‘Couple reaching up’, Evelyn Williams
Isaiah 59:1-15 (The Message version)
God’s arm is not amputated—he can still save.
God’s ears are not stopped up—he can still hear.
There’s nothing wrong with God; the wrong is in you.
Your wrongheaded lives caused the split between you and God.
Your sins got between you so that he doesn’t hear.
Your hands are drenched in blood,
your fingers dripping with guilt,
Your lips smeared with lies,
your tongue swollen from muttering obscenities.
No one speaks up for the right,
no one deals fairly.
They trust in illusion, they tell lies,
they get pregnant with mischief and have sin-babies.
They hatch snake eggs and weave spider webs.
Eat an egg and die; break an egg and get a snake!
The spider webs are no good for shirts or shawls.
No one can wear these weavings!
They weave wickedness,
they hatch violence.
They compete in the race to do evil
and run to be the first to murder.
They plan and plot evil, think and breathe evil,
and leave a trail of wrecked lives behind them.
They know nothing about peace
and less than nothing about justice.
They make tortuously twisted roads.
No peace for the wretch who walks down those roads!
means that we’re a far cry from fair dealing,
and we’re not even close to right living.
We long for light but sink into darkness,
long for brightness but stumble through the night.
Like the blind, we inch along a wall,
groping eyeless in the dark.
We shuffle our way in broad daylight,
like the dead, but somehow walking.
We’re no better off than bears, groaning,
and no worse off than doves, moaning.
We look for justice—not a sign of it;
for salvation—not so much as a hint.
wrongdoings pile up before you, God,
our sins stand up and accuse us.
Our wrongdoings stare us down;
we know in detail what we’ve done:
Mocking and denying God,
not following our God,
Spreading false rumours, inciting sedition,
pregnant with lies, muttering malice.
Justice is beaten back,
Righteousness is banished to the side-lines,
Truth staggers down the street,
Honesty is nowhere to be found,
Good is missing in action.
Anyone renouncing evil is beaten and robbed.
A ‘cutting’ of tree wisdom: Strange Fruit (Genny Tunbridge)
The height, shape and strength of trees have allowed humans to put them to deadly use. Dule trees (trees of sorrow) were used for centuries in Britain as gallows for public hangings. British colonial forces in India in the 19th century repeatedly used banyan and peepul trees (sacred to Hindus, Buddhists and Jains) for mass hangings of rebels.
In the United States, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, lynching (mostly by hanging from trees), became commonplace as a form of extrajudicial murder often condoned by the authorities; most victims, especially after the emancipation of slaves, were African Americans. Photographs were often taken of these horrific events; one such photo, of the 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Indiana, prompted Jewish-American songwriter and unionist Abel Meeropol to write the song ‘Strange Fruit’, recorded most notably by Billie Holiday. Her performance conveys the shocking images with searing, haunting power which “leave[s] both the singer and the audience no place to hide.”
Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swingin' in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin' from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulgin' eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burnin' flesh
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop
Introduction to the theme (Al Barrett)
We often think of ‘confession’ is an individual thing – private, even. The small, curtained boxes called ‘confessionals’ reinforce that idea. But even when we ‘confess our sins’ in Sunday services of ‘public worship’, it’s very rare that we name out loud what those ‘sins’ might be. A lot of that is linked to the destructive dynamics of shame that Sally explored for us a few weeks ago – if other people (even some of our nearest and dearest) knew some of the things we’ve done in our worst moments, they would look at us with horror or disgust, and we’d never be able to look at them in the eye again.
As someone whose ministry includes listening confidentially to people sharing some of their deepest, most secret truths, and who has also been on the confessing end of what Anglicans call ‘the sacrament of reconciliation’, I can testify to the liberating power of being able to speak out loud those things which weigh heavy on our hearts, and to hear from another (just as fallible) human being that we are held in God’s love and forgiveness. But those spaces for being ‘heard to speech’ are safe for us to be fearlessly honest precisely because we know that what we say in them will not be made public.
