Sunday, 10 September 2017

Do not be overcome by evil

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
10 September 2017

Romans 12.9-21
Amos 5.14-15; Proverbs 10.11-12; 12.15-20; 25.21-22
Do you have a motto for life?
            You know, one of those phrases or mantras
                        that you find yourself repeating, over and over,
                        despite the fact that you already know it?

Winston Churchill’s was famously abbreviated to ‘KBO’,
            which I’ll leave you to look up for yourself
            because I don’t want to get into trouble on a Sunday morning. Again.

But there are lots of other options to choose from.

When I was at school, I was frequently told that,
            ‘You can’t win if you don’t play the game’,
which as a Rugby-hating pupil I swiftly amended,
            to the much more pragmatic and enduring personal mantra
            of ‘If you can’t win, don’t play the game’.

And then there’s the calls to perseverance, such as,
            ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again’;
which sits nicely alongside,
            ‘Don’t let the whatsits grind you down’;
which I’m modifying, in accordance with that other personal favourite of mine,
            ‘Don’t get into trouble on a Sunday morning. Again.’

And so I could go on with any number of further mottos
            that inspire us to ‘keep putting one foot in front of another’, as the saying goes.

But there’s a downside to this as well:
            some of us here will have taken deep into ourselves
                        far more destructive messages,
            which surface in our psyches with monotonous regularity.
                        ‘I’m not good enough’; ‘I’m so useless’;
                        ‘They don’t like me’; ‘Nobody loves me’; ‘Everybody hates me’.

Sometimes, the voice in our head does us no favours,
            dressing up lies as truth and tormenting us from within.

Well, one of the most destructive mantras of our society,
            which permeates all of our lives one way or another,
is the assertion that we have an absolute right to revenge.

Often dressed up as talk of justice,
            the deep desire to have our wrongs righted
            lies at the heart of so much of our communal narrative.

We live for, we long for, the outworking
            of what seems like a universal and unquestionable truth:
            that ‘Someone, somewhere, must be made to pay’.

From the criminal justice system,
            to the witch hunt and the lynch mob,
the mantra that, ‘someone must be made to pay’,
            has become the bedrock of so much that we hold dear.

And it is against this that I want to draw our attention
            to Paul’s words in the last verse of our reading this morning
                        from his letter to the Romans.
            ‘Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good’ (v.21).

Interestingly, for a passage which doesn’t actually mention Jesus,
            these few verses from Romans 12 are one of the closest places Paul gets
            to referencing the words of Jesus as we know them from the Gospels.
The parallels with the sermon on the mount are striking,
            and this final verse could pretty much stand alone
            as a one-sentence summary of the life and teaching of Jesus.

‘Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.’

This is radical stuff,
            and it was every bit as counter-cultural in the first century
                        as it is in the twenty-first.
Humans are well practiced at trying to overcome evil with evil,
            and we are very good at convincing ourselves
            that, contrary to the popular saying, two wrongs do indeed make a right.

The ideology of, ‘You’ve hurt me, so you must pay’, is very compelling,
            and determines everything from our interpersonal relationships
                        to our international politics.
Meeting evil with good is perceived as weakness and foolishness.

At school, we’re told that,
            ‘The bullies only understand one language: their own’,
and so in self-defence we learn to speak their language well,
            but then we carry that conviction into our adult lives,
                        and so we vote for a nuclear deterrent,
                        and for a strong defensive military capability,
                        and for proactive strikes on rogue nations
                                    who rattle their sabres a bit too loudly.

Well, if we are to listen to Paul on this one,
            we might need a re-think.
‘Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good’.

Of course, Paul isn’t speaking in a vacuum here,
            and neither was Jesus, when he suggested to his disciples
                        that those who are merciful peacemakers
                        are those blessed by God (Mt 5.7,9).

The Jewish wisdom tradition had a long history
            of wrestling with the futility of violence,
            and of trying to work out what the appropriate response to aggression should be;
and Paul, highly educated Pharisee that he was,
            consciously echoes that Jewish tradition
            in the way he shapes the passage we’re looking at this morning.

