brown’s Harpers Ferry raid is today considered the warm-up act of the Civil War (which kicked off properly 18 months later, after succession attempts by the South in light of the election of Abraham Lincoln, an abolitionist, in November 1860). The Harpers Ferry raid and his abolitionist work cost Brown his life. Roughly a month after the raid was foiled, Brown was executed by hanging. He remained unshaken and entirely convinced in his Christian belief that his acts were justified up until his death.  

In the eyes of many at the time (and even now) John Brown was a nut, a fanatic, a terrorist and, as renowned liberal United States Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg (a former Navy reservist who served in an anti-terror unit in Afghanistan) saw it, “a brutal guy” (as opposed to a progressive trailblazer). In the eyes of the enslaved and their descendent: he was a hero. A true American Christian hero. Indeed, a redeemer of white Christianity and liberalism.

Steve Baker’s seeming evolution from the hard man Brexit to the hard man of anti-racism should be welcomed. There is nothing more refreshing than seeing white Christians step up to become allies of Black people. Yet if the story of John Brown teaches us anything it is that allyship is not a set of words but a set of actions. Thankfully, we don’t live in times where Steve Baker has to pick up his rifle and his Bible to show his solidarity. Backing his speech at the 2022 Group up with action is a good start. Lord knows the reparations movement could do with a stalwart ally inside the European Research Group. 

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