What this week’s reading from Isaiah 59 points us to, is the possibility, and in fact the necessity, of discovering just such a fearless honesty in public: not for us as individuals, but for us as a community – both as a church, and as a society. As we’ve already explored in the first two weeks of this season focusing on Black History and Racial Justice, racism goes deep into our history as a nation, and deep into the history of the Christian Church – whether Anglican or Reformed. And those histories are still working out their legacy in the present: through the ‘hostile environment’ to immigrants and those seeking asylum, through the systemic disadvantaging and devaluing of, and discrimination and violence against, people of colour in our society, and through the racially-biased inequalities of power and voice in both nation and church. All this needs confessing, bringing into the open, examining under the spotlight and before God – as together we seek ways of bringing change, and living differently. I wonder where we might find ourselves in Isaiah’s prayer of confession today?
UPDATE 7/10/20: Yesterday the independent inquiry (IICSA) into safeguarding in the Church of England was published, detailing hundreds of cases of over the years where children and adults have been abused by clergy and other people in positions of power in the Church, and where repeatedly those survivors have been ignored or silenced, their disclosures covered up, and their abusers protected by the institutions of the Church. Although this is a broader issue than race – including also imbalances of power that come with differences of class, gender, sexuality, dis/ability, and position or status – in a week focusing on ‘acknowledging collective sin’ these systemic failures can’t go unmentioned. Both safeguarding failures, and racism, are about both an imbalance of power and an abuse of that imbalance of power – and both demand of us all (and especially any of us in positions of privilege, power, authority or oversight) public, collective acknowledgment, repentance, and systemic change – at all levels.
Reflection: faith and faithfulness (Revd Dr Michael Jagessar)
Michael is a URC minister, a previous Moderator of the URC General Assembly, and is currently Mission Secretary (Europe) at the Council for World Mission.
The reach of racism, of racist frameworks – ideas of exceptionalism, supremacy, whiteness – has a long, embedded, and subliminal history. Black History Month provides us with an opportunity to highlight and celebrate the achievements and contributions of ‘people of colour’, and in the process to unearth the latent histories and narratives that shape our life together. The idol of whiteness and white privilege is a primary contributing factor as to why ‘black history’ remains hidden and often erased from our consciousness. This idol was conceived, birthed, and nurtured by human minds and hands in the Northern Hemisphere. It governs cultural, economic, and political norms and it devours victims through physical, psychological, and spiritual violence. It leaves a gaping hole in our collective consciousness. Though no Church would claim to be racist nor excluding, racism and exclusion happen in our faith communities. Recent and current events around us underscore this fact.
One of the easiest and default responses from the authorities, be such state or church, is to put it down to the obnoxious behaviour of a few bad or ill-brought up individuals. The Status Quo would have us believe this, missing the underlying systemic issues, absolving ourselves of collective responsibility, and thereby protecting the order of things. Idols are strong and systemic do not wish to be confronted or challenged. It will require more than human minds and hands. The disintegration of idols and the transformation of death into life, must also be a matter of faith and faithfulness. Otherwise, the idol will consume us and refashion us in its own image.
Reflect on the story of Jesus from this perspective. This maverick Jewish Rabbi took a trip up-stream, against the flow of such idols in his time. It took him into public spaces where systemic evil was at work. Consider a few: the gatekeepers of organized religion angry at him for breaking their religious rules on eating habits, for keeping company with dodgy outcast characters, for threatening the temple business, for breaking religious distancing and for generating a large following. The occupying authorities (Empire’s agents) were suspicious of anyone stirring up dissent, while keen to please the local ruling elites whom they have co-opted! Taking on or rising-up against the status quo is always costly. Jesus paid the ultimate price - with his life. The ‘forces’ that kill Jesus are still with us today, causing much brokenness – pain – crucifixion - death. Organised religion would want us to believe Jesus died for our sins. This was an astute move to take our gaze from the fact that Jesus got sacrificed, because of evil and for taking the side of justice rooted in love to re-claim the image of God in each one of us. He took on the system and their distortions of God’s dream for the whole of creation and it was costly.