The little miscellany of verses we heard earlier from Amos and Proverbs
            give us an example of the kind of thing I’m talking about,
and so we hear the precursors to Paul’s own motto,
            in statements like: ‘Seek good and not evil, that you may live’ (Amos 5.14);
                        ‘Hate evil and love good’ (Amos 5.15);
            ‘Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses’ (Prov. 10.12);
                        ‘Fools show their anger at once, but the fools ignore an insult’ (Prov. 12.16);
            ‘Deceit is in the mind of those who plan evil,
                        but those who counsel peace have joy’ (Prov. 12.20).

This is an ancient call to another way of living,
            where the narratives of retributive violence are challenged and rejected,
                        where the right to revenge is forgone,
                        and where payment for wrongdoing is released.

So my challenge for us this morning is deceptively simple,
            because it is incredibly demanding.
It is for us to commit ourselves, individually and communally,
            to living our lives by Paul’s series of statements, mottos, and aphorisms;
and to allow the Spirit of Christ
            to bring those words of life to life in our lives.

And it starts, of course, with love.
            ‘Let love be genuine… love one another with mutual affection’ (12.9-10)
Paul begins his great call to a new way of living
            by grounding himself in the one force on earth
            capable of instigating the kind of transformation he has in mind:
                        Genuine love which extends beyond the self to embrace the other.

Just as Jesus paired love of God with love of neighbour,
            so Paul pairs the genuineness of love,
                        with genuine affection and honour for the other.

It isn’t until we internalize the truth that God loves all his children equally
            that we are able to begin to loosen our grip
                        on the inner conviction that there is something unique or special
                        about our own place in the heart of the divine;
            but once we dispel the myth that God loves ‘us’ more than ‘them’,
                        the path is opened for the radical reorientation of behavior that is to come.

But Paul knows that, even with genuine love in our hearts,
            this will not be an easy path,
so in a biblical precursor to Churchill’s famous injunction
            to ‘Keep Buggering On’ (oops!),
Paul tells his readers to be zealous, ardent, patient, and perseverant.

This is the task we are called to, but as my father often says to me,
            ‘Simon, no-one said it was going to be easy!’

Remaining hopeful in the face of suffering;
            being zealous in serving others,
            and persevering in ardent prayer, are not easy tasks.

And neither is the topic Paul addresses next: financial generosity.
            It takes a conscious decision
                        to review our giving to the community of God’s people,
            but Paul is clear that we have a responsibility before God
                        to contribute to, as he calls it, ‘the needs of the saints’.

In a church like Bloomsbury, the need is always before us;
            from the homeless and the vulnerable that we welcome day-by-day,
            to the more structural needs that are met through this place,
if we do not share between us the responsibility
            of keeping the project going, it’ll fail.

But of course it’s not just about money,
            because Paul pairs money with hospitality.
If money is the mechanism, hospitality is the method.

Whether it is welcoming people into our own homes,
            or to the meal table downstairs in the Friendship Centre,
whether at a Sunday lunch, a Tuesday lunch,
            the Evening Centre, the Night Shelter, or whatever…
our commitment to hospitality is a spiritual discipline
            and a sacrificial calling every bit as demanding
            as the call to ardent prayer or financial giving.

One of our issues that we’re facing with our Sunday lunches
            is that the number of people attending from the church community is declining:
to the extent that on some Sundays,
            those who have been given a free ticket
            make up the majority of those who attend.

And I do get it, I really do.
            I mean, who wouldn’t want to go to a nearby restaurant
                        with their close friends for a nice meal after church on a Sunday?
            Who wouldn’t rather get on with their day,
                        already carved out of a busy life with too many pressures and not enough time.
            And I do get it that the food isn’t always everyone’s cup of tea.

But I don’t think these are the point.
            If we are to offer hospitality that welcomes the stranger
                        and speaks to them of their inherent value as dearly loved children of God,
                        then that involves actually extending hospitality;
            which is more than just paying for them to have a meal,
                        and it’s more than just cooking them a meal.

