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.’

[1] See James D. G. Dunn, Romans, Word Biblical Commentary.
[3] Brian McLaren

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