Genesis 3; Romans 6:1-14
Inevitably the protests concerning racism have taken a violent turn as those who enjoy causing violence have taken to the streets. We all have the right to protest and demonstrate – that is what makes us a democracy. However we don’t have the right to cause violence and destruction. Our police service do an extremely difficult job for us as a society and whilst it is not without its problems – like any institution including church – when we dial 999 they will come whoever we are, not knowing what they will face. What we have seen with the violence yesterday is that there are people who just want to cause mayhem. We have also seen demonstrated the fact that we are a sinful people and our repsonse can be one of closing our eyes and waiting for heaven. Hoepfully throught this series and our focus on on our strapline, we have realised that is not what we should be about as Christians.
I paused before writing anything concerning the death of George Floyd. It is only right that people who are black or from other cultures respond first and I as a white person listen to what they have to say. In fact I believe that all of us from the dominant white culture should take a step back and listen to what our brothers and sisters from other cultures have to say about their experiences in Britain as well as other nations. Therefore I recommend you read the responses of the BU President and other Baptist leaders who are black. It will be difficult reading, but we need to hear and respond by allowing God the Holy Spirit to change us and for us to change as part of the body of Christ at Emmanuel.
Some have tried to say that the protests and focus on racism are a distraction from presenting the Gospel. My response to that is they fail to understand what is happening and also fail to understand the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the message of the Kingdom of Heaven. We only need to read Luke 4:16-21 to realise this. I believe that the Kingdom of heaven is fully yet to come, but if it does not impact now in the way we live and relate to each other, then it is just pie in the sky and people will not listen. Some have sought to divert attention by portraying George Floyd as a criminal, which completely misses the point and overlooks all those who have suffered prejudice and sadly died as a result of police action.
Basil shared with us on Sunday evening his experience of growing up in Britain and how he was hassled by authority, because of his colour or suffered from thoughtless comments relating to his colour and place of origin. Many people at Emmanuel will have heard the story of Sally Sullivan who came over from the Carribean in the 1950s to work in our National Health Service – which would have collapsed many years ago but for those who came from the Carribean and from other countries – and how appallingly she was treated.
The lasting testimony of people such as Basil and Sally is that they stayed, they persevered and have made a positive contribution to British society, even though white people demonstrated prejudice and abused them. The fact that sixty years on from Windrush, people who have lived in this country virtually all their lives could suddenly find themselves under threat of deportation or even deported, as a result of government policy, demonstrates we as a nation still have a long way to go before we understand the legacy of black people in contributing to our success and stability since the Second World War. The fact that we designate the backbone of our NHS – cleaners and care workers – as unskilled and not worthy of entry into the country or residential status, shows we have a long way to go in recognising the valuable contribution that has been made and is being made by people of colour to the life and culture of our nation.
One of the things that we as a nation have not really faced and I was unaware of until a few years ago, is the fact that wealth that drove industrial development came as a result of the slave trade. It was something that took place elsewhere and was the responsibility of others, but not us as a freedom and democracy loving nation. When I was in college in 2004, I didn’t fully understand the apologies that were taking place for slavery by churches and other institutions. It was a shock to learn that churches had benefitted from slavery by running plantations in the Carribean and elsewhere – even the Baptist denomination which began life standing up for freedom from governmental oppression. When the statue of Edward Colston was pulled down and dumped in the River Avon, it was described as an act of vandalism by our government. Yinka Oyekan says this,
‘Should Colston’s statue have been ripped to the ground? Yes many years ago by the
governing authorities – think about it like this would you like to live under a Nazi symbol?
That lack of empathy is what is changing – the church should have lead the way in all
this but it’s not too late.’
That is not to say we can just go about removing and destroying anything we find offensive. As a democracy we have channels through which these issues can be raised and decisions made. Howver we are often not prepared to discuss difficult topics. When statues of Stalin and statues of Lenin were pulled down and broken up or cast onto rubbish tips by popular crowds, did we as a nation regret this? When statues of Saddam Hossein were pulled down and broken up, did we intervene? These statues were symbols and reminders of oppression, and so are those of slave traders.
If we are offended by this, we need to take a look at the drawings of slave ship cargo holds, showing how human beings were treated. We need to find out what was done to slaves who arrived in the Carribean or the New World. Today we have a police unit dedicated to seeking out modern day slavery and we are appalled at the conditions people are kept in and the way in which they are treated as commodities. We would not want reminders of the perpetrators in the form of street names or statues. We consider them the lowest of criminals treating people as a means to selfish gain.
This is how we would view the slave traders and the people who purchased and abused slaves, if they were around today. Does the fact that this took place in 18th and 19th Centuries change what happened? European nations are not the only ones to have practised slavery and it has been in existence since humankind started dominating each other and treating people from different places as second class or sub-human. We cannot speak for other nations and cultures, but we can for our own. As Christians we need to speak up and I for one have been silent for too long.
