Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Racial Justice (4): Betraying the system

‘Zacchaeus’, by Revd Ally Barrett

(one of the illustrations in Al Barrett & Ruth Harley,
Being Interrupted: Re-imagining the Church’s Mission from the Outside, In,
published by SCM Press on 30th November 2020)

Luke 19:1-10

[Jesus] entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

A ‘cutting’ of tree wisdom: Climbing Trees (Genny Tunbridge)

Climbing trees can be life-changing! Zacchaeus was short, so he climbed a tree to be able to see Jesus rather than remain hidden in the crowd.  Often translated as ‘sycamore’, the word Luke uses for the tree - ‘sukomorea’ - really refers to a variety of fig tree. This grows to about 20 metres, with wide spreading branches, good for climbing.

Wealthy, privileged, a corrupt beneficiary of an oppressive system… Zacchaeus had all the advantages, apart from that of height: he needed the tree to be able to see. From high in a tree, things look different – a wider horizon, a different perspective. Zacchaeus’ short stature, his one disadvantage, compelled him to climb so he could see, until - being seen by Jesus – suddenly he was able to see clearly how his own behaviour had disadvantaged others.

Luke rarely mentions precise botanical details, so when he does, we should listen. Elsewhere[1] Luke uses figs and fig trees to symbolise fruitfulness, particularly in the context of repentance and salvation. His contemporaries knew that the sukomorea fig was mostly eaten by poor people who could not afford better varieties. It is surely also not a coincidence that when Zacchaeus repents of how he has defrauded people (verse 8) the word he uses comes from ‘sukophantes’ – meaning an extortioner or defrauder, literally a fig-informer![2] Through this play on words, the fig-tree tells us what Zacchaeus has been, until his encounter with Jesus – helped by the tree – sets him on the path of righteousness[3].

Introduction to the theme (Al Barrett)

I wonder who we identify with, when we read the stories in the gospels, of Jesus’ encounters and conversations with those around him? Often, I’m guessing, we might easily find ourselves in the company of the disciples: those willing followers, who have seen something irresistible in Jesus and his way, who delight in being included in ‘the gang’, but who often come across as slow to ‘get it’ and quick to put their foot in it!

Sometimes, we might be tempted to identify with Jesus himself. Those of us with activist tendencies, especially, are often drawn to Jesus’ busyness: his teaching, preaching, and proclaiming the kingdom of God; the way he challenges the authorities, and welcomes the outcast. We want to be like that Jesus, and we might well have been encouraged – at some points in our life – to ask the question ‘What Would Jesus Do?’, and try to do likewise.

But what about the ‘baddies’ in the gospel stories? ‘The scribes and the Pharisees’ with all their trick questions and power games, the rich young ruler who just couldn’t let go of (all) his many possessions, the Roman soldiers who pop up occasionally as the human face of the occupying Empire, and even the ‘baddies-turned-goodies’ like the hated tax-collector, Zacchaeus. How often do we identify with them?

This question is important. And it’s important not just for how we relate to the stories themselves, but for how those stories shape the way we live our lives, and live out our faith. And who we identify with in the stories is intimately linked with our own identity, and the kind of position and status our identity gives us, in wider society and in church. For example (and this may or may not be obvious!), if you’re a woman, you might well find it easier to identify with female figures in the gospels than males – female figures who often go unnamed, who are not usually counted among the core group of disciples called ‘the twelve’. If you’re a man, the chances are higher that you’ll see yourself among ‘the twelve’, or even put yourself in Jesus’ shoes. Just ponder, for a moment, the way that this might see our experiences of reading the gospels diverge in dramatic, and perhaps even dangerous ways.

Less obviously, the gospels could well read very differently depending on our skin colour, and our different experiences of life because of our skin colour. Whiteness (like maleness, and middle-class-ness too) carries a whole load of assumptions: having the right to speak and be heard, being able to move unchallenged through any public space, being ‘centre-stage’ (the world revolves around me!), being the one who does things – for myself, and on behalf of others – and being ‘in charge’ or ‘in control’. When those of us with these kind of assumptions read the gospels, identifying with Jesus can be very dangerous indeed – it can reinforce exactly those assumptions that are already distorting and damaging our relationships with others.