I mean, we wouldn’t invite someone to dinner at our house,
            serve them their food, and then leave them to it while we went elsewhere.
That’s not hospitality.
            It might be charity, but as I argued in my series of sermons
                        on Toxic Charity earlier this summer,
            we’re not called to charity, we’re called to sacrificial hospitality.

Which means extending a loving welcome to those we find difficult.
            As Paul says, ‘do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly’ (v.16)

But Paul then goes even further than this.
            Loving the other means loving those who we would think of as our enemies.
                        ‘Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse’ (v.14),
                                    ‘live in harmony with one another’ (v.16),
                        ‘do not repay anyone evil for evil’ (v.18),
                                    ‘live peaceably with all’ (v.19).

This is where we start to find ourselves
            at that most difficult of Paul’s challenges in this passage:
            the call to nonviolence.

Sometimes people characterize nonviolence
            as the easy, passive, or even cowardly response to conflict.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
            Choosing to not ‘bite back’ is one of the most difficult choices we can make.
It is so utterly counter-intuitive
            to all that we think we know about how to live in human society.

We can only get to the point of proactive nonviolence
            once we have fully internalized all that has gone before.

We have to follow this passage through
            to get to the end with conviction.
Only once we have learned to love the other as we love ourselves,
            and learned to persevere in prayerful service of the other
                        through persecution and opposition,
            and learned to hold lightly to our money, time, and status;
only then are we ready to hear the command:
            ‘Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God,
            for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”’ (v.19)

And here I have my big problem, and it’s this:
            the vengeance of God doesn't look much like vengeance as I understand it
                        or as I want to see it.

Leaving room for the wrath of God is intensely problematic
            because God's wrath is not like my wrath,
            and he is not angry at the same things that attract my personal fury.

I want to take my revenge,
            but God takes the liberty of forgiveness.
I want to hate those who do evil,
            but God hates the effect that evil has,
                        not only on those to whom it is done,
                        but also on those who do it.

The great scandal of God's wrath and vengeance
            is that they end up looking a lot like forgiveness.

But nonetheless, Paul tell his readers very clearly,
            that revenge is not theirs to take.

This short passage is a one paragraph summons
            to an entirely alternative way of being human.

I find it very interesting that this is primarily a passage
            that emphasises orthopraxy, rather than orthodoxy.

For those whose Greek is a bit sketchy,
            orthopraxy is about right action,
            whereas orthodoxy is about right belief.
And the central message of this passage is not, ‘believe in Christ’;
            it is more practical than that, it is ‘live like Christ’

So as we close, I want to come back to the observation I made earlier
            that our passage from Romans doesn't actually mention Jesus.

I have a kind of rule of preaching,
            which is that a church sermon really ought to mention Jesus
                        at least somewhere along the line,
            which is probably why I feel the need to return to this again at the end.

I think that Jesus, both his life, and his teaching,
            firmly lie behind Paul's re-invention of the Jewish wisdom tradition.
There are echoes here of the sermon on the mount,
            and the life Paul is calling his readers to
            is one firmly patterned after that of Jesus.

But he doesn't need to spell this out.
            Here is a call to living Christianly,
                        which is accessible to all,
                        including those who don't consider themselves to be disciples of Jesus.

It's as if the person and example of Jesus
            has opened, for Paul, a doorway to a better way of being human
            which then transcends cultic and cultural boundaries.

So here's the thing, and don’t take this the wrong way:
            I don't really care what you believe.
Rather, it's what you do that matters.

As Jesus himself said in the sermon on the mount,
            a good tree will bear good fruit,
                        and a bad tree will bear bad fruit,
            and a good tree cannot bear bad fruit,
                        nor can a bad tree bear good fruit,
            and by your fruit you shall be known.

Little Christianity has spent far too long
            defending what people think and believe about the guy who started it all,
                        to the point where we have all too frequently lost sight
                        of the message he left us,
            which is that the door is now open to a different way of living,
                        a new way of being,
            which is good news for those who hear it
                        because it releases us from those ultimately destructive
                                    mantras, mottos, compulsions, and convictions
                        that drive us into patterns of violence and retribution.

The call is very clear, it is to live like Jesus,
            it is to not be overcome by evil,
            but to overcome evil with good.


