Thursday, October 1, 2020

Racial Justice (2): Faith & injustice (i) - challenging pious hypocrisy

Lino Ponteboon, The Angry Christ (from The Christ We Share resource pack)

 



Isaiah 58:1-12 (The Message version)

1-3 “Shout! A full-throated shout!
Hold nothing back—a trumpet-blast shout!
Tell my people what’s wrong with their lives,
face my family Jacob with their sins!
They’re busy, busy, busy at worship, and love studying all about me.
To all appearances they’re a nation of right-living people—
law-abiding, God-honouring.
They ask me, ‘What’s the right thing to do?’
and love having me on their side.
But they also complain,
‘Why do we fast and you don’t look our way?
Why do we humble ourselves and you don’t even notice?’

3-5 “Well, here’s why:

“The bottom line on your ‘fast days’ is profit.
You drive your employees much too hard.
You fast, but at the same time you bicker and fight.
You fast, but you swing a mean fist.
The kind of fasting you do
won’t get your prayers off the ground.
Do you think this is the kind of fast day I’m after:
a day to show off humility?
To put on a pious long face and parade around solemnly in black?
Do you call that fasting, a fast day that I, God, would like?

6-9 “This is the kind of fast day I’m after:
to break the chains of injustice,
get rid of exploitation in the workplace,
free the oppressed, cancel debts.
What I’m interested in seeing you do is:
sharing your food with the hungry,
inviting the homeless poor into your homes,
putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad,
being available to your own families.
Do this and the lights will turn on,
and your lives will turn around at once.
Your righteousness will pave your way.
The God of glory will secure your passage.
Then when you pray, God will answer.
You’ll call out for help and I’ll say, ‘Here I am.’

9-12 “If you get rid of unfair practices,
quit blaming victims, quit gossiping about other people’s sins,
If you are generous with the hungry
and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out,
Your lives will begin to glow in the darkness,
your shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight.
I will always show you where to go.
I’ll give you a full life in the emptiest of places—
firm muscles, strong bones.
You’ll be like a well-watered garden,
a gurgling spring that never runs dry.
You’ll use the old rubble of past lives to build anew,
rebuild the foundations from out of your past.
You’ll be known as those who can fix anything,
restore old ruins, rebuild and renovate,
make the community liveable again.

 

Matthew 23:1-28

23 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honour at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

13 “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them. 14 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance you make long prayers; therefore you will receive the greater condemnation. 15 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.

16 “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the sanctuary is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gold of the sanctuary is bound by the oath.’ 17 You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the sanctuary that has made the gold sacred? 18 And you say, ‘Whoever swears by the altar is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gift that is on the altar is bound by the oath.’ 19 How blind you are! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20 So whoever swears by the altar, swears by it and by everything on it; 21 and whoever swears by the sanctuary, swears by it and by the one who dwells in it; 22 and whoever swears by heaven, swears by the throne of God and by the one who is seated upon it.

23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. 24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!

25 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean.

27 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. 28 So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

A ‘cutting’ of tree wisdom (Genny Tunbridge)

In the past, vast numbers of trees in our country were felled to build ships. This poem explores how many of those ships were used, and the links between Britain’s prosperity and the international slave trade.

[You can watch/listen to Mark Thompson reading his poem here]

Seed of the fruit – Mark Thompson

What if these once shivering timbers could talk?

Tell tales about those who once walked between them?

The scenes that they’d not so much seen

as absorbed with the salt of the spray and the tears shed

in the triangular trade in which so many souls were bought and sold,

young and old alike,

back in the days when the darker fruits of the tree of humanity

were just another commodity to be transported

for an unfeasibly large profit on a disgracefully small fee?

A fruit which, like any other, could so easily spoil

once it was separated from the roots and the soil

of the land where it had been grown,

from all that it ever loved, all it had ever known,

imprisoned as much by the high seas as the tall ships

from where the shores were not visible for weeks at a time,

where hope disappeared beneath yards of sail and rope

dancing to the twin tunes of the whistle of the wind and the whip.


There are so many more than nine tales to be told,

including those of the weak, the sick and the unbreakably bold,

who could not be cowed between stern and bow

and rebelled somehow, despite the shackles.

