Thursday, September 24, 2020

Racial Justice (1): Holy ground & calling - called out of slavery



Exodus 3:1-15

3 Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. 3 Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” 4 When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” 5 Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” 6 He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

7 Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, 8 and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 9 The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. 10 So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” 11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” 12 He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”

13 But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” 14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” 15 God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord [‘I AM’], the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.

A ‘cutting’ of tree wisdom (Genny Tunbridge)

What kind of plant was the burning bush, and what meaning does it have?

Jewish commentaries interpreted it as symbolising the experience of the enslaved Israelites. Reading between the lines a bit, scholars deduced that the bush must have been a thorn bush - thorns representing the savage prison of slavery:

“Just as this bush was the thorniest of all the trees in the world, in that any bird that entered into it could not manage to exit without tearing itself limb from limb, likewise was the slavery of Israel in Egypt the most oppressive slavery in the world.”[1]

There were theories about what kind of bush: a type of acacia, or a variety of blackberry prone to catching fire in the summer heat? But the exact species is less important than the fact that this was not some lofty, majestic tree like the cedar of Lebanon but a humble shrub, lowly as the downtrodden, humiliated Israelites. The flames too were symbolic, representing the peril of the Israelites’ captivity in Egypt. Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, their plight is often referred to in terms of blazing heat - ‘the iron furnace’ (eg Jeremiah 11.4).

God speaking from within the burning bush was therefore understood to be a sign of the Lord’s compassionate presence with the Israelites, identifying with them in their suffering; and the bush unconsumed by the flames represents God’s protection. God calls Moses to help his people not from on high but from a place of fellow-suffering and saving solidarity.

Introduction to the theme (Al Barrett)

We’ve spent the last four weeks celebrating God’s good creation, lamenting our disconnection within it, and exploring possibilities for a different way of inhabiting our planet. This week, we’re shifting our focus, from creation as a whole, to some more specific human relationships within it: those that have been shaped, and distorted, by unjust power relationships based on the different colours of our skin – what we call ‘race’.

At least three things have happened this year that have made it more urgent than ever for us, as a multi-coloured Christian community in multi-cultural Birmingham, to make this a vital focus for our reflections on Christian faith and discipleship.

Firstly, on 25th May, a 46-year-old black man, George Floyd, was murdered in Minneapolis by white police officers, who brutally restrained him and knelt on his neck while he repeatedly gasped “I can’t breathe”. The Black Lives Matter protests across the world in response to Floyd’s killing were on a scale rarely seen by any previous generation.

Secondly, it became clear early on in the COVID19 pandemic that, in the UK, people from Black, Asian and other minority ethnic backgrounds were dying at a higher rate than those from White ethnic backgrounds. This highlighted, among other things, stubborn links between race, poverty, poor housing and working conditions, and worse access to healthcare. The way our country is organised makes you more likely to be poor, and to die, if your skin is black or brown.

And thirdly, in response to the ‘Windrush scandal’ in which the government has been stripping British subjects from the Caribbean, many of whom have lived and worked in this country for 50-60 years, of their citizenship and right to remain here, the Church of England held a debate in its February General Synod in which the Archbishop of Canterbury apologised for the Church’s history, and its present reality, as ‘institutionally racist’. Not long after this, a book was published offering much more evidence to support that, by a black Anglican priest, Fr Azariah France-Williams: Ghost Ship: Institutional Racism in the Church of England.

The time to face racism in our country, and in our churches, then, is well and truly overdue. It’s a question about our past (the historic entanglement of British history, and the history of British churches, with the transatlantic slave trade), but also about our present. Racism isn’t just about individual acts (using hurtful words, or discriminating unjustly) and individual people (the nasty skinheads who do Nazi salutes). Racism is what we call systemic: it affects our assumptions and attitudes, our habits and relationships, our communities and gatherings, our structures and strategies.

