Sermon: Feb 12 2017 (Racial Justice Sunday)

This sermon was delivered for evensong at Lincoln College, Oxford.

Readings

Genesis 11:1-9

Galatians 3.23-29

According to data from the dating site OK Cupid—data from 25 million individuals—black women are the most discriminated against, followed by (unfortunately for me) Asian men. In the five years between 2009 and 2014, people became much less likely to say that they prefer someone of their own race, but their actual behaviour indicates that they are liars as well as racists. Tinder has not replied to my emails requesting their data, but I live in hope.

God is apparently to blame for our linguistic diversity, which many have taken to also indicate racial diversity. It is hubris, we are told, that made our primordial human unity so odious to the almighty. This is fitting, I suppose, seeing as hubris is also the father of racism and xenophobia, or at least their politically incorrect uncle they dread to encounter at family occasions.

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53% of White people in the UK voted for Brexit: compared to 33% of South Asian, 30% of Chinese, and 27% of Black voters.

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Fortunately for us, living in New Testament times, there is now neither Jew nor Greek. We no longer see race, or so we assure ourselves with just a hint of self-congratulation for our hard-won egalitarianism.

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58% of White Americans voted for Donald Trump; only 21% of non-whites did. “Non-white” is, of course, not a very meaningful category, but then again, neither is “white”.

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Alright, alright. The point is made, the dead horse flogged: everyone’s a little bit racist, sometimes. Not just White people either, though White people have all the power, so their racism is much scarier. I was just back in Malaysia a week or so ago, and let me tell you, my Chinese family was simultaneously overtly pro-stereotyping and anti-interracial marriage. That said, I was encouraged to find a White woman to marry, but this is likely because the Chinese only make up 0.7% of the British population. Beggars can’t be choosers.

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The Bible has been used to justify all kinds of nonsense, sometimes more plausibly than others. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Black Africans were often called the “sons of Ham”, referring to Canaan whom Noah cursed saying that “a servant of servants shall he be”. The Bible never says that Canaan was black, but that sort of thing has never stopped religious people from abusing their authoritative texts.

Almost equally ridiculous is the use by some Christians of passages from the Hebrew Bible to disparage interracial marriage: the books of Ezra and Nehemiah in particular, which decry marriage to foreigners with their foreign gods. Ezra doesn’t even allow for religious conversion: he just has the foreign wives sent away. Mass deportation, before it was cool. Never mind that the books of Esther and Jonah—both written around the same time as Ezra-Nehemiah—advocate for embracing foreigners. Esther was Queen of that goyish king of Persia. Jonah was that comic-prophet disappointed at God’s outrageous mercy to the Ninevites.

The New Testament is little better, I’m afraid: the gospel of St John has provided much fodder for anti-semites down the centuries. I may or may not be able to recommend a drinking game that involves the number of times the phrase “the Jews” is used disparagingly.

And yet: there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female. This is, of course, not to suggest that St Paul shares our progressive sensibilities. After all, he tolerated slavery and exhorted women to obey their husbands. All the same, he does say that we are one in Christ Jesus.

As usual, it is easier to talk about the wrong way to read this than to say how to read it rightly. Our approach to truth is paved with mistakes. When we talk about the unity of the Church, we often say that we are one in Spirit, which sounds suspiciously like a roundabout way of saying that we aren’t one at all. In much the same way, talk of being one in Christ is sometimes a way to avoid dealing with latent and chronic racism and xenophobia. It is to relegate our interpersonal and intergroup relations into the realm of the metaphysical, unsullied by the empirical facts of our prejudice. It is, in other words, the pious version of “some of my best friends are black” and #alllivesmatter, both of which are ways of changing the topic.

Frankly, Abrahamic monotheism has a bad track record when it comes to racial justice. For centuries we—Jews, Christians, and Muslims—have struggled with Zionism and white supremacy and Arab nationalism. The pre-Reformation Church of the West waged crusades, pillaging and slaughtering all shades of non-white people in Jesus’s name. And then, of course, there are all those celebrated depictions of Jesus himself, so Aryan as to tickle Hitler’s cockles. The Church of England is complicit in British imperial colonialism and its concomitant evils, grateful though I am for schools, roads, and Anglicanism. Psychological research and political demographics show clearly that Christianity is still strongly associated with prejudice against various minority groups, whether ethnic, sexual, or otherwise. The Church therefore has no credibility when she preaches on racial justice except when she is on her knees, confessing her sins and asking for mercy. But then again, neither do the rest of us.

So: be less racist. That’s all, really: the rest is preamble. Be less racist. In who you avoid sitting next to on the bus. Be less racist. In your talking more loudly or slowly to people who look different from you. Be less racist. In your asking “But what’s your real name” and your saying “But I don’t even notice that you are Chinese (or Black or whatever)”. Be less racist. In your dabbling in Eastern wisdoms, and other forms of superficial cultural appropriation. Be less racist. In  your passive-aggressive moaning about how difficult life is in our cosmopolitan twenty-first century with political correctness gone mad. Be less racist. In what you are imagining right now when I say the word “terrorist”. Be less racist.

And when you fail, apologise.

Amen.    

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Sermon: November 20 2016 (Christ the King)

This sermon was delivered at Queen’s College, Oxford for evensong.

1 Sam 8.4-20
John 18.33-37
It’s been a rough year. Remember when the most heartbreaking thing about 2016 were the deaths of beloved celebrities?

