Today is the 20th anniversary of Racial Justice Sunday.
It was first established in 1995.
I want to talk today about race.
I want to talk about race partly because the church hardly ever talks about it.
I want to talk about race fairly confident that everyone who belongs to this church would not consider themselves racist.
I want to talk about race even though we probably do not think it is an issue we need to talk about.
That we think we don’t need to talk about race
may reflect that as a nation we never practiced the overt evils of apartheid or segregation which shaped South Africa and North America.
As a nation we never explicitly structured our society racially.
And yet racism – terrible and widespread –
has always been there in our society and in the church.
Racism is present in both explicit terms, as verbal and physical abuse,
but also in less explicit ways, more hidden and unconscious,
what some term ‘white supremacy’ or ‘whiteness.’
As white British people we may not consider ourselves racist,
yet we inhabit a society and a continent with a long history of racism
through its colonialism of much of the rest of the world
and forcibly transporting black people as slaves across the Atlantic.
And while we might say that was all a long time ago,
it handed down an inbuilt ‘whiteness’ within society which is still considered
normal and dominant.
Racism is therefore an unavoidable sin,
a wound that seems unable to be healed.
Racial Justice Sunday is an opportunity to name this wound,
and seek to find the balm to begin to treat it.
In November 2007 the Council of the Baptist Union,
which is made up of representatives from the associations, churches and colleges who belong to Union,
made an apology that said:
We acknowledge our share in and benefit from our nation’s participation in the transatlantic slave trade.
We acknowledge that we speak as those who have shared in and suffered from the legacy of slavery and its appalling consequences for God’s world.
We offer our apology to God and to our brothers and sisters for all that has created and still perpetuates the hurt which originated from the horror of slavery.
We repent of the hurt we have caused, the divisions we have created, our reluctance to face up to the sin of the past, our unwillingness to listen to the pain of our black sisters and brothers, and our silence in the face of racism and injustice today.
We commit ourselves, in a true spirit of repentance, to take what we have learned from God in the Council and to share it widely in our Baptist community and beyond, looking for gospel ways by which we can turn the words and feelings we have expressed today into concrete actions and contribute to the prophetic work of God’s coming Kingdom.
That was a naming of the wound and it bears repeating today.
If we are to unlearn racism,
If we are to resist it,
what kind of church is needed?
It is a church that Paul says in Ephesians,
that must first remember it is predominately Gentile by birth.
Gentiles meant being a people
who were separate from Christ,
who were excluded from citizenship in Israel,
who were foreigners to the promises of God,
who were without hope
and without God. (Eph 2.11-12)
This is not a good place to be.
The story of scripture is a story of God’s election,
his choosing of Israel out of all the nations, to be his people,
to be the object of his blessing.
God chooses to be the God of Israel.
We are not Israel, we are Gentiles.
God is not our God, the bible is not our bible.
In the story of scripture,
we are Ruth, who binds herself to her Israelite mother-in-law
we are the Syro-Phoenician woman, who begs Jesus to heal her daughter,
we are Cornelius, who Peter comes to visit.
We were outsiders.
We were on the margins.
We were strangers and aliens (Eph 2.19).
We were dead (Eph 2.1).
The story of the church, is one in which through the grace of Christ Jesus,
God has joined us to his people,
God has reconciled us to himself and to Israel.
The dividing wall that separated us has been taken down at the cross,
and a new humanity, a new creation
has been made in Christ (Eph 2.15).
We Gentiles have become citizens and members of God’s people.
The gospel announces that it is no longer possible to be Jew or Gentile,
but that we are one and the same in Christ (Gal 3.28).
Why it is important that we remember we were Gentiles,
is that when we don’t, and this is one of the tragic parts of the history of the church,
we think we were always God’s first choice,
that God’s election of Israel was a blip,
that the story of scripture was always about us –
evidence of this can be found in the hymns of Isaac Watts –
that we are at the centre of God’s purposes.
We lose our humility, and we lose sight of God’s grace.
While God had shown us hospitality, we have learned to practice inhospitality.
The sad truth of the church’s history,
that which the apology I read earlier alludes to,
is the Christian church of Europe largely acted to baptize the colonial racism as it ventured into Africa and Asia and South America.
It saw the natives of these lands not as fellow human beings,
but as an inferior race, defined only by the colour of their skin,
and as such ‘non-white.’
If the church needs to remember we were Gentiles by birth,
it must also be ready to take a stand against the devil’s schemes –
against the rulers, authorities and the powers of this dark world.
We should understand ‘racism as a demonic power which works its awful influence in our lives’ (William Stringfellow)
The tragedy of the church’s involvement in the subjection and slavery of much of Africa was it close relationship with the political and economic powers –
it’s missionaries travelled with soldiers and merchants.
The church was impotent or blinded to separate the gospel
from the nations of Europe’s desires for land and wealth.
Paul calls the church to ‘put on the armour of God’ (Eph 6.11).
The armour of God that loves truth, justice, peace, faith.
Where racism seeks to view some people as inferior,
the truth of the gospel says we are all made in the image of God (Gen 1.27);
the justice of the gospel says that God shows no partiality (Acts 10.34);
the peace of the gospel calls us practices of reconciliation and forgiveness;
and the faith of the gospel reveals that we acknowledge one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God (Eph 4.5).
The church that wears this armour is one that seeks to resist and
confront the racism within us and within the institutions and structures of our society.
In addition to resisting and confronting, it dares to imagine a different world,
it dares to dream.
To dream like Martin Luther King dreamed.
‘I have a dream’ he proclaimed,
a dream of sons of former slaves and sons of former slave-owners sitting at the table of brotherhood
a dream where children will not be judged by the colour of their skin
a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted,
every hill and mountain shall be made low,
the rough places shall be made plain,
and the crooked places shall be made straight
and the glory of the Lord will be revealed
and all flesh shall see it together.’
* This sermon is an attempt to learn from the work of Willle James Jennings and J. Kameron Carter