Sunday, 20 August 2017

Whose lives matter?

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
20 August 2017

Romans 11:1-2, 28-32 
Psalm 67.1-7 

I don’t know if you’ve noticed this too,
            but in the last couple of years
                        the incredible scientific feat of decoding the human genome
            has passed from the world of esoteric science,
                        into the world of the mundane.

These days, for less than the price of two theatre tickets,
            you can, and I quote,
            ‘Bring your ancestry to life through your DNA’.

The market-leading company, 23andMe,
            will apparently use their worldwide database of genetic sequencing
            to give you personalized information on your ancestry composition,
                        any DNA relatives you may have lurking undiscovered in your family tree,
                        and even your Neanderthal percentage.

And it occurs to me that whilst it may do one no harm
            to discover that you’re a few percent Neanderthal (after all, so is everyone else),
                        or that you’re only 25% European,
                                    alongside sub-Saharan African or East Asian ancestry;
            discovering that you have a direct match on their database
                        for a sister living in Australia that you previously knew nothing about
            may be rather more problematic.

Of course, there may be some health benefits in terms of inherited genetic diseases,
            but quite what one is supposed to do with the information
                        that you have a slightly increased chance of developing Alzheimer’s Disease
                        is a bit of a mystery to me at the moment…

And anyway, the health reporting isn’t what’s driving this new industry
            in personalized DNA sequencing.
People are, it seems to me, buying into this
            because they are curious to understand more about their identity.

‘Who am I?’ is one of the defining questions of our time.
            Am I a European, an African, or an Asian;
                        a mongrel or a Neanderthal?
            Who should I identify with?
                        Which tribe do I belong to?

In a globalized world of instant communication,
            and social networks that transcend all geographical barriers,
            it seems that we are living through a ‘crisis of belonging’.

It’s the same question that drives the huge interest in family tree research:
            ‘Who am I?’ Or, to quote the BBC, ‘Who do you think you are?’
                        – the title of course of the ever-popular TV show
                                    in which celebrities discover, and I quote,
                                    ‘secrets and surprises from their past.’
Except it’s not from their past at all
            – much of what is discovered, and the stories that are told,
            are from many generations before anyone alive now was even born.

Logically, of course, it’s all nonsense:
            you don’t have to go back very many generations
                        before you have more ancestors
                        than there were people living in the entire world!

The time of the Norman Conquest in the 11th Century
            achieves this by a fact of three or more.
Which means that, basically, we’re all massively in-bred.
            There is no ‘pure line’ in any of us.

My Nana used to say, with some considerable pride,
            that her ancestors came over with the Normans.
            Well, so did all of ours, if we’re white British!
In fact, did you know that if you’re a white European,
            you are, statistically speaking, a direct descendent of Charlemagne;
                        Carolingian King of the Franks, and Holy Roman Emperor.
It’s just a numbers game:
            he had (at least) eighteen children, and I’m one of his descendants:
                        it just must be true.

So, defining ourselves by our genetic or ancestral heritage
            is a logical nonsense.
But it continues to make emotional sense,
            and people keep doing it,
as the events in Charlottesville over the last couple of weeks
            have vividly and tragically demonstrated.

And as I said, I think this is because we have, in our Western Society,
            a crisis of belonging.

We don’t know who we are.

We’re programmed, at a genetic level,
            to live in villages of about 2-300 people,
which is about the number of people you can comfortably get to know
            and sustain some kind of relationship with.
Any more than this and it becomes quickly overwhelming.

Interestingly, the average number of friends
            that Facebook users have on the platform is 338,
                        but with a median of 200.
The figure 2-300 is about right for a community.
            Churches often struggle to grow beyond 300,
                        because they start to feel impersonal, and people get lost.

It seems we most naturally relate to smaller communities;
            and so, faced with the vastness of our world,
with all its diversity of ethnicity, gender;
            sexuality, social standing; political opinion, and religious conviction,
                        we search for meaning, for identity, for that elusive ‘sense of belonging’;
            and we do it by seeking answer to the question
                        of who we are:
            Are white or black, British or English,
                        European or French, African, Asian, Neanderthal, whatever…?