Some argue those warriors, brothers, mothers and others

who never made the journey’s end were in fact the lucky ones -

but there were no winners here, in the squalor between the decks.

For most, just unending fear and punishment

for the crime of not dying.


But that’s a lie.

For some this gamble payed off royally,
     building fortunes, cities, even empires,

including ours, those of Spain, Portugal and the Dutch,

all of which owed as much

to the unutterably unholy sales of not just the flesh present

but of the generations to come.


I wonder what my ancestors on board would have made of me,

Seed of the fruit of the seed of the fruit
     of the seed of the fruit of the seed of the fruit

Of the tree of which they are the root?


Perhaps one day I’ll ask them. 

But until then I’d ask you to remember them,

And to join the dots in the chain that link us all.

 

A poem by Anglo-Jamaican spoken word artist and activist Mark Thompson, commissioned in 2020 by the National Maritime Museum.

Introduction to the theme (Al Barrett)

This is our second of five weeks focusing on the vital theme of racial justice in both the Church and the wider world.

Over the next two weeks, we’ll spend some time with two chapters of the prophet Isaiah: 58 and 59. Many biblical scholars believe this ‘third part’ of the book of Isaiah was (unlike parts 1 and 2) not written in the middle of Israel’s exile in Babylon (as the people wrestled with the pulls of ‘returning home’ and ‘putting down roots in a strange land’). Instead, they suggest it was written after the ‘return home’ – in a time that they had hoped would be ‘back to normal’, but which was, in reality, a long way from paradise. Their beloved city of Jerusalem is in ruins, and the work of re-building is slow and hard. Many of them long for a day when they can once again worship in a rebuilt Temple, but there is more than just bricks and mortar that need attention. As we read in today’s passage, the people have lost the plot: what they call ‘worship’ has got nothing to do with the deep work of loving God and loving their neighbours, and everything to do with the shallow appearance of piety and holiness.

It’s sometimes said that ‘religion and politics don’t mix’. But the prophet here says the total opposite: so-called ‘religious’ worship and so-called ‘political’ justice must go hand in hand; the former without the latter is just play-acting. Or, as the late Professor John Hull put it with prophetic starkness:

"Worship without ethics is blasphemy.

Prayer without action is futility.

Faith without works is deadly."

The Greek word from which we get the word ‘hypocrisy’ originally meant ‘acting a part in a play’. Hypocrisy is about pretending in public to be something different to who we really are. Following faithfully in a long line of Jewish prophets, Jesus had harsh words for the religious hypocrites he saw around him:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.” (Matthew 23:27)

We cannot claim to worship God, if we live as if the injustices of poverty, racism and environmental destruction are ‘somebody else’s problem’. Isaiah and Jesus speak to us, call us out for our hypocrisy, challenge us to link our years of faithful church attendance, and fine words of theology and prayer, with real and ongoing efforts of sharing what we have with our neighbours near and far, and working with others to  ‘break the chains of injustice, get rid of exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed, [and] cancel debts’ (Isaiah 58:6-9).

This is work for all of us who call ourselves Christians. For those of us who are white, it also involves honestly facing up to how much we benefit from the status quo, from the way the world is currently organised – because it is organised around people who look like us. What is often called ‘white privilege’ doesn’t mean that those of us who are white live always-comfortable lives, never have to struggle, have never been on the sharp end of injustice. ‘White privilege’ just means that those challenges, struggles and injustices have never been related to the colour of our skin – because our skin colour is normally invisible to us. Racism, deep in the roots of our society, means that if your skin is black or brown, you face all those challenges, struggles and injustices that your white sisters and brothers have to deal with, and other challenges, struggles and injustices that are based on your skin colour alone – and that those of us who are white are able to live most of our lives blissfully unaware of.

If we’re white, we’re statistically more likely to get a job, to be paid more for our work, and to be listened to in public conversations, than our black sisters and brothers. If our skin is black or brown, we’re statistically more likely to get stopped by the police, imprisoned unjustly, and die younger, than our white siblings. If our Christian faith can’t acknowledge this deadly Sin of racism – in our world, in our country, in our churches, and in our own lives – and work to address it, then that faith is nothing but a pretty tomb full of dead bones.