What’s the alternative, then? For those of us who are white (as well as for those of us who are male, or middle-class, or in a position of leadership, or non-disabled, or heterosexual – let alone a combination of several of these), we might be better off identifying with Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus is an example of someone who benefitted greatly from the status quo, from the way society was organised and from his own position within it. And Zacchaeus, when he encounters Jesus, not only repents of the way he has been living and seeks to make reparations (mostly by giving away much of his money) to those he has wronged, but also, in quitting his role as a part of the Roman Empire’s economy, he becomes a traitor to the system. As in the game of Jenga, he plays his own small part in pulling out one of the many, many bricks in the tower, that brings the whole edifice just a little closer to collapsing.

For those of us who are white, then, following in Zacchaeus’ footsteps invites us to become ‘race traitors’: to pull out the next brick or two in the towers that keep whiteness ‘centre stage’ and ‘in charge’. Remember adrienne maree brown’s words we quoted two weeks ago:

‘Where we are born into privilege, we are charged with dismantling any myth of supremacy. Where we were born into struggle, we are charged with claiming our dignity, joy, and liberation.’[4]

Reflection: Reparations and Reconciliation (Professor Anthony Reddie)

Anthony is a Methodist, an author and educator, and is Director of the Oxford Centre for Religion and Culture.

The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement has brought our attention to the vexed question of how we mark the past in terms of the systemic racism that has confronted Black people over the past 500 years. Violence unleashed on Black bodies by White power, made manifest in the death of George Floyd, was nothing new. Being caught on camera was new, but his death itself was not. Long before George Floyd’s death, we had the era of slavery and then colonialism and the brutalisation of Black bodies at the hands of White power.

I write this piece as a descendant of enslaved Africans. My surname of ‘Reddie’ is a Scottish name and speaks to the fact that at some point in the 18th century, a Scottish settler in Jamaica owned one of my ancestors. The sins of the slaveowners were never accounted for in the moral and monetary economy of the nation. On the contrary, at the abolition of slavery in the British empire in in 1834, slaveowners were awarded a sum of 20 million pounds, or approximately 40% of the GNP of the nation at the time. This required the then government taking out a loan that was not repaid until 2015, through taxation. This means that the descendants of enslaved Africans like myself, who are also British citizens, having been paying for the repayment of slavery for the incarceration and oppression of my ancestors.

Many of our major institutions were involved in machinery of slavery, given the stupendous profits that were available for those prepared to dirty their consciences and souls for the dubious privilege of financial enrichment. One of these institutions was the Church of England. So in the context of Black Lives Matter, the call for reparations is one that forces British institutions to consider the legacies of slavery and what can be done to signal real solidarity with Black people, especially those who are the descendants of enslaved peoples.

The 'Black Lives Matter' movement emerged in order to counter the patently obvious fact that Black lives do not matter. This is not just a question of economics or materiality, it is also about seemingly 'ephemeral matters' like the impact on our psyche and associated questions of representation and spirituality. It has been interesting observing the concern of some white people for matters of law and order and governance and property re: the tearing down of the Colston stature in Bristol. The fact that the Church conducted a thanksgiving service for a slave trader (and philanthropist, as if the latter expunges the former) until 2017 is a brutal smack in the teeth for the descendants of enslaved Africans, the majority of whom who still identify as Christians, are Anglicans in the Church of England. It would appear that our loyalty to the state church has rarely, if ever, has been reciprocated. Reparations is not simply about monetary compensation, it is also about the recognition of our pain, frustration and endless wait for justice.

For Black lives to matter, the Church in Britain must consider the needs of their Black sisters and brothers within the body of Christ and be mindful of our psycho-social needs given the legacies of slavery. Black people in Britain continue to wrestle with our existential crucifixion that leads to us being more likely to struggle with mental ill health issues, such as schizophrenia. In light of Black Lives Matter, White people will have to live with the discomfort of wrestling with the legacies of the Edward Colston’s of this world and the patent lack of commitment to confront this unedifying part of British history, in which White Christianity in Britain is rightly indicted.

James H Cone, the greatest of all Black theologians once argued that Theology’s greatest sin was silence in the face of White supremacy.[5] We saw that quite clearly in the many years in which Edward Colston’s statue stood untouched, with a refusal of the White cultural nationalists who love the Judeo-Christian heritage of Britain, to even countenance the adding of plaque actually naming the pillar of English respectability as a slave trader.

 It is clearly the case that monetary exchange cannot repair the harm that has been exacted on African peoples, but as the current CARICOM initiative makes clear, the call for Reparation is as much for the healing of the damaged psyche of oppressors as it is for those who are the oppressed. Reparations in the context of this paper is a call for a means of justice-making that is necessary if catholicity within Christianity is to be maintained.