In Hodge Hill, a small number of us, black and white, began a conversation last year, where we began reading two books (White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, and We Need to Talk about Race by Ben Lindsay), and meeting together to share our responses and reflections, and our experiences of racism in our own lives. We had planned another session in late March, which the COVID lockdown put a stop to. But we had resolved, as a group, that this was a conversation that could not, must not, lose momentum. Black members of our church congregation continue to experience racism as a daily reality in the world, and have experienced it in churches too, including our own. We pride ourselves here on being an ‘Inclusive Church’ – but we still have a long way to go, especially if we tell ourselves ‘we’re alright here’, or ‘I don’t see colour’. We have a long way to go to be genuinely anti-racist in our shared life and worship, and public witness and action as a church.

So we’ve given ourselves a month – certainly not our last chance, but not our first either – to spend a significant amount of time together, paying attention to the critical issue of racial justice, in both the world and the church. During this month, we will have the opportunity to hear black voices lead our reflections on Scripture, and on the life of the world, the life and mission of the Church, and our diverse, unique experiences of life. Some of those black voices will be from within our local church community here in Hodge Hill. Some of them will be from the wider Church – ministers and theologians from Anglican, URC and Methodist churches. And there will also be some space (both within these weekly resources, as well as in the various opportunities for us to meet and talk together that we offer every week) for white voices to be heard, responding to what they/we have heard from our black sisters and brothers.

What are we hoping for, from this month? As Fr Azariah puts it: ‘[b]lack and brown people are not asking for white protectors, but they are asking for partners who see, hear and speak up for the full human flourishing of black and brown people. They are asking for partners who will fight alongside them against racism in the arena, not just cheer them on from the safety of the stadium seats: white people who speak up, listen up and look up, whether or not those people of colour are in the meetings.’[2] This is a chance for us to listen to each other, especially to voices that have been less heard, and for each of us to respond, from our unique life-story and location, in solidarity together, engaging in the particular work that God is calling each of us to: to do justice, to love with kindness, and to walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8).

And if we do, we may discover, like Moses, that we are standing not just on common ground but on holy ground: where we are fully present to each other, and where God is fully present to us. In our community-building work here, we often repeat a quote first expressed by a group of native Australian activists. It is profoundly relevant for this work together too:

“If you have come here to help us,
then you are wasting our time.
But if you have come
because your liberation is bound up with ours,
then let us work together.”

Reflection: ‘The God who sees’ (Revd Dr Sharon Prentis)

Sharon is Intercultural Mission Enabler and Dean of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Affairs in the diocese of Birmingham

I am not by nature, someone who has green fingers. However, earlier this year I managed to grow, much to my delight, a variety of vegetables and flowers in my garden. Like many people, the last few months has made me think differently about things such as, “how I define myself” and “what makes me who I am?”. Learning to garden in a time of disruption helped me realise there are many other things I could do.

In the story of the burning bush in Exodus 3, we see God begin the work of liberation, of the people of Israel out of Egypt, by disrupting Moses’ routine in the desert. At the time of the story Moses is 80 years of age, and for the last 40 years he has lived in exile. A man who was destined to be a Prince of Egypt is now a shepherd. The first half of his life was spent in luxury, the second in relative obscurity. I would imagine that any individual, especially someone who had the opportunities like Moses would have wondered occasionally how things might have been. To go from Pharaoh’s court to being a shepherd must have been a difficult transition and caused him to lose hope. These though, were the condition for a huge shift in his expectations. For it is in the desert, he sees the burning bush and after 40 years of herding sheep that must have been a sight!

It is sometimes in the difficult places that our attention is drawn to what we must see. Here in that difficult place away from the false comforts of Egypt, bought at expense of the enslavement of others, is where God catches Moses attention. God calls him by name first, then calls him into a sacred encounter through the symbolic act of removing his sandals. This recognises something extraordinary is happening because Moses is named by God the divine ‘I AM’:

Moses, Moses I know you take off your shoes and worship me and through that worship I will completely restore you and there you will discover your destiny.

In God’s statement of being called ‘I AM’ Moses understands his own identity and his destiny or call.  God reminds Moses of his ancestral heritage and God’s presence with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob ordinary folk, people who did not lead exemplary lives. People who had to live with the reality of their own brokenness. Moses is about to join the great company of the chosen: Abraham who lied, Isaac who did the same and Jacob who stole his brother’s inheritance. It is important to remind ourselves that God uses imperfect people to bring about an act of divine deliverance for others.

