8th September 2013 wasRacial Justice Sunday. It is also the 50th anniversary of Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s monumental ‘I have a dream’ speech (given on 28 August 1963) which spoke about all God’s people living in freedom and peace in a world governed by truth and justice. Dr King joined over 250,000 of his fellow Americans that day in Washington to commemorate the centenary of President Abraham Lincoln’s ‘Emancipation Proclamation’ to free African-Americans.
But that emancipation had only been partial. In the 1960s and prior to this, as we know from documentaries, films and books, there was still widespread legalised discrimination against black Americans in the south of the USA. And this speech took place in the context of a concerted campaign to bring change.
However, what does this mean to us today? In the light of this anniversary there has been much debate about the extent to which things have changed with respect to racial inequality and one can reflect on this on many levels.
In the American context, one thing that has been commented on a lot is, the election of Barrack Obama as America’s first Black president. The suggestion has been that this is the fulfilment of Dr King’s dream, and the beginning of a ‘post-racial’ society.
However, the reality is that in 2013 the world remains a very unequal place and there are marked differences between the experiences of people from different ethnic and racial backgrounds. In the UK context the CTBI web-page for Racial Justice Sunday lists the following issues.
· Young Black British males being more likely to go to prison than university
· So-called ‘White flight’ from ethnically-mixed areas to more familiar mono-cultural ones seen as acceptable
· Female Black and South Asian workers disproportionately affected by Government cuts in the Public Sector
· British politicians pandering to the worst instincts of the populace over the possibilities of ‘mass immigration’ and ‘swamping’ from EU Bulgarians and Romanians in 2014
· Gypsy and Traveller communities experiencing the worst health outcomes of all communities in the UK
· Chinese-British students out performing all others academically, yet earning on average 25% less than their White counterparts after they graduate.
But you might say to me ‘ hang on its not as simple as that’ and I agree. While I am not disputing facts and statistics such as this, I am not sure that this is a good starting point for exploring this complex issue and I think it tends to let us off the hook. I can hear the classic response ‘I am not racist, but ….’ It is someone else’s problem. Our tendency when confronted with this sort of information is to be defensive. I remember a series of session on racial equality I was required to attend at work. Our employer had decided there was a problem and set up these compulsory training sessions at which we were quoted a whole series of facts and scenarios such as this. It all proved to be very contentious. People felt that they were being accused of being racist.
Now I think the employer was right in one sense, but in another sense I think they were very wrong because they were oversimplifying the problem and presenting it in a way that didn’t relate to the experiences and concerns of the mainly white workforce and didn’t acknowledge the injustices and inequalities that we all experience. Of course the people attending that course pointed this out.
In the service notes on the webpage I mentioned above, one of the suggested activities is that the service leader produces 3 placards and that these are paraded in the service. The idea was to write the words ‘Freedom is’ on one, on another the words ‘Justice is’ and on another the words ‘Equality is’. The suggestion is taken from the placards of the 1963 demonstration. The idea was to get the congregation to discuss these questions.
I think that before we can ‘confront’ issues such as those stated above, we need to talk more generally about the way we relate to one another. There are many forms of injustice and inequality in our society and our world and these injustices and inequalities exist in and are related to the gross inequality in our country and our world. There was a report in the Independent in Sunday on the 27/7/13 that claimed that Britain is now the most unequal country in the western world. On the world level it gave the incredible statistic that there are 447 billionaires with a combined income of ½ the world popn. If we just home in on some forms of inequality (or the inequality with respect to some groups) then we are in danger of becoming divided.
You are also creating a situation in which to gain attention for your concerns and needs it is necessary for you to claim that you are in some way being discriminated against. You are the victim. It becomes a sort of competition. Examples that comes to mind are the traditionalist Christian lobby that is claiming that they are being discriminated against by equalities legislation. In the context of racial justice we have ‘far right’ political groupings like the EDL and BNP that home in on the insecurities of the ‘white working class’. But more generally you don’t have to go far to hear complaints from various sections of society about others getting all these things and they are getting nothing.
I am not saying we should accept racial discrimination, but just that these are more complex issues that may affect other groups and people as well. Take the issue of government cuts that is raised in this list. Or on a different tack the issue of immigration. If we speak up about this sort of racial prejudice, without acknowledging the way that it affects others and the wider context in which it is taking place, then I think we are just becoming part of the problem.
The difficulty with this sort of politics is that it divides people. Indeed it is my contention that it is used to divide people. You often hear politicians comparing one group with another and using this as an argument for change. Its called ‘divide and rule’. The point I am making is that we need to stand up for freedom, justice and equality for all, and not allow ourselves to be divided.
But what does this have to with the readings. Well when I was first thinking about this sermon Pam reminded me that it was Racial Justice Sunday and I wanted to talk about this theme. I then found myself struggling to find time to do any thinking on this until the latter end of this last week and I needed to let Day have the readings. So what we have are the lectionary readings.
However, I do have something to say about the readings. I made the statement ‘that we need to talk more generally about the way we relate to one another’. I haven’t delved into these passages in any depth or thought too much about them, but I would draw your attention to the final verse in the Luke reading. ‘So therefore none of you can become my disciples if you do not give up all of your possessions.’ This I would contend is the key verse.
At the heart of the way we relate to one-another is material things (our possessions). It is these things that divide us and are used to divide us. But it is deeper than this. We have become a more and more individualistic society. We think of our wellbeing and future in individualistic or fairly narrow terms. And we think of the world and its resources as something that we own as individuals (that’s mine and that yours) rather than as something that belongs to all of us. (which I think is the point at the heart of Jeremiah’s reflection on the work of potter – This is God’s world not our world and we are called to share it with one another not divide it into unequal and unjust portions).
We also think of our faith in individualistic terms. Whereas at the heart of this passage is community. I think it is very difficult to understand this passage and this verse if you don’t think community. How can you give up all your possessions as an individual in this society. It is very difficult. You would be destitute and so we tend to gloss over passages like this. Earlier in this sermon I talked about us being let off the hook. I think you can only really grasp the meaning of this passage if you think community. When Martin Luther King spoke about people living in freedom and peace in a world governed by truth and justice he said all God’s people not African Americans. And we can only achieve this by acknowledging that what we have belongs to God and is not given to us to protect and keep for ourselves but to share and use for the benefit of all. So back to the placards and the questions.