Consider our text (Isaiah 59:1-15): would Jesus have been familiar with it, given the ways he took on the injustices around him? If we are looking for a passage to ‘chant down racist Babylon’ (Bob Marley and the Wailers style) then this text is one you should not miss. I wonder why the liturgical collaborators who arranged the Common Lectionary readings may have missed this from the 3 year cycle? In these verses you will find doxological style chants against injustice deploying some very poetic language to take on the collective sins of the community. Some may wish to read these verses as directed to individual wrongdoing: this may be what those interpreters who are keen to keep oppressive systems in place, while safeguarding their own privilege, would have us believe!
Let me invite you to firstly read Isaiah 59:1-15 in the version you may be most familiar with. Then read the passage again a second time: this time using The Message version that we’ve used here. Read slowly, allowing words, phrases, and images to grab you, sink in and get under your skin. I can assure you, that once you have suspended your prejudice for your familiar version of the bible, the words, images and power of these verses will hit with real time descriptors to what is happening around us as we lament injustice – incompetence – privilege – lies – denial of truth – inequities – the commodification of every aspect of our lives and much more. Allow me to highlight a few in the context of our thematic focus: wrong-headed lives / weave wickedness / hatch violence / justice beaten back / truth staggers down the street / honesty is nowhere to be found / good is missing in action / anyone renouncing evil is beaten and robbed / far cry from fair dealing / not a soul around to correct this awful situation / God couldn’t believe what God saw….
These images/words nail the heart of our collective failure of walking the way of justice and taking the side of the most vulnerable – reminding people then and today where the wrong and evil is, and our need to wrestle with our part (consciously or unconsciously) in allowing truth to stagger in our communities and justice beaten back by our complicity. Isaiah is spot on then and for today: the wrongness is not with God: it is with us – our hands and hearts are not clean; we are all dripping with guilt; lies have taken over every part of our forked tongues; we have surrounded ourselves with illusions as we are co-opted into the ways of manufactured lies, and much more. Our wrongdoing piles up before the Divine: justice and fair dealing are lacking. God cannot believe what God is seeing. The injustice also suffocates God: as God’s faithfulness (the Hebrew word is hesed) has been thrown-out, literally experiencing a chronic ‘housing problem’ as we continue to deny and distort the God’s in our fellow humans and the whole of creation.
As we continue the long-haul and demands of cultivating and embodying anti- racist habits, Isaiah’s deploying of a poetics of justice invites human agency (us) to dare to boldly step out and into the way of God’s economy of flourishing life for all. Read the verses again – listen to the whispers of the leaves – sense the root of the injustice – feel the assuring trunk of the God in Christ and partner to uproot the evil (starting with self). Here are emancipatory yearnings in the wailings of the prophet: the edifice of racism must tumble so that all can breathe again and together.
“Please, I can’t breathe”: do you remember George Floyd’s desperate cries for help as he gasped for breath and clung to life due to the senseless brutality of the policing machinery? Where is the system’s boot on the neck, throat, and heartbeat of sisters and brother and where is protest and movement to dare to ask the critical, collective, and systemic questions? Where and how must our life together reflect change so that a fresh and new conspiring (breathing together) may take place? What needs to be interrogated? What should be toppled - thrown out? What new alliances are needed? How will you in your church space and in the community create empowering ‘breathing spaces’ that redress deficits, inequities, and foster life-flourishing spaces? How can we live out our liturgical practices on the street with the protestors? The world and the communities in which we are located, are waiting to believe us – to see our words (God’s faithfulness / hesed) embodied in action! The Divine is also waiting to see ‘justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream’ (Amos 5:24).
Reflection (Erica Russell)
I was brought up in a faith-loving family and the church. However, at some time, I wanted to deviate from the family's traditional faith to one where I could have had a water baptism (full immersion), but so as to avoid conflict I delayed it at the time. Eventually when I left home I was given a Bible, a hymnbook and a lecture to “remember to walk in God’s path, and to be humble if you do not have money.”
