Amazing (?) Grace

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Pentecost – Jonathan White

Link to Sermon on Facebook.

Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book has been re-written, every picture has been re-painted, every statue and street and building has been re-named, every date has been altered. And that process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right. (1984, George Orwell)

There are times at the moment when I wonder whether there is a missing sequel to 1984, playing out now in some bizarre Trumanesque reality show, the season finale of which cannot come too soon. Ever since Orwell penned his seminal novel in the 1940s, social commentators have leapt on its frighteningly accurate depiction of the future as it unfolded around us all. As we look around ourselves right now, many of us cannot help but despair as his dystopian nightmare continues to become a horrifying reality. Just when you thought 2020 had nothing more to throw at us, yet another crisis tears through the fabric of society threatening the fragile stability of human existence. If you were to tell me that someone had figured out how to clone dinosaurs I’d probably believe you.

The world is currently entangled in a fierce battle with two enemies, both toxic and deadly, though seemingly unrelated. On the one hand COVID-19 slithers its way through our society, indiscriminately attacking anyone that comes into its path, even if its impact is hugely varied. On the other, the spectre of racial hatred that has defined Western culture for centuries continues to divide the political spectrum. However, despite their differences, both of these problems could be solved by one very simple message: love thy neighbour, a simple recognition and acknowledgement of the universal value of human life. Sacrificing the will of the individual to care for those whose need is greater has been central to Christian teaching for centuries. Indeed, Jesus went so far as to say that to love thy neighbour is one of the two great commandments, and this from a Jew whose very faith rested on a fundamental understanding on the nature of divine law and the promises and covenants made with God over generations of narrative laid down in the Torah.

Christianity is presented with a golden opportunity to show the world that our faith’s central message offers a real and tangible solution to the two plagues that rain down upon us. And yet, the church narrative has been stifled, neutralised by the lockdown, with governments around the world failing to recognise the fundamental importance of all religions as a source of comfort and inspiration in times of trouble. Perhaps, though, the failing in our current predicament is not on the part of global leaders, but on the Church itself to justify its essential nature in an increasingly secular world. Rather than capitalising on this opportunity to reach out to the world, churches have once more played out their internal struggles on the global stage, wrapping themselves up in issues that even many believers struggle to comprehend. Furthermore, while many within communities of faith have called out the injustices we witness on our own doorsteps, demanding that the very institutions that define contemporary human existence – government, law enforcement, education, and so on – confront their own systemic racism and internalised contempt for marginalised groups, the Church as an institution has failed to hold up the mirror to its own existence. While we cry for statues to be torn down, buildings to be renamed, and history to be rewritten (maybe re-evaluated would be a more objective term), are we willing to watch our own walls come tumbling down if this is what it takes to effect the social reforms that should have occurred centuries ago?

For me, one of the problems in seeking answers to these problems in Christianity is that the Bible itself doesn’t always provide the moral lessons and teachings we would like it to. Our reading from Exodus this morning comes moments before the giving of the Decalogue, the binding and universal promise made by Moses to God on behalf of the Jewish race both as thanksgiving for the delivery from slavery and torment in Egypt, but also a forward-looking covenant which would cement their journey towards the promised land. A tribal nation race who had spent centuries in slavery and a subsequent nomadic existence in the wilderness of what is now the near Middle East would finally be rewarded with the settlement and security of a land of their own. For liberation theologians of the civil rights era the story of the Exodus is perhaps the single most important part of the Biblical narrative that gives the hope of freedom to all oppressed peoples. And yet, this same narrative not only secured the prosperity of the Jewish people, but it also sealed the fate of the Canaanites. The Jews became the Royal priesthood, the chosen people, the holy nation, but in return the Canaanites were mercilessly eviscerated by a god who seemingly understood a natural hierarchy in the human race and an indisputable supremacy for his chosen people.

Not only that, but this story resurfaced time and time again throughout Christian history to justify the genocide of a host of native civilisations around the world. The Puritan settlers arriving in the territories of continental North America used this exact story as justification for wiping out countless native peoples who had peacefully existed for millenia undisturbed by European imperialism – it still features in some Thanksgiving liturgies in the States today. The British themselves also used the story to justify their superiority over Catholic Europe in the wake of the Reformation for centuries, leading to a global imperial project where their own sense of self was hardly ever questioned. In our world today, the same story continues to underpin the Israeli project of exiling and terrorising the Palestinian peoples.