‘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.’[1]

The book of Genesis, as we saw a few weeks back, begins with a well-watered garden, where human beings and God are free to walk together, play together, with dignity and joy, and without fear, suspicion or shame. Acknowledging injustice, and struggling for justice, are quite literally joining with God in ‘re-making the world’. That, say Isaiah and Jesus, is what ‘worship’ really means.

Reflection (Revd Farai Mapamula)

Farai is minister at Castle Bromwich Methodist Church.

Isaiah 58: 1 – 12

Isaiah is announcing God’s judgment on Judah and Israel on the way their religious behaviour and practices are not aligned with God’s commandments and their responsibility as stewards of the earth. As God’s agent, Isaiah challenged their acts of fasting because their behaviour included false humility, quarrelling and even fighting. “You call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?” Isaiah said.

It was not a matter of going through some routine ritual, like changing our diets for a period of six weeks. God has different expectations for believers. God wants genuine repentance and genuine reform. What the Israelites needed to be doing was aiding the poor, feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. “Is not this the fast that I choose: to share your bread…?”

This passage resonates with various aspects of our own times. Our lives as people of God should reflect the Christ-like love for our neighbour. Isaiah is challenging his fellow citizens and religious leaders who observed the fast but did not practice peace and justice to turn away from such hypocrisy. Love of God is not just expressed in the observance of religious order and ritual, but in the way we treat fellow human beings, because that is what God expects and demands from us. Love of God expressed through worship and tradition should be naturally followed by active service and active love of the other, without qualification of whether they themselves are God fearing or not.

There are many self-professed Christians who cannot see the devastation caused by the consumerism that we buy into – instant, cheap access to everything – food, clothes, gadgets, furniture etc.  All these creature comforts are mass-produced at the exploitation of other human beings.  The international economy has become a finely tuned machine for exploiting and disempowering labour in favour of capital. UNICEF reports on the use of child labour to produce cheap clothes that end up in our shops.  Because in any situation of injustice be it of war or strife displacement, children suffer most, and be it drought, disease or poverty, it is he children who suffer the most.

This mass-production is also exploiting and ravaging the earth’s resources, rain forests are disappearing because of logging and palm oil production. Many poorer nations in the Global South are now feeling the rough end of Climate change because the seasons have become shorter or longer, resulting in either floods or drought. This is devastating our neighbours – both far and near.

God cares about every human being, and calls us to care for each other too. Just being at Church on Sunday is not enough. We must act to reduce or eradicate our neighbour’s suffering, whether far or near, whether we know them or not. Therefore, living a Christ like life that exemplifies God’s love in both deed and word is what God requires of us – to shun all ways of selfishness, greed, hatred and prejudice and to embrace all ways that foster human flourishing, always seeking justice and peace for all humanity.

But these cannot be achieved just by how we worship, fast, sing or pray, but by active love and compassion. All our missional work should be striving to achieve social justice, rather than being an expression of how righteous and good we are as Christians. We are being challenged to a lived-out faith where one cares for one’s neighbour. What is Isaiah saying to us? Social justice issues are a given. They deserve a greater priority than ritualistic behaviours and practices.

Matthew 23: 1 – 28

What robs communities of their peace?? Inequalities of all varieties! These days the language employed in our political arena is always offering charismatic, upbeat, promising words to assure citizens that they are doing what is right and good and necessary.  Empires are like that.

But to be honest, is our language and Church any different? Sometimes I wonder whether our litanies and prayers for peace and justice do more to placate our guilty consciences than they serve to move us to action. It is easy to point fingers at politicians and leaders whose speeches are designed to give the public what they want to hear.  Jesus is asking us today; what about the disconnect in our own lives between our ever-so-eloquent religious language and the nitty-gritty choices we make every day?  Do our words match our actions?

Jesus’ words in this Gospel reading can be heard as a reminder to practice what we preach, to do more than wear our prayers for peace as long fringes and broad phylacteries, symbolic of our piety and faithfulness, but ultimately empty if they are not part of an active life of service.