I am not a political activist, but none of us can ignore the underlying racism that still exists in British society. There has been a lot said, but we need to move beyond words and demonstrations. This is where we can feel overwhelmed and want to bury our heads in the sand. What can we do and where do we begin? We can’t undo history and at the end of the day we are not responsible for the actions taken by our ancestors. However, we are living in the legacy of our ancestors and have the opportunity to bring about change. It begins with us.
Sheila read Romans 6, but before I comment and link it all to our theme, let me read from Genesis 3.
They heard the sound of the Eternal God walking in the cool misting shadows of the garden. The man and his wife took cover among the trees and hid from the Eternal God.
God (calling to Adam): 9 Where are you?
Adam: 10 When I heard the sound of You coming in the garden, I was afraid because I am naked. So I hid from You.
God: 11 Who told you that you are naked? Have you eaten from the tree in the center of the garden, the very one I commanded you not to eat from?
Adam (pointing at the woman): 12 It was she! The woman You gave me as a companion put the fruit in my hands, and I ate it.
God (to the woman): 13 What have you done?
Eve: It was the serpent! He tricked me, and I ate.
What we see here is a typical response: ‘’It’s not my fault, it’s someone else’s.” I can’t be held responsible God, it was the person you gave me as a companion…it was the creature you created. It’s not my fault the climate is changing and the earth is polluted. It’s not my fault that people were sold into slavery and others profitted. It’s not my fault that some people are irrationally racist…and we can go on. However, it comes back to what I said last week about the way we refer to the environment being out there and separate from us, rather than us being part of the world God has created, carrying responsibility.
Problems of racial prejudice are not out there and separate from us, but part of the society and institutions to which we belong and so we carry responsibility. When we stand before the judgement throne and Jesus says, ‘What did you do to fulfil your responsibility?’ we will be saved by his grace, but it will be no good us saying, ‘It wasn’t my fault so I didn’t get involved.’ How did God respond to Cain when asked about Abel and Cain said, ‘How should I know, he’s not my responsibility?’ God’s reply was, ‘I can hear the voice of your brother’s blood crying out to Me from the ground!’ We simply cannot pass the buck. We also need to examine our own hearts concerning our own prejudices and responses to people of colour or different races.
Why can’t we shrug it off or pass the buck? Because we have received the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ that renews and transforms. As Paul says we have died to sin and so we cannot live in sin any longer. Things change and we need to co-operate with the Holy Spirit in bringing about that change in our lives and in our society.
• Paul said our old selves were crucified with Christ so the body of sin could be done away with, so we are no longer slaves to sin. That means we are no longer slaves to old ways and attitudes and do not have an excuse for saying it’s not my fault.
• Paul says that if we died with Christ we now live with him – we are alive to God in Jesus Christ, so don’t let sin reign and live your lives to God. Yes we do have responsibility for the way our brothers and sisters are treated – whoever they are.
• That means addressing the injustice of racism as well as the injustice of modern day slavery.
• It means allowing the Holy Spirit to change and transform entrenched opinions that are not compatible with being a follower of Jesus. Like everything, change doesn’t begin out there, but with us. As we change so church will change and society will change.
So what can we do? What I suggest here is something people from all cultures can be part of. Prejudice and injustice are not the domain of one particular race.
• Take time to examine ourselves and ask the Holy Spirit to reveal to us where we display prejudice or turn a blind eye to injustice.
• Consider how we as the body of Christ at Emmanuel can reflect the cultures which make up our church.
• What structural changes need to take place in our church so that we genuinely reflect the body of Christ represented by people from all nations and backgrounds?
• Be prepared to take part in the discussion about future church. I will create opportunities for us to talk together – even if it has to be through Zoom! We do need people of all cultures to be a part of this discussion.
• Be ready to change and let go of cherished ways of doing things as well as being prepared to change our hearts.
This is going to be an ongoing process of change as we feel our way forward. It won’t happen overnight. I will be talking with Wale Hudson-Roberts the BU Justice Enabler to see how we might go forward. If you want to talk with me about the issues I have raised then do give me a call or email me. I am on annual leave this week, but I will follow up email or messages once I am back.
How does this relate to being tenants of the King? Well, as I said last week, if we treat creation as being purely for the consumption and convenience of a small part of the world, it is a short step to treating other cultures and minorities and weaker communities in the same way, especially when they have what we want. This is what has happened in our history, but we can be instruments of change, and like all things it begins at home.
To end on a positive note, Revelation paints a picture of the Kingdom of God which includes people from every tribe and nation:
“You are worthy to take the scroll
and to break open its seals.
For you were killed, and by your sacrificial death you bought for God
people from every tribe, language, nation, and race.
10 You have made them a kingdom of priests to serve our God,
and they shall rule on earth.”
We are a people of hope, because of the death and resurrection of Jesus. We look forward to a new heaven and earth, redeemed by the blood of the lamb. We press on to win the prize set before us.