Reducing the Christian message to one problematic passage in the Old Testament, even one as central as the Exodus, of course misses the message of hope for all that we can distil from Jesus’ teachings. However, isn’t this exactly the same approach that some use in an attempt to oppose the demolition of statues of historical figures whose socio-political beliefs don’t square with modern values? When our faith preaches forgiveness and rehabilitation, are we really in a position to cast unforgiving judgment on those whose social values were totally foreign to our own? Furthermore, how confident are we that our beliefs would have been so radically different had we lived back then?

In Parliament Square in London stands the statue of Millicent Fawcett – a leading figure in the British suffragette movement and the first and only woman to be honoured this way alongside other giants of history including Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, and Mahatma Ghandi, unveiled only a couple of years ago. Fawcett was a tireless fighter for women’s equality. As well as playing a central role in the British suffragette movement, she pioneered women’s rights in a number of areas, and fought around the British Empire for female welfare. And yet, alongside this, she was a staunch advocate of the imperial project, even in its twilight years. Her beliefs espoused a sense of white supremacy that many already found distasteful in her age, and she widely praised the use of concentration camps in South Africa to control the Boer population who she saw as being inherently inferior to the white race.

The case of John Newton presents another complex dichotomy. An eighteenth-century naval officer who spent much of his life working in the slave trade, in fact he was himself a slave in Africa for a short period, he eventually experienced a spiritual revelation on one of his many Atlantic crossings, later being ordained as a minister in the Church of England. In his older age he repented for his involvement in an industry he described as ‘a stain upon our national character’ and become a leading figure in the abolitionist movement. He is best known today for the verses he penned for the hymn Amazing Grace. The hymn and the author are often held up as an exemplar for the potential for change, the saving grace that God bestows upon the recognition of the universality of the value of human life. And yet, this hymn was written more than a decade before Newton renounced his involvement, and profiteering, from the slave trade and at no point did he suggest a connection with this eventual revelation.  His saving grace is viewed through the prism of white supremacy, not human universalism, and speaks of a confidence of this attitude that underpinned and continues to underpin the notion of white privilege. This was the same arrogance that forced Christianity upon countless generations of displaced black slaves. Negro spirituals for example, despite being one of the greatest art forms to spring from the cruel oppression of humans, exist as the biproduct of a white imperial project that sought to subdue all of humanity under its own values. Is it any wonder that for a white person to sing a spiritual, however well meaning, is hugely problematic, even though I would disagree that people of other races cannot ever make a meaningful contribution to the constantly-unfolding evolution of any form of art.

No matter how hard we have tried over the years, history cannot be distilled into a clean and simple black and white narrative of good versus bad. Whether Fawcett, Newton, or even our own Church, to separate individuals and institutions into polar camps simply completes the Orwellian dystopia. There is no denying that our world is broken, our society hangs in a delicate balance and that the Christian philosophy does itself present a simplistic yet effective solution to this problem. But if we want the world to sit up and notice, we need to be objectively honest with ourselves, and the faith that we hold up for all as a shining light. Jesus understood suffering and the consequences of standing up for a human fundamental for which he was willing to die. Indeed, he suffered the most humiliating and dehumanising death perhaps ever known to humankind. We might now understand the reality of living in fear for our own lives as we continue to isolate ourselves and our communities from the threat of COVID-19. But does that really mean we now understand what it is to live in fear of racial profiling and oppression? Without addressing the systemic racism not only in THE church but also in OUR church, can we look a black mother in the eye and say with unwavering confidence that we and God understand what it feels like to live in the fear that your young child might be shot simply because they were outside playing? A life of promise and hope potentially destroyed in a moment of indescribable hatred, ignorance and disregard for the value of human life which is universal.

In our gospel story today, Jesus sent his disciples out into the world, into the den of wolves to heal the world. He made no attempt to sugar-coat the task ahead of them. It would be hard and they would fail at times, but that theirs was a higher calling to love their neighbour however they could. Ours too is a higher calling. To live by and spread that fundamental commandment to treat all humans with the same dignity, recognising that we are all made in the multiplicitous image of God. But to do this with integrity we must do more than stand on the steps of our church, literally or figuratively, holding the Bible in the air assuming that this message alone is enough. History must be re-evaluated. We need to listen to the cries of our brothers and sisters who have for too long suffered the evils of racial oppression, and we need to be willing to follow through with all the necessary actions required to eliminate systematic racism once and for all. But to do so we need to stop looking to the Bible for answers, and instead recognise that, instead, it helps us to articulate the questions we need to ask today. One thing we have learned in this era of COVID-19 is that the old ways don’t always work in a new reality. The Bible gives us the opportunity to hold it up to ourselves, warts and all, to see the reflection of the universality of humankind and the pointlessness of division between black and white. All lives matter to God. Right now, though, black lives need to matter to us. Only then can we all know what it is to be free.

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