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.    

Sermon: October 16 2016

This sermon was delivered at Holy Trinity, Edmonton.

Jeremiah 31:27-34

2 Timothy 3:14-4:5

Luke 18: 1-8

And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?

Words from the Gospel according to St Luke, the eighteenth chapter, the seventh verse.

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Jesus seems to be terrible at asking rhetorical questions. Immediately, he responds to his own setup: I tell you, God will quickly grant justice to them. And yet.

And yet there are desperate people everywhere, praying their hearts out, knees bloody and eyes raw with tears. There have always been, and justice has not been granted them with anything like the promised swiftness. To say that they—victims of war and colonisation and genocide and natural disaster and disease and poverty and domestic abuse—have not prayed enough, have not been found to have enough faith, is a morally bankrupt cop out, a dodgy means to cling on to our convenient and comfortable belief that we will be granted our recompense in timely fashion. But this is nonsense on stilts.

Is Luke’s Jesus wrong, then? Sure, if we can stomach saying such a thing. But, of course, we need to look no further than the Garden of Gethsemane for our proof. There, four short chapters from here, Jesus sweats blood, he prays so painfully: and all God can muster is the cold comfort of bodiless, sexless celestial beings, not even the vigilance of his brothers and friends, let alone grant him what he actually wants. What we all want: not do die in agony and humiliation.

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Justice has precious little to do with it, with the Christian faith, if by “justice” we mean fairness, which is the way most people talk these days.

The unjust judge does not play fair by pandering to the pathetic pleas of persistent peasants. And neither would it be fair for God to do so, not that God does. God does not answer prayers based on the fervour of the petitioners. If God did, the Church would make pots and pots of money in the racket of manipulating sports results and election outcomes. And given the baffling dalliance between Christianity and the Republican Party in your belligerent neighbour to the south, Donald Trump would probably be doing better in the polls. Thank God, God’s arms cannot be twisted by people who have nothing better to do than moan about things.

Thank God that God does not play fair, does not allow the divine will to be swayed by the likes of us. The God who plucks up and breaks down, to overthrow, destroy and bring evil, God chooses to build and to plant, despite the sins of our forebears and, God knows, our own sins.

But this is the covenant that I will make…: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people…they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest…for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

There is nothing fair about that. There is nothing fair about Jesus’s bloody prayers remaining inadequately answered for our sake, we who fall asleep, we who abandon him in his darkest hour, we who participate in the exploitation of labour and the devastation of the natural environment, not least by our everyday consumer choices; we who fail to call our mothers and make time for our families, let alone for strangers and aliens; we who exclude those different from us and therefore probably inferior to us, even if refuse to face our own prejudices and call them out for what they are. We who are nevertheless here gathered to celebrate this Mass to the glory of almighty God, for whom justice looks like an innocent body broken and blood spilt for the good of the despots and denizens who crucified him. We who are crucified with him, whether we feel it or not, who are murdered with him, drowned in the waters of baptism, and broken and offered in this eucharist; we who are living sacrifices or so we mumble, sometimes thoughtlessly, not realising that we are committing ourselves to live unjustly, forsaking our own demands, even our own rights, for even those whom we might deem our opponents.

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Bread and wine, or—we joke—poor imitations thereof, and yet, the most intense of moral and political symbols, the symbols of the revolution that began years and years ago and begins still even now, with a covenant a faithful God makes with a feckless people, with a promise of words inscribed into our innermost flesh, with a mother’s son bloodied and broken, dead and risen, with this most mysterious consumption of food and drink through which we give ourselves over to be consumed by a hungry world and thirsty for hope, pleading persistently, widows all of them, all of us, bereft of all manner of things. For these things to be well, all manner of things to be well, we have to repent of the injustice of exploitative consumption and convert to the injustice of reckless grace.

It is, of course, unfair of me to lay the troubles of the world at your feet. And yet, here you are, here we are, perhaps no longer wet with the waters of our baptism, but certainly, in a moment, we will have our bellies full of Christ, and we will be sent out into the world he loves, for which he died. And we will, with some luck, realise that the command to “do this in remembrance of me” is about a lot more than a piece of bread and a drop of wine, so help us God.

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.