Until we suffer with those who suffer; weep with those who weep; look deeply into the eyes of the Other – our neighbour whoever they are – even those we deem different or enemy, and crossing the boundaries that we have erected around ourselves to keep us separate from their pain, peace will remain an illusion. We have mastered the art of maintaining the status quo, hence change is always difficult, so we prefer not “to rock the boat”, because this will maintain and protect our comfort. But what about the suffering, the oppressed, the poor, the homeless – all those on the margins, what message are we sending to them via our message of peace? Our words must match our actions.

Our calls to justice and peace start with us. Jesus is calling us to an alternative reality that dies of the ego and awakens as new life in the other! What needs to die in me today so others may live?

Reflection (Muriel Francis)

I was born in St Kitts; my mother was a Methodist and my father was Anglican. They were strict parents but caring as well. I have 12 siblings and I am the 8th child, although there were many of us, we looked after one another. We had a plantation with a variety of vegetables and animals to nourish the family.

I went to school at The Parish of St Thomas Middle Island School. School started at 9:30 and it was a 3 mile walk to get there. Arriving on time was very important and the school held a high standard of cleanliness and etiquette. I was very active and took part in many school sports from swimming to running. We lived near the sea so I could practice swimming regularly.

At the age of 14, I was convinced to go to a gospel church. The experience was moving as I could feel the spirit of the Lord. However, I went back to my previous Anglican church and become a part of the Choir.

After I left school, I become a shop assistant while learning needlework.  I came to England in the 1960s and I lived in Nottingham for 9 months. I moved to Birmingham in 1963. Initially, I was working at a car factory afterwards I went to work at Smith and Nephew. I wanted to find a church in Birmingham, so I went to St Philip and St James church. I didn’t feel accepted by the community and left quickly. Then I went to Blue Cross church, but I believed that I needed an Anglican church, so I returned to St Philips and St James church.

On my second try, I was welcomed by Bill Rogers’ first wife Maureen, Allannah, Penny’s mother, Joan and Cliff Gerrard, and Lyn. They made me feel comfortable in church and I felt more secure as they supported me. After that I flourished and became a part of the church. The minsters as well offered their support. I then began to do small tasks at the church to give back to the community that supported me. Andrew Fisher then approached me to ask if I wanted to become a server.

I was nervous and had trouble expressing myself as I am a reserved person. Over time, I became more confident in my role as a server and a part of the church community. I also had the opportunity to go on 3 pilgrimages, all of which made me feel closer to the lord. Each time was a very spiritual experience and I could feel it stirring my heart.

Personally, I found the lockdown quite saddening as the church couldn’t meet together. I enjoy the communication that we have during services. Although it is inspiring how the community still manages to keep in contact. Members of the church such as Joy and Bill, Joe and Pat helped me with my shopping and keep me connected. I hope that everyone is doing well during this time and I hope everyone remains strong.

Dear God, thank you for the love and support of my friends,
please bless everyone in this difficult time and keep us strong. Amen.

Reflection (Janey Barrett)

In our first reading, Isaiah’s sense of frustration and anguish is real. He is surrounded by people who seem to be making a real mess of things. They seem largely concerned about themselves, and whether they are being seen to do the ‘right things’. This is repeated by Jesus in the gospel reading who is warning his friends and disciples about the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. Even though these readings are from a very long time ago, we can look at our world and look at our society and feel the very same frustrations as Isaiah. We can also look at our government and see the very same types of hypocrisy that Jesus was talking about. Even today, there are still some major imbalances and injustices in our world.

If I am totally honest, I have struggled in the last 6 months to work out what having faith looks like when the world around me feels so muddled. I don’t understand why people who are my friends and neighbours are struggling to feed their families. I cannot believe that it has taken the death of George Floyd for people to begin to realise that Black Lives Matter. And I can’t make sense of why a teenage girl is trolled on social media because she realises the severity of the climate emergency.

Today, as we continue our journey through Black History Month, I want to focus on what it means for me to be a white woman clinging onto faith. Without question, the world was rocked by the death of George Floyd, and it is frightening to think that it is only when there is tragedy that people become stirred to think differently. When I first moved to Birmingham I worked in Handsworth and Lozells as a youth and community worker. One of the defining moments for me there happened one Wednesday evening at our weekly youth club session. There had been a fight outside the community centre, and as a result the police presence that night was high. As the youth club closed and the young people were going home, I saw a police officer aggressively saying to one of the black young men, “What have you been doing and where have you been tonight?” The boy said, “in there,” pointing at the community centre building, and then, understandably, running away. My team and I spent the rest of the evening taking the young people in the mini bus to their front doors so we knew they would not get stopped and questioned by the police.