Which at one level is fine.
            There’s nothing wrong with a bit of quiet genealogical research,
                        I’m partial to it myself,
            and there’s nothing inherently dangerous about having your DNA sequenced.
But if these things are symptoms of a deeper malaise,
            if they arise from our crisis of belonging,
then that same sickness can also manifest itself
            in racism, sexism, white supremacy, neo-Nazism,
                        homophobia, gay-bashing,
            and the worst kinds of nationalistic sabre-rattling
                        such as ‘the world has never seen before’.

But of course, for all of our technological advancements,
            we aren’t the first generation to experience a crisis of belonging,
                        we aren’t the first generation in which people have struggled
                        to know who they are.

The Roman Empire dominated the known world in the first century,
            and has many parallels to the globalized media
                        and financial empires of our own world.

The Romans were technologically dominant,
            with a massive military machine
                        and an all-encompassing trade and financial network,
            all held together by the religious ideology of Emperor-worship.

People who, just a generation before,
            had no experience of life beyond their village,
found the Roman Empire on their doorstep,
            informing them in no uncertain terms
            that they were now part of something much bigger.

The ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity of the Roman Empire
            was greater than at any time before it in human history,
and it was something which would not be repeated
            until relatively modern times.

And so, in the first century, people faced their own crisis of belonging.
            To whom did they belong?
                        To Rome or to Galatia? To Philippi, or to Palestine, or to Jerusalem?
            Who were they to regard as their tribe, as their people?

This is the background to what we meet
            in our passage for this morning from Paul’s letter to the Romans,
and you can see, I hope, that it is a context
            which has strong similarities with the world that we find ourselves in.

My hope, also, is that as we explore Paul’s approach
            to these issues of belonging, ethnicity,
                        nationality, and religion in his context,
            we will gain some insights
                        into how we might address such issues in our world too.

Paul begins chapter 11 of his letter to the Romans
            by rehearsing his conclusion from the previous chapter,
            which we looked at last week:
                        Does the inclusion of the Gentile nations into the people of God
                        mean that God has broken faith with, and rejected, the people of Israel?

‘By no means!’ says Paul in verse 1,
            and to prove it he uses himself as an example:
He’s a Jew, a genetic descendent of Abraham,
            and yet he’s also part of God’s Christian people.
He’s no less a Jew because of this,
            and just as he argues that the Gentiles do not need to become Jewish
                        to receive righteousness through Christ,
            so he remains a Jew, even as he puts his own faith in Christ.

And, he says, if it’s true for him, it’s true for others.
            God has not finished with Israel.

Then, in the bit of chapter 11 that the lectionary skips over in today’s reading,
            Paul goes over the same ground again in some considerable complexity,
using his famous metaphor of the olive tree:
            showing that the Gentile branches have been grafted
                        into the historic root and trunk of Israel,
            and that while some of the Jewish branches may have been broken off,
                        they can still be grafted in again by God the master-gardener.

Then we come to the conclusion of this part of Paul’s argument,
            which has been running for the last three chapters,
            as he has teased out the relationship between the Jews and the Gentiles,
and here we find ourselves in the murky and distressing waters
            of racism and xenophobia.

The incendiary language leaps out at us in verse 28,
            where Paul speaks to his mostly Gentile audience about the Jews,
                        and says “As regards the gospel, they are enemies for your sake”.

Interestingly, the New Revised Standard Version, our pew Bible,
            tries to soften this a bit – and adds a couple of words:
            ‘As regards the gospel, they are enemies of God for your sake’,
                        but that’s not there in the original Greek.

Paul is hitting the shock factor here:
            the Jews, who he has just spent three chapters arguing
                        are still part of God’s covenant,
            are now ‘enemies’ with regard to the gospel of Christ.

What on earth is going on?

As we discovered last week,
            when we looked at Paul’s language of justification by works,
we have to recognize that we are reading this
            in a very different context from that in which it was written.
There may be certain similarities,
            but we are reading this post-holocaust.
            We know where anti-Semitism can take us,
                        and so we are careful to avoid it,
                        and we are alert to any hint of it.