Invoking the biblical motif of reparation, one can identify the model of Zacchaeus (Luke 19: 1-10) as a prototype for the model of restorative justice advocated by the Tax Justice Network.[6] I think the example of Zacchaeus is a classic example for us to consider as we look at the whole question of reparations in light of Black Atlantic chattel slavery. Jesus meets Zacchaeus where he is and offers to come to his house to break bread and partake of a meal. That is, Jesus offers forgiveness by way of accepting his hospitality in the form of a meal, which some have seen as Eucharistic. Jesus’ presence ‘at table’, in fellowship with Zacchaeus can be seen as a sign of God's outpouring of love and grace on the sinner. But this act is not done in isolation. The 'Eucharistic' meal[7] is accompanied by Zacchaeus giving back the monies to all the people he has wronged and cheated.

In adopting a socio-political reading of this biblical text, one can work on the clear assumption that Zacchaeus’ wealth was accumulated by means of exploitation, and Jesus’ ethic expects Zacchaeus to give back that which he has taken from other, in order to be reconciled to God, through faith in Jesus. Interestingly, Zacchaeus does not need to be told to pay back that which he has wrongly taken. It would appear that his understanding of the ‘Jesus Way’ demands restorative justice as the self-sacrificial price to be paid for entry into this new way of living. Salvation is by means of faith and (restorative) action. Zacchaeus can do it, but the rich young man in Luke 18: vv.18-25, cannot!

The power of this process if undertaken with due consciousness to exposing the truth is one that will be unflinching and unsparing critique of the hypocrisy of White Christianity, particularly, that which has emerged from Euro-American evangelicalism.

The notion of the church as a body that is united under the Lordship of Jesus Christ is one of the enduring truths of the Christian faith. This sense of unity that is so boldly proclaimed as central to the self-understanding of the church itself, has often proved more illusionary than real.  Until the scourge or racism is seen as detrimental to unity, universality and oneness as say doctrinal differences, then the case for sacredness of catholicity within Christianity will remain imperilled. 

The Christian church is obliged to preach a gospel of reconciliation, as her Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, lived a life that was steeped in and was the epitome of reconciling love. The realities of the cross, however, is a poignant reminder that this reconciling love comes at a cost. Many theologians have written of the costly nature of grace, reminding us that mere rhetoric without prophetic action undergirded by a commitment to restorative justice is nothing more than a grossly inadequate watered version of the concentrated real thing. 

In age of Trump, Brexit and Covid 19, in which systemic racism has been made manifest, nothing less than an anti-racist model of Christian discipleship will do. It is my hope that the resurgence of Black Lives Matter will create a change of culture and ethical commitment on behalf of White people in which love and justice for one’s neighbours will be in greater evidence than has been the case in previous epochs. It is my hope that this will prove to be case!  Zacchaeus provides a telling example of what is possible if material, restorative justice is added to spiritual repentance. Too often, Black people have something of the latter, but nothing of the former. It is my hope that this will now change!

This week’s ‘5th gospel’ reflections are both from white people. This is not an accident, but intentional, as those of us who are racialised as ‘white’ continue to reflect on how we listen, learn and respond to the experiences of racism of our Black sisters and brothers.

Reflection (Ruth Harley)

You may be unsurprised to hear that I have a certain sympathy with Zacchaeus. Not just because – like me – he is ‘short in stature’ but also because, trying to see Jesus in the crowd, he climbs a tree. I have always loved climbing trees. As a child I spent a lot of time up trees and one of the things I loved about being up a tree, among the branches, was the hidden-ness of it. I could look down and watch other people, but they couldn’t easily see me. I wonder whether for Zacchaeus, as well as being a handy vantage point, the tree was appealing because it gave him the option of seeing without being seen?

Or so he thought. But Jesus does see him. Because the truth is, encounter with Jesus is never a spectator sport.  And so Zacchaeus has a choice: stay safely in his tree, unchanged by this strange encounter, or come down and open himself up to whatever might come from it.

I wonder if you can remember from childhood the feeling of being up a tree – or any high place – and preparing to jump? Perhaps you have butterflies in your stomach, or your heart is beating faster. Once you push off and let go, there is no going back.

And so it is for Zacchaeus. And so it is for all of us. Opening ourselves up in relationship with Jesus – as in any relationship – is a risky business, and there is no going back. Once we know something, or someone, we cannot un-know. For me, as a White Christian, that has been my experience of engaging with the experiences of my Black siblings in Christ, and the work of Black theologians. I cannot un-know what I now know about the racism which has pervaded, and continues to pervade, the churches and theological traditions which have formed me. I cannot un-hear the stories of pain and struggle which my Black sisters and brothers have been generous enough to share. I cannot – and I would not want to – go back to being oblivious to the unearned and unjust privilege which my Whiteness confers on me, in the church and society I inhabit.