After Moses’ encounter with God, he understood that God was going to use him to deliver a nation in bondage; and more importantly, he understands this as being part of his own destiny, his call. Once he grasps this there is no holding him back. You see, our identity, what are we created to be once given freely to a loving God enables us to do the things that we are called to do; but first, we have to first recognise that we are worthy to called to be who we are. Moses recognised that he was not defined by his past, but who he was, his core identity was defined by a greater identity, the one called ‘I Am’– the God who sees, and in whose image everyone can be seen.

This month as we celebrate Black History, the story of the exodus from Egypt is even more poignant given the tragedies of the last few months. History, when told from the perspective of the marginalised, reflects the barren and difficult places in the human story. Slavery and its legacy of subjugation and oppression still has a devastating impact today. For over 165 years, Britain played a significant role in promoting it. Millions of people were trafficked across the Atlantic- many losing their lives before reaching land. This period was marked by brutality, humiliation and death. Black bodies were regarded as property and sold because of greed and fear. Sadly, the church was complicit in the trade with many slave ships being blessed by bishops before they commenced their maiden voyages. On the island of Barbados in the Caribbean, it was known that after slavery was abolished in 1837 the Church of England received financial compensation from the government for the slaves it owned. Today, that would amount to hundreds of thousands of pounds. The sad truth is the legacy of slavery still has repercussions. Black people are still livings with the effects of those times. The social and psychological consequences of post-traumatic stress arising from the disintegration of generations of families and the economic disadvantages from inequality. Bishop Rose Hudson- Wilkin said, “The impact of slavery has damaged not only these people, but the fabric of society”. We need to look back to go forward, because what happened historically is still impacting today; and, if we can’t stop and recognise this, we won’t be able to address it.”

The God who sees, calls us, like Moses, to join in with the work of liberation so that we all can be free. Moses was in the right place at the right time to understand his call and what God would do through him to bless others. Before then, he had learned to live a quiet life thinking he was unseen in the desert. The God who sees caught Moses attention and called on him to fulfil his destiny.

Reflection (Joy Curtis)

Almost everyone knows the story about Moses and the ‘burning bush’, when he appeared on the mountain; saw a ball of fire which was not burning anything around it.  Out of these flames a voice called out to Moses and asked him to remove his sandals, as he was standing on Holy Ground.  The presence of God created this Holiness. This tells me that I could have my calling from God at any time, any place; anywhere when I least expect it. God is divine and it is very humbling when we are told He appeared from the burning bush. How often do we see rubbish burning in the bushes, often set alight by vandals; or the farmer burning his field after reaping the best of his crops and what is left over is deemed worthless only to be burned and turned into compost to enrich the soil for the next crop.  Does this not show that God can change everything, every human being for the good of His Kingdom? When God appeared to Moses in such an environment it is nothing short of extreme humility.  Whenever I receive my calling to do God’s work it will be a case of being called as I am.

The question is however, why did God call Moses; What role did God have up his sleeves for him to carry out? The scripture further tells us that God was not happy with the way in which the Israelites were being treated by the Egyptians, v.9 ‘the cry of the Israelites has now come to me, I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them’.  This oppression was slavery – where one person is owned by another and treated as property and forced to give his labour under very harsh conditions. This story of God’s people held in bondage was popularised by the late international reggae singer Bob Marley in his song ‘Exodus, movement of Jah people’, meaning stop the oppression of God’s people and release them from bondage.   This is the message that God wanted Moses to convey to the Egyptian rulers. Moses was therefore upgraded from being animal minder to God’s messenger in order to free the slaves.

Slavery has come a long way since biblical times. Anyone can be enslaved, but the enslavement of black people at the hands of the white European ruling classes is one of history’s greatest atrocities. Between 10 million and 12 million black people were forcibly taken by white people from Africa and transported to places such as the West Indies and North America to work in sugar and cotton plantations, until campaigners such as William Wilberforce and Olaudah Equiano got slavery abolished in the 1830s.