We might criticize the Jewish state
            for its current war of attrition against the Palestinians,
                        and we are I think right to do so;
            but that is not the same as saying that the Jews, all Jews,
                        are ‘enemies’ of the gospel.

So why does Paul say this?
            Well, of course, Paul is himself writing this as a Jew
                        – he’s made that very clear already.
This is not anti-Semitism coming from a powerful oppressor
            against a minority population.

But there is certainly a background here of anti-Judaism,
            within the congregation that Paul is writing to in Rome,
and he uses this inflammatory language to call it out.

The majority of the first century Christian congregation in Rome
            was made up of those who had converted from the pagan religions,
and only a minority were drawn from those
            with a Jewish background.

And just as Paul had argued strongly
            that the Gentile converts did not need to adopt the Jewish law,
so he now has to argue that Jewish converts
            do not need to stop observing their Jewish religious practices.

In essence, the Gentiles in the Roman congregation
            had been picking on the Jewish Christians,
probably in retaliation for the efforts by some of the Jews
            to tell the Gentiles that they needed to start keeping the Jewish law
            in order to be proper followers of Jesus.

So Paul echoes their language back to them:
            Yes, he says, the Jews are enemies of the gospel,
                        but that doesn’t mean that they are estranged from God,
                        or cut off from the love of God.
            Their error in rejecting Christ,
                        or misunderstanding what it means to follow him,
                        doesn’t mean that God has broken faith with them.
            And if they are enemies, Paul goes on,
                        they are no more enemies of the gospel
                        than the Gentiles themselves were before they converted;
            so the response of the Gentiles should be to show the mercy of God to the Jews,
                        not to mock, belittle, or otherwise oppress them.

As Paul says, ‘God has imprisoned all in disobedience,
            so that he may be merciful to all’.

No-one is any better, or any worse, in God’s eyes, than anyone else:
            whatever your nationality, religious conviction,
                        ethnic heritage, or political persuasion,
            we all equally need the mercy of God.

In many ways, this verse 32 of Chapter 11
            is a one-sentence summary statement
                        of the entire theological argument that Paul has been developing so far
                        through the letter to the Romans, so let’s hear it again:[1]

‘For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.’

It may be short, but it makes some bold theological moves
            that it’s worth getting our heads around.

Firstly, the reason all humans, regardless of ethnicity or heritage,
            are imprisoned in disobedience
            is because God has willed it to be so.
Paul’s observation is that there’s something about the nature of the world
            at every level, from the individual to society,
                        from human affairs to natural world in which we live,
            which means that when people pursue paths
                        other than seeking after God,
            they find themselves more and more hemmed in
                        and confined by the consequences of their decisions.

It’s not that God punishes us for our unfaithfulness
            – it is rather that we punish ourselves
                        when our choices in life take us away from God.

‘For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.’

Secondly, the great irony of humanity’s imprisonment in disobedience
            is that it is at the very moment when we recognize our disobedience
            that we open ourselves up to the mercy of God.

You know how sometimes people say that you have to hit rock bottom
            before you can start to come back up?
Well, that’s a good summary of this.

When we realise how imprisoned we have become
            by our own attempts to be strong and wise in our own strength,
then we open the door to God’s love
            in releasing us from our striving and effort.

‘For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.’

Thirdly, the ethnic, cultural,
            social, and ideological divisions in humanity
are rendered meaningless by the love of God.

Israel’s covenant privileges have been extended to all,
            and all nations are blessed
            through fulfilment of the Jewish covenant in Christ.
Therefore, there is no basis for any one nation, tribe, or people
            to regard themselves as more chosen than any other.

‘For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.’

Fourthly, God’s mercy to all
            does not negate God’s absolute anger against sin,
where sin is understood as that
            which shuts human heart from openness
            to the love and mercy that God longs to pour in.

Stating the universal love of God for all that he has made
            does not stop God hating all that distorts that love in action in people’s lives.
So where sin abounds,
            where people conspire to put themselves over others,
                        and believe the lie that one life is worth more than another,
            then God’s wrath hardens hearts
                        in order that the haughty will be brought down
            to the point where all, including the worst of sinners, can be raised up.