“The truth,” Jesus said, “will set you free.” And so it will, but perhaps not without a struggle. To quote the feminist writer Gloria Steinem: “the truth will set you free… but first it will piss you off.” And so it should, when that truth is the pervasiveness of the sin of racism, and all the ways that we who are White have – knowingly or unknowingly – benefitted from it. So it should, when that truth is that the church has again failed to keep vulnerable children safe, as we learned in last week’s IICSA report. So it should whenever we see – and cannot un-see – the truth of all the ways we have failed to love our neighbour as ourselves.

But the truth will set us free, however hard it may be to hear. The truth will transform us, as Zacchaeus’ encounter with Jesus transformed him, if only we – like Zacchaeus – are brave enough to come down from whatever trees we are hiding in, to let go of whatever illusions we cling to about ourselves and our neighbours, and allow ourselves to be transformed by God who is truth and love.

Reflection (Al Barrett)

I moved around a fair bit as a child, but most of my childhood was spent between the (very white, middle-class) market town of Newbury, in Berkshire, and a (very white) Royal Air Force base on the edge of London, where housing was ordered strictly by the rank of the RAF employee (in most cases the man of the family). Among many other things my childhood gave to me, I was brought up to work hard, to be polite and respectful, and to do as I was told. Everything around me told me that this was a 2-way ‘deal’: if I kept my side of the deal, then the institutions of society would keep their side of the deal too. Those institutions were there for my benefit: to educate me, to keep me safe and healthy, to enable me to get a job and earn a living, to give space for my voice, to enable me to flourish. And Church was in on that deal too: if I kept my side, Church too would be a space where I could grow and flourish.

Thankfully, that wasn’t the sum total of my childhood learning. I was also brought up to be curious, to ask questions about the world. When we lived in Newbury, the Greenham Common air base was just down the road. We would often drive past the large, colourful camp of the ‘peace women’, and their long-term campaign against the nuclear weapons that were being kept there. I remember the general attitude of the locals to them: these women weren’t hard-workers (they were ‘lazy’ and ‘scroungers’), they weren’t polite and respectful (they were ‘rude’ and ‘smelly’), and they certainly weren’t doing as they were told – and so they deserved scorn, derision, and whatever else was coming to them. But what if – my young self wondered, quietly – what if they’re right?

As I grew up, I began to learn that institutions often care less about people than I thought: that our end of ‘the deal’ often isn’t reciprocated as much as we’d like to imagine, and that they can demand more from us than they have a right to. My dad worked hard, got promoted repeatedly, but did that make him happy? Not so much.

But it took until my mid-20s before I began to realise that ‘the system’ works much better for some people (especially for people who were white, middle-class and male like me) than for others. For most of my adult life I’ve lived in neighbourhoods where it’s been very clear that ‘the system’ is failing many of my neighbours: failing to keep them safe and healthy, failing to enable them to learn and grow and flourish. But it’s only been in very recent years that I’ve really, with my head and heart, begun to understand how much ‘the system’ is failing so many of my sisters and brothers of colour: failing to keep them safe and healthy; failing to educate, employ and pay them fairly; failing to give them justice, to give them space for their voice, to enable them to flourish.[8]

And the Church – the institution that has kept me in a job for the last 20 years – has too often been part of that ‘system’, rather than a prophetic challenge to it. People like me have been part of the problem, rather than part of the change that’s needed. Even in our own local church, in our local councils and boards and other structures – even now – those having their say, making the decisions, setting the agenda remain overwhelmingly white.

Zacchaeus is an uneasy inspiration for me. As a tax-collector he no doubt worked hard, he might well have been polite and respectful, and he did as he was told by the people up the food chain from him. When he encountered Jesus, he didn’t go back to his job as a good, hard-working, ‘reformed’ tax-collector. He calls out ‘the system’, compensates everyone who’d been wronged by it at his hands, and – I imagine – walks away from everything that his previous life involved. He no longer does as he has been told by his masters. He becomes a traitor to the system that had previously benefitted him. I’ve only taken the first few steps on Zacchaeus’ journey of conversion. I know there’s a long way still to go.

Some resources for self-reflection and prayer:

An Examen for Racial Justice

An ‘examen’ is a series of questions for self-reflection, before God, looking back over a day, a week, a season – or even a lifetime!