Since this time, however, black people have continued to face injustice, inequality and discrimination by their white counterparts.  Research has shown that black people are more likely to be sent to prison for minor offences, suffer higher rates of unemployment and have recently been hit very hard by the Covid-19 pandemic, including suffering more deaths working on the frontline within the healthcare delivery system. These inequalities in our society are linked to what is called ‘white privilege’.  This is defined by BBC Newsround as ‘people with white skin having advantages in society that other people do not have’. Basically, the odds are stacked against me because I am black. I am treated less favourably by some white people and institutions.  This has been my life.  This is lived experience and rich data.

I often feel that I have to pay the penalty for being born black.  I have experienced racism, injustice and discrimination in the most appalling ways:

· my windows have been egged and broken;

· mud has been thrown all over my washing hanging on the line to dry;

· my car has been spat on when parked and whilst waiting at traffic lights;

· I’ve been called negative names such as ‘blackie’, ‘monkey’, ‘nigga’, ‘gorilla’ (these are only the names that common decency allows me to include);

·         whilst sitting on a train I had peanuts shoved into my face and the man who did this said ‘he wanted to make me feel at home!’.  I was so humiliated and embarrassed.  I recalled at Sunday School we were always taught to ‘turn the other cheek’. Matt. 5:39. I’m pretty sure this saved me from a possible prison sentence.

Even the Church discriminates against people of colour. I’ve had first-hand experience of this.  Years gone by I was never asked to contribute to worship in any meaningful way.  I would just sit at the back of the Church for an hour, then go home again.  Luckily, things have now changed for the better and the Church now takes a more inclusive approach.

The recent ‘Black Lives Matter Movement’ borne out of the unlawful killing of the American black man George Floyd has drawn international condemnation of the treatment of black people for no other reason but the colour of their skin.  Better understanding and cultural awareness is needed if black and minority ethnic people are to live in harmony in the way in which God intended when he created the Earth. This is probably a Utopian perception, but with God all things are possible and we live in hope. Black History must be taught in schools, the significant contribution made by black people to make Britain a ‘Great Nation State’ should be highlighted as part of the standard history curriculum in schools. The negative perceptions and stereotypical views of black people must change. 

Moses had his calling and was promoted from being animal minder to God's messenger who appealed to Pharaoh to end slavery and release His people from bondage. It does not matter who we are, God can uplift us to great heights. God has created all of us in His own image and accepts us no matter what our appearance. The late American Civil Rights activist Martin Luther King said in one of his speeches "I have a dream that people will be judged by the content of their character and not the colour of their skin.” We may still be a long way off, but again we live in hope. I may be angry, and a little impatient whilst I am waiting for change but I thank God that I am surrounded by so much love by both black and white people.  I refuse to hate. If it happened to God's people in biblical times; it can happen to us. God will take his long-suffering people to that land flowing with milk and honey.

Reflection (Penny Hall)

‘I have observed the misery of my people…’ says God in today’s reading. I wonder how well I have observed the misery of people who were classed as a different ‘race’ in order to justify people making money out of keeping them in slavery over 200 years ago. And how well am I observing that suffering now?

From the early 1980s, for many years, I worked in a college of further education. The college had clearly tried to ensure that there was equality of opportunity for all racial groups. Students, tutors, heads of department and assistant principals included people of colour. Staff groups were set up to ensure that opportunities for students of colour were being promoted. My perception was that the college certainly seemed to be proactive in promoting racial justice. On a personal level, I prided myself in being ‘colourblind’, having friends and colleagues who were people of colour.

Fast forward now a couple of decades. Last year, Al recommended two books on the theme of racial (in)justice. The first book, ‘White fragility’ by Robin DiAngelo seemed to me to accuse white women in particular of turning racism around so that they (we!) became the victims – hurt by the very suggestion that we might be racist. DiAngelo implied that ‘colour blindness’ was an excuse for not noticing what was going on. I felt that the book was aimed at the US, not the UK. (There’s not much racism here is there?) The second book, ‘We need to talk about race’ by Ben Lindsay spread the load of guilt to the church’s past and present performance regarding racial justice. Both these books left me feeling uncertain about my current understanding of racial justice. However, it wasn’t until Al invited those of us who had read the books to a small discussion group, that my eyes were opened. Friends of colour shared examples of recent racism which they were experiencing on an almost daily basis. I was stunned as I hadn’t realised this was happening. Because I hadn’t seen it, I hadn’t understood it.