‘For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.’

And Fifthly, there is no mention in any of this about human faith
            – it is God’s faithfulness which does all of this.
God is merciful to all,
            God is faithful to Gentiles in their unbelief
                        and to Jews in the hardening of their hearts,
            God is faithful to creation as it’s creator.

‘For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.’

So, where does this leave us?
            Where does it leave a world living with
                        the consequences of a crisis of belonging?
            Where does it leave us in the days after
                        the Barcelona terrorist attack?
            What does Paul say to us,
                        as we seek to deal in our towns and cities
                        with the ethnic tensions that blight so many of our relationships?
            From Barcelona, to Finland, to Palestine,
                        to the streets of Homeland America.

Well, I think he would say, very clearly,
            and particularly in the light of Charlottesville,
            that Black Lives Matter.

There is absolutely no justification in Christ
            for the view that white lives matter more than any other,
and the alignment of certain segments of the Christian church
            with the views of white supremacy is an evil to be opposed.

And before we say that Charlottesville is not London,
            and that we it doesn’t happen here – believe me it does.

I grew up watching the Black and White Minstrel Show,
            which was cancelled when I was six years old
            – with its perpetuation of grotesque caricatures of racial stereotypes.

The race riots of the early 1980s
            were when I first became aware of the power
                        of ethnic difference to incite violence,
            and I now know that they took place in those very cities
                        where white people had become enriched
                        through the slave and sugar trade of 17th and 18th centuries.

We live in a deeply divided country, and a deeply divided city,
            with people of all different nationalities, living and working side-by-side.

And yet if you are a black graduate of a British university,
            you will earn on average 23.1% less than your white fellow graduates.

Since 2010 there has been a 49% increase
            in the number of ethnic minority 16- to 24-year-olds
            who are long-term unemployed,
while in the same period there has been a fall of 2%
            in long-term unemployment
            among white people in the same age category.

Black workers are more than twice as likely
            to be in insecure forms of employment
            such as temporary contracts or working for an agency.

Black people are far more often the victims of crime,
            and you are more than twice as likely to be murdered
            if you are black in England and Wales.

When accused of crimes,
            black people are three times more likely
            to be prosecuted and sentenced than white people.[2]

Saying that Black Lives Matter is not the same
            as saying White lives don’t matter,
any more than saying that Children’s lives matter
            would be the same as saying that adult lives don’t matter.

But we have to recognize that we live with a heritage of ethnic oppression,
            and Paul’s insight in Romans is that all of us are diminished by this.

There is nowhere here for white privilege to hide;
            and simply saying that ‘I’m not a racist’
            doesn’t get anyone off the hook.

In 2007, the bicentenary of the abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade,
            I was part of the discussions at Baptist Union Council
            as to whether it would be appropriate for the Baptist Union
                        to offer an apology for their complicity in the ongoing legacy of slavery.

And I heard some interesting responses:
            ‘I’ve never owned slaves, so what have I got to apologise for ?’
            ‘I didn’t ask to be born white, and asking me to apologise for
                        who I am is just racism in reverse.’
            The insight I took from this was all of us are diminished by white privilege.

It has been said that when you are used to privilege,
            equality feels like discrimination[3]
and many white people will cry foul
            when their supremacy is challenged.

And yet, just as Paul argues that God’s mercy
            is big enough for both Jew and Gentile,
so we need to hear him telling us that equality is only equality
            if it works equally for both white and non-white.

Anything less than true equality
            imprisons white and black alike
            into the prison created by disobedience.

So as we pray for our world,
            and as we examine our own lives and our own hearts,
            and as we uncover our own preconceptions and prejudices,
I wonder what it means for us to hear, in our world
            that ‘God has imprisoned all in disobedience
            so that he may be merciful to all.’



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[1] See James D. G. Dunn, Romans, Word Biblical Commentary.
[2] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/oct/30/what-it-means-to-be-black-in-britain-today
[3] Brian McLaren http://brianmclaren.net/why-ill-be-in-charlottesville-this-weekend/