On reflection, I think I was quite blasé at the time about the situation, as this was “just what happened to boys like this”. It was only a year or so later, when I was studying for my Masters and was doing some specific research about the identity formation of young black boys from Lozells, that I began to realise not only the significant difference between me and them, but also my complicity in the institutional racism of the police, by not doing more for the boys that evening where the fight broke out. For my non-understanding and lack of action I am sorry.

I know that there is a huge amount more to do in tackling racism at all levels of our society, and if nothing else, I hope this phase of feeling like I’m “hanging on by a thread” is giving me a deeper awareness of my own privilege, so that I am better able to stand with those who experience injustice in ways that I don’t because of the colour of my skin. Part of holding on to faith is working out together how we can build a world that promotes flourishing, that can support each individual to know their unique value regardless of ethnicity, that can challenge injustice, and that truly believes God’s promise that there will be “life in the emptiest of places” and the community will be “liveable again”.

A lament for slaveholder religion
and the ongoing racism that infects us
(Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove)

Jesus, we confess that we have inherited a faith that was used to justify the theft of native lands and the enslavement of Black bodies. From this sin, we ask for deliverance.

Forgive us for where we have failed to understand, Lord,
and in your mercy, set us free.

Touch hearts that have been shrivelled by generations of suppressed empathy, and eyes that have lost the ability to see siblings who suffer from systemic injustice.

Forgive us for where we have failed to understand, Lord,
and in your mercy, set us free.

Grant us courage to renounce the false teaching, that we can somehow know you without being committed to justice for all people.

Forgive us for where we have failed to understand, Lord,
and in your mercy, set us free.

In your mercy, help us mourn the divisions among the body of Christ, and work for its healing in the places where we gather to worship you.

Forgive us for where we have failed to understand, Lord,
and in your mercy, set us free.

Embolden us to resist the political forces that oppose the liberation and empowerment of many human beings, by appealing to traditional values and idealizing a past when white men were in charge.

Forgive us for where we have failed to understand, Lord,
and in your mercy, set us free.

As we name and unlearn the habits of racist religion, give us grace to draw deeply from the witness of the movements that have always resisted injustice in the power of your Spirit.

Forgive us for where we have failed to understand, Lord,
and in your mercy, set us free.

We give thanks that there is a river of witnesses that flows from Sojourner Truth and Olaudah Equiano, through Mary Seacole and Martin Luther King Jr., through Desmond Tutu and Delores Williams, to the prophetic leaders who guide, challenge and inspire us today. Give us grace to follow them to freedom.

Forgive us for where we have failed to understand, Lord,
and in your mercy, set us free.

 

(adapted from Britney Winn Lee (ed.), Rally: Communal Prayers for Lovers of Jesus and Justice, Nashville: Fresh Air Books, 2020)

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

  • Both of this week’s bible readings make a stark contrast between doing things to look good (‘hypocrisy’), and doing what God wants us to do. Read again the Isaiah (chapter 58) reading. Can you think of people in the news, or people that you know, who are living in the contrasting ways Isaiah describes here?
  • ‘Hypocrisy’ literally means ‘playing a part in a play’ – it suggests the idea of wearing a mask. Try drawing / painting / cutting out 2 masks that would fit your face (you could attach them to your head with string or elastic).
  • Thinking of one of the people in the news from the first action point, make one mask to depict how you think they want to be seen by other people, and one mask which is more honest about their actions.
  • What might your masks look like if you depicted your own face – how you want to be seen, and how you are in reality?
  • Read the Isaiah reading again. Remember that God knows you and loves you just as you are. Does the Isaiah reading inspire you with one action or commitment that you could decide to do, that would (in Isaiah’s poetic words) make you ‘begin to glow in the darkness’?



[1] adrienne maree brown, ‘Report: Recommendations for us right now from a future’, http://sublevelmag.com/report-recommendations-for-us-right-now-from-a-future

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