And then Brexit happened. Look, I don’t care how you voted, and how you justified it to yourself to help you sleep at night, but that referendum dug up some proper ugliness in this country. The campaign disregarded facts, and exploited the insecurities of the economically marginalised in an effort to scapegoat people who looked and sounded different from the nostalgic visage of old Britannia. The aftermath included a burst of hate crime, against ethnic and religious minorities; it did not include more funding to the NHS.

Sovereignty!, we demanded. Whatever the hell that means. What I know is that life got a whole lot worse for immigrants and ethnic minorities over here. It’s hard not to take that personally.

And then Trump happened. And that was much worse.

Freedom!, our American cousins are wont to cry. Whatever the hell that means. What I know is that the Ku Klux Klan are celebrating over there, and diverse groups of people—immigrants, Muslims, Blacks, Hispanics, LGBTQ folk—are being intimidated, harassed, and even assaulted. Far from being the promised champion of the working class, Donald Trump has now populated his transition team with corporate consultants and lobbyists. If the swamp has been drained, it is being refilled with orange Kool-Aid.

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Christians almost invariably say insipid things about politics. The sovereignty of God, for example, is often used as a means to justify the current regime. Vox Populi, vox Dei, and therefore Donald J. Trump is God’s chosen, who works in mysterious ways. Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, for Christ’s Kingdom is not of this world, we say, as a convenient means to disengage from political action. But such sloganising—such memefication—is tantamount to the abuse of theological language. Make no mistake: there can be nothing Christian about casual and convenient complicity with bigotry and bullying.

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The Bible is iffy on the relationship between Church and State.

The First Book of Samuel narrates Yahweh’s—or, should we say, Samuel’s—displeasure at the shift from theocracy to monarchy. But it is not as though Israel became a secular state. Samuel is told to listen to the people…but also to tell them what they want. Samuel: the Steve Jobs of ancient Israelite realpolitik.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have Jesus, a Jew in Roman-occupied Palestine: he couldn’t be further from the centre of political power than Samuel was at its heart. There was no king but Caesar, and his vassals, including Herod’s family, who reigned over Judea at the pleasure of his majesty the Emperor.

Are you the King of the Jews? There was, of course, no such thing at the time. Herod the Great, to whom the title once belonged, was long dead, and his jurisdiction split among his male offspring: no surprises there. It was, in that sense, a trick question.

My kingdom is not from this world. There it is: the prooftext of Christian political apathy, which is really not so different from hipster cynicism. We are above the fray, too cool to believe that government can ever be anything but a stumbling block to be overcome by clicking things, or whatever people do these days.

And yet: You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.

With that, Jesus seems to come back to Samuel’s position. This political criminal, with the nerve to claim that—unlike the Herodians whose titles even required the Caesarian stamp of approval—the Christ’s kingship is his birthright, is truth itself, and we had better heed his voice.

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The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. That’s what this feast day is called, just in case we had any doubts about the scope of our moral and political concerns. You would be forgiven for mistakenly thinking that the Church is only interested in where one puts one’s genitals, given her well-publicised obsessions.

This is not to say that the Church should be the Labour-Party-at-Prayer. The sovereignty of Christ relativizes all our group alignments, whether to political party or nation-state or ethnic group, or even family. We are first members of Christ’s body, who was crucified and is now seated at the right hand of God the Father. And, even as the Feast of Christ the King marks the end of the Church’s year, Christ is our end, our goal, our bottom line; there can be no other. Therefore, Christian political action cannot be a means to any other end, least of all grasping for political power for ourselves. Rather, if Christ is our goal, then our political action—our voting, our campaigning, our protesting—must embody Christ, whose mission was to the poor and marginalised and oppressed, who gave himself up for their sake.

If Christ is King, we cannot vote to prosper ourselves at the expense of the poor and needy, either here or abroad.
If Christ is King, we cannot vote to take the lives of anonymous others far, far away, just to make us feel safe.
If Christ is King, we cannot vote to restore some imagined past, excluding those who fail to look or sound like us.
If Christ is King, we must stand with and for the poor, the marginalised, the oppressed, long before we fight for ourselves.

There will, of course, never be a political candidate or party or platform that is unequivocally good. After all, we are none of us unequivocally good. Christians make the mistake of thinking that our moral choices are between right or wrong, when they are in fact mostly damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t decisions. And yet, moral disengagement is not an option for us who are in the world, even though our kingdom is not from it. We are not called to be above the fray, but to be mired in the clay, to be an infant in a manger, a voice in the wilderness, leaven pervading bread, beaten and bloodied on a cross.

I make no apology to the 81% of white evangelical voters (58% of Protestants more generally and 52% of Catholics) when I say that Hillary Clinton was far and away my preferred candidate, for all the reasons I have stated, and that support for Donald Trump is unconscionable for Christians. But even had Clinton won, the Church would still have work to do, leaning, pushing against her government’s warmongering, delegating of power to corporate interests, and dilly-dallying over environmental protection.

But the next leader of the so-called free world is a buffoon who, regardless of his own views, demonstrably inspires hateful people and hateful actions. A lot of people are scared right now, and I don’t blame them. The UK and US is an increasingly hostile place for immigrants, Muslims, Blacks, Hispanics, women, LGBTQ persons. Economic disparities are ever widening here at home and elsewhere. There are a lot of vulnerable people. If Christ is our King, then our concern for the people he loves must not remain at the level of pious platitudes. Go, as we say at the end of every Mass; go in peace and love. There’s work to be done.