At one point early in my adult life, during my midwifery training I was approached by the midwifery superintendent and told there was going to be a James Bond play in town and promotion was needed. I was selected to pose and would be photograph in a bikini. I kept asking what would my parents think, so I declined and regarded it as an affront. It may have counted against me. After that conversation I saw both the hospital principal and the midwifery superintendent were in conversation. As I walked towards them, the principal said, “So you found a way and you got rid of them all." Both laughed. Our intermediate exam was imminent at the time. The outcome showed all four students of colour failed, and we were told there would be no repeat. I contacted the midwifery body and was called by the superintendent. She wanted a verbatim account of my complaint, then stated “I knew you would be the one to cause trouble”. With that in mind, and to avoid undue pressure, and fear I abandoned midwifery training.
In more recent years, one of my neighbours asked me, “Don't you know what is happening to you. How do you cope?” He was aware of the eggs on my window, the holes on my house due to an air rifle, all but one of six windows got broken, urine left on my steps while my front door was sprayed, the constant knocking on my door, the attacks on different cars and the stoning. The last stoning I encountered resulted in me ending up in A&E department. I often wondered what fate awaited me in the evenings. And it goes on.
In church, I have tended to sit at the back. Often I would arrive last and leave at the earliest convenient time so as not to intrude on others. When I started, I sat at the far side and was once made aware I was not the honoured guest, and that the seat was designated for someone’s son. Thereafter I relocated and gravitated to the near side where I sat at the rear. Until I was noticed and made welcome by Diane. When doing my 3D course, Roy was supportive by extracting historical church information which I needed. I was grateful. On completion I spoke with Diane. She too was again supportive by inviting me to join the bible reader’s rota. More recently Alannah introduced me to becoming a server, and continued to be supportive when the process became challenging. Clare was another person who encouraged me. She told me that there would be a baptism which I capitalized on.
In the negative experiences in my life I have nevertheless found sustenance and strength. Part of that strength enabled me to pursue my life-long quest for adult water baptism by full immersion. This is the first to have occurred in our church in the 21st century and we hope others may become inspired. The relief from fear, and feelings of security promote a self-confidence that is the very father and mother of courage.
The avalanche of racism in our world is stacking higher and higher, while God is patiently waiting, and listening as the people are trampled over. God too is beginning to be stifled, and choked due to lack of air. But God isn't alarmed when we hit rock bottom. He made the rock. It seems this is the first time we’ve learnt about Black History Month in our church. Hopefully it will start spreading its roots towards eradicating racism in our community and our church. And, hopefully the community can begin to support those who are being deprived of unpolluted breath, so they can breathe freely and equally. The God of justice will prevail.
Reflection (Tim Evans)
Thinking about writing this reflection I did a bit of pondering about what had shaped me to get to here.
I had initially become a Christian into a theological tradition that emphasised that sin was an individual thing that separated us from God, and that the Good News was that Jesus had come to take the punishment for my individual wrongdoing so I could have eternal life in a relationship with God. We’d never talked about this idea of collective and structural sin: we were to serve the poor but we didn't talk about what caused poverty and injustice in the first place. When I did a Masters in Community Education, and focusing on Anti-Oppressive Practice, we were taught the ‘PCS’ model: that oppression happens at Personal, Cultural and Structural levels, and therefore as youth and community workers we should work at each of those levels. Later in life I became interested in the whole area of liberation theology, doing our theological reflection from the 'underside'.
But somehow I have missed something important along the way and find myself in a deeply challenging part of my life where listening to my black sisters and brothers and seeing what's happening in the world around me, I realise that despite study, being part of progressive church and activist contexts and practicing youth and community work for so long, I am only at the beginning of a journey of having my eyes truly opened and even then I sense deeply that there is so much I am yet to understand. In particular the systemic and collective nature of racism and privilege and my complicity in it, even though in my conscious acts I wouldn't dream of discriminating against someone simply because of their skin colour.
The verse that really stuck out for me was that 'we are not even close to right living.' I did the study, read the books, tried to live compassionately, challenged prejudicial language and actions in those I have worked with and yet didn't do the deep inner work that's needed nor really see the depth of the structures of privilege around me and of which I am a part. As our reading says, when we don't address collective evil, which racism is, when we don't proactively work for a society where all are welcome, all are genuinely equal as people made in the image of God with the diversity of God's creation celebrated, then justice is beaten back.