  • Have I fully loved God and fully loved my neighbour as myself?
  • Have I caused pain to others by my actions or my words that offended my brother or my sister?
  • Have I done enough to inform myself about the sin of racism, its roots, and its historical and contemporary manifestations? Have I opened my heart to see how unequal access to economic opportunity, jobs, housing, and education on the basis of skin colour, race, or ethnicity, has denied and continues to deny the equal dignity of others?
  • Is there a root of racism within me that blurs my vision of who my neighbour is?
  • Have I ever witnessed an occasion when someone “fell victim” to personal, institutional, systematic or social racism and I did or said nothing, leaving the victim to address their pain alone?
  • Have I ever witnessed an occasion when someone “fell victim” to personal, institutional, systematic or social racism with me inflicting the pain, acting opposite of love of God and love of neighbour?
  • Have I ever lifted up and aided a person who “fell victim” to personal, institutional, systematic or social racism and paid a price for extending mercy to the other? How did I react? Did my faith grow? Am I willing to grow even more in faith through my actions?

by To Go Forth – a blog from the USCCB, Department of Justice, Peace & Human Development - inspired by Pope Francis.

A Prayer for my White Colleagues in Education, by Sarah Signorino

(although this prayer was written in the United States, in the context of an educational institution, hardly a word would not apply for those of us who are white in a UK context, in our workplaces, neighbourhoods, our society more widely – and yes, our church too)

Lord, help me wallow in my discomfort,
stew in my unease,
sit with my disquiet.

As we journey through this
racialized pandemic,
harmful leadership,
clear inequities,
Aid us in our focus.

How are we people for and with others?
Help us open our eyes
as we look at our own faculty, our staff, our boards, our students.
What do they look like?
What voices are absent?

Help us acknowledge our history:
What have we done to exclude, persecute, and silence?
How have we been complicit?
Forgive us for not being there, for not doing enough.

How can we invite, empower, and lift up these voices?
We need to do better.
We need to move now.
Who can we invite to our tables?

Help us go to the margins,
especially those at our own institutions.
Let us stand with the lonely,
the sick, the persecuted, those who have been violated.
Let us sit with them,
in our own unease.

Help us listen to these voices.
Help us reflect.
Help us prayerfully act.
Help us rise,
not to erase our discomfort
but to be fully present,
seeking solidarity,
seeking repentance.

Lord, help us wallow in our discomfort,
Let us lean in.

These resources for prayer and reflection are taken from:

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?

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

  • In today’s Gospel reading, there were things Zacchaeus needed to let go of in order to follow Jesus – his money, his assumptions, his power and privilege… I wonder what you need to let go of? What separates you from God or neighbour, or stops you following Jesus more fully? Write or draw the things you need to let go of on a piece of paper, fold the paper into a paper aeroplane, and let go of it – throw it as far as you can.
  • Find a tree you can climb (or, if you can’t go out, either find something to – safely – climb on indoors, or look at the image on the front of this week’s worship pack and imagine you have climbed the tree with Zacchaeus).  Climb to a height were it is just about safe to jump down, but feels a bit risky. Sit in the tree and wonder… I wonder how Zacchaeus felt when he was in the tree? I wonder if it was easy or difficult to decide to come down? I wonder how he felt when he came down from the tree? I wonder how you feel when you look down from the tree and think about jumping? If you are feeling brave enough, jump down… I wonder how you felt when you jumped?
  • After Zacchaeus came down from the tree, Jesus went back to Zacchaeus’ house with him for a meal. We don’t know what happened during that meal, or what they talked about, but we can imagine… Imagine a conversation between Jesus and Zacchaeus. You might want to write down what you imagine. You could even turn it into a script and record or video it. 

[1] Luke 6.43-45, 13.6-9, 21.29-31

[2] ‘Who cares that it was a sycamore? Climbing trees and playing on words in Luke 19.1-10’, J L Magness (Leaven, vol 5, 1997)

[3] Zacchaeus means ‘righteous’.

[4] adrienne maree brown, ‘Report: Recommendations for us right now from a future’,

[5] See James H. Cone ‘Theology’s Great Sin: Silence in the face of White Supremacy.’ Black Theology: An International Journal, Vol.2, No.2, 2004), pp.139-152.

[6] The Church Action Tax Justice network is seeking to campaign for a progressive and redistributive model tax that will see rich companies pay their fair share of taxation that will contribute to the wider cause of social justice.

[7] I am not assuming that this meal can necessarily be understood as Eucharistic one in the strict sense of that term; but even if this is not the case, it still represents Christ's healing presence with an estranged individual.

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