Then I was introduced to a third book, ‘Ghost Ship’ by Azariah France-Williams, which deals with institutional racism in the Church of England. Within the first few pages, I really saw and understood. I didn’t feel accused but now I could see enough to accuse myself! The author explains through stories how the ‘unseen nuances of racism’ wear people down. One description especially hit me: ‘These mini assaults on one’s personhood are death by a thousand paper cuts’. This book, together with listening to people’s personal experiences, has helped me to understand what I had previously failed to see, that racism is not always obvious, often hardly noticeable to the casual observer, but cutting to the recipient.

‘I have observed the misery of my people…
I know their sufferings
and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians’.

Now that I have seen the suffering, I want to listen more and to know. And then what am I going to do about it? Steve Chalke, in his endorsement of ‘Ghost Ship’, says ‘Racism thrives best in the company of silence’! So perhaps that’s my starting point, to watch, to listen and to not be silent.

Some prayers to begin this month:

To God we pray:
who sees us whatever we or others try to hide.
We pray to the one
who shows us the working is in the margins
and makes that place home;
who makes the out, in;
who gives the keys of the kingdom
to those who forge faith at the well… in the cave… in the hold…
to those who know the Cross.
Gather us we pray.
Open our hearts to reality.
Create in us clean hearts
and renew a right spirit within.
Amen.

Lord, your Gospel rises
when the mighty are cast down from their thrones
and the lowly are lifted up.
It is good news when the lowly exhale
all of the abundant gift that has been held in.
We pray for a church that believes in God,
and God’s wide abundance and gift.
We pray for the love that is stronger than death.
Amen.

Spirit, who hovered over the waters,
welcome in this place.
Aid us in our memory.
Rewire our flawed minds.
We cry out for the souls of all who have been enslaved,
of all who have been the victims of racist brutality,
of all who have been seen as less than human
because of the colour of their skin.
We recognise the gifts of survivors
and nurture into flourishing those who now see
the black beauty that God has always seen.
Amen.

Let us rejoice and give thanks
for brave slaves who no longer
merely plug the holes of broken vessels,
for those who inspire us to say yes to God’s will and way,
who hear the Spirit speaking through the reality of life
and with whole hearts agree
that the answer is yes, Lord, yes.
In the name of the Holy Trinity.
Amen.

Adapted from prayers by Fr Richard Springer, 1st August 2020,
at the launch of Azariah France-Williams’ book, Ghost Ship.

Questions for reflection / discussion

As I read / listened to the readings and reflections for this week…

·         what did I notice, or what particularly stood out for me?

 

·         what did they make me wonder, or what questions am I pondering?

 

·         what have they helped me realise?

 

·         is there anything I want to do or change in the light of this week's topic?

 

On this week’s theme (questions offered by Sharon Prentis)

1.       In your life, what is catching your attention today?

 

2.       Call / destiny is always in relation to other people; who are the ‘others’ for you?

 

3.       What small step might you take towards getting a vision of what God wants to show you?

 

Activities / conversation-starters
with young (and not-so-young!) people (Ruth Harley)

  • In today’s story, Moses learns something about his identity. Spend some time thinking about your identity. Who are you? What makes you who you are? Draw a picture of yourself, or find a photo of yourself. Around the picture, write some words or draw some symbols of different aspects of your identity.
  • Moses also learns something about God’s identity. Spend some time thinking about God’s identity. How many different names or images can you think of for God? Make a list, or draw some pictures. You could ask your family, friends, or other people from church what they think about who God is. Which names or images of God do you like? Are there any you don’t like, or have questions about?
  • God calls Moses to lead people out of slavery and into freedom. In our reflections today, we heard a bit about slavery and how it is linked to racism. You can read some more about that here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/newsround/52965665 Think about all the ways slavery has affected people, and the ways its legacy still affects people today. Sometimes it is hard to know how to pray about such a big, difficult situation. Make a list of key words, people involved, or collect or create some images, to use as a prompt for prayer.

 

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