Here's my temptation - I want to fix things. I want to make it right, I want to work for a better world, I want to change the systems and structures and the culture that shapes them, I want to do something about what I believe in. But Martin Luther King said he had a dream not a plan. To share in that dream where someone is judged for the content of their character rather than the colour of their skin it seems to me that those of us who are white have to deeply listen, seek to recognise our privilege, stand in solidarity with our sisters and brothers and confess our individual and collective sin.
Our passage and our reflections over the past couple of weeks do call us to a form of action beyond standing in solidarity and confession but not without those things. We have to be, positively and humbly, 'anti-racist.' There is a caution here; a sense of individual and collective guilt should not result in us being the 'rescuers' of our black sisters and brothers but nor does our passage today allow us to stand on the side-lines.
· What am I doing on a personal level to understand and challenge the bias, assumptions, prejudice in me and how that plays out in my everyday life and then what can I change about the way I act?
· On a cultural level, how am I positively working to be part of environments and ways of doing things that are positively inclusive and speak up when they are not?
· How am I part of understanding, challenging, campaigning against, awareness raising of the structural racism that exists for example in my line of work the disproportionate numbers of black young men who experience stop and search. Closer to home, what does this mean for me as someone who has leadership responsibilities in a number of organisational contexts?
All of these aspects are interlinked, and our passage moves between our individual complicity, the cultural assumptions about the way we should do life together, and the structures that shape that common life, as all leading to justice being beaten back.
I can't end this reflection neatly because this is difficult and complex not least in my own journey of understanding. Our reading points us towards collective confession, and if we are to do that then we have to be collectively honest. I have loved the fact that as a church community a good number of us have been listening, reading, discovering, learning and confessing together not just in Black History Month but in a number of ways. I have listened to the stories of my black sisters and brothers and been deeply moved and challenged and I thank them deeply for the prophetic gift of challenge that their stories have been to me. I hope that they have felt that I have been someone who has sought to listen deeply and be open to my own need to change but also someone who wants to be part of a culture of solidarity and be part of seeing our own collective church and community institutions better reflect the kind of world we all seek to live in.
A prayer for this week:
as we strive to find our way to true racial reconciliation.
Open our eyes to all that goes on around us
that contributes to racial injustice.
Grant us the knowledge to understand all that we do,
both personally and as a society,
which prevents us from recognizing and defending
the dignity of all or our brothers and sisters,
and especially at this time, our brothers and sisters of colour
who are now feeling so much pain.
Grant us the grace to reflect on our own actions and inactions
that contribute to this pain.
And grant us the strength to take action to alleviate this pain
and to end racial injustice in all its forms.
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?
with young (and not-so-young!) people
· Confession is an important part of how we relate to God and each other. It’s not just about ‘saying sorry’ – it’s about acknowledging that we have done things wrong, committing to changing how we behave in future, and asking God to help us with that.
Think about the things you want to confess to God and ask God to help you change. Write or draw them, and screw up the paper. (You can share what you have written/drawn with someone else if you want, but you don’t have to – it can just be between you and God.)
Now set fire to the paper, and remember that God forgives us and wants to help us to change things that are wrong in our lives and in the world.
[REMEMBER: ask an adult to help you set fire to your paper safely!]
· Justice is a really important theme in the Bible. Can you think of any situations you know about which are unjust? You might want to look at a news website for inspiration (e.g. BBC Newsround, https://www.bbc.co.uk/newsround). Make a list, or a collage of images, of unjust situations to pray for. Are there ways that you could help to make any of those situations more just? Ask God to bring justice, and ask God to show you how you can contribute to justice.
· What do you think justice means?
Have a look at the set of pictures below…
What do you notice about the pictures?
Which do you think is most fair, and why?
Can you relate any of these pictures to some of the unjust situations you named in response to the previous question?
…or to some of the ways that you could help make those situations more just?
 Tad Hershorn, quoted in https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20190415-strange-fruit-the-most-shocking-song-of-all-time