Tuesday, July 28, 2020

How To Be An Anti-Racist





This summer, I have been seeking to grow in my understanding of racism; to examine my own life in an ongoing, life-long process of repentance and belief, or, turning away from a particular outlook and pressing into a new one. To help me, I have been reading (and lining up yet-to-read) and listening in on conversations. I have sought to learn from female and male voices; UK-based and US-based and other global voices; Christian, Muslim, and secular voices; written and spoken voices—all while recognising that this is a life-long challenge, not a summer-long challenge.

I’ve just finished Ibram X. Kendi's How to be an Anti-racist. I would strongly recommend it, as being both helpful and hopeful. In marked contrast to much of the noise around this cultural moment, Kendi is unwaveringly honest about the complexity of the issue at hand (including about his own dishonesty). Though he wouldn’t use the terms, Kendi models an ongoing practice of what Jesus calls “repent and believe”—and the often painful or embarrassing moments of revelation that move us on from one stage in our journey to the next.

Kendi contends that the root of racism is what he terms powerful self-interest (I would also use the terms selfishness and self-centredness) which enacts racist policies and then creates racist ideas to justify itself. This, in contrast to the view that racist ideas result in racist policies which result in racist power. And while human beings in every age have known powerful self-interest, Kendi contends that racism, as we see it today, is only around 400 years old, an expression of modernity, conjoined from birth with economics. While humanity is not going to rid ourselves of self-interest, racism is not inevitable.

One of the key learnings for me is Kendi’s recognition that you cannot change hearts and minds in order to change bad policies that are, ultimately, killing us all. That approach is too abstract; and there is too great a sense of fear at what we will lose. Instead, we need to change policies (which requires taking opportunities to challenge, and to shape and test and refine and assess and repeat-the-process, policies). Hearts and minds will follow.

For me, so much of this book, written from a secular outlook, chimes with the gospel. With the repeated challenge and invitation throughout scripture from genesis to revelation to embrace the stranger, to reject othering—and to reject making others invisible in a false post-other-ing. With the repeated challenge to put to death our desire to be at the centre—to die to self—and to live for others, preferring them over ourselves. With the call to repent and believe, again and again and again. With the body politic and economic of the kingdom of heaven as an alternative society in the midst of the world, however (inevitably) imperfect it may be. And all in the power of the Holy Spirit.

I am grateful for Ibram X. Kendi’s voice.


Thursday, July 23, 2020

More or less

The Gospel reading set for holy Communion today is Matthew 13:10-17. An excerpt:

‘[Jesus] answered [his disciples], ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them [the crowds] it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.’ (vv. 11, 12)

The key question facing God’s people in every time and place is, will your values and your corresponding actions be shaped by God’s values and corresponding actions; or will they be shaped by the values and corresponding actions of the world around you, such that you are indistinguishable from anyone else?

‘For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.’ The world applies this principle to money, and to power. The world—which, in biblical language does not refer to a neutral description of how things are, let alone a positive description of how things ought to be, but rather a description of how things are in rebellion against God’s character of justice, mercy, and loving-kindness, expressed in particular concern for the most vulnerable in society. The world is built on hierarchies—race, and ethnicity; gender, and sexuality; economics, and (narrowly-defined) education—designed to keep some people consolidating power at the top, at the expense of those further down, whose very existence threatens the status quo. And so, we are encouraged to see those ‘below’ us, rather than those ‘above’ us, wherever we are located, as the threat to our existence. Such hierarchies are thoroughly normalised—the way the world is.

But when Jesus says, ‘For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away’ he is referring to ‘the secrets of the kingdom of heaven’. That is to say, the more you take hold of the kingdom of heaven, the more it takes hold of you. What, then, are its secrets?

Well, within the Gospel According to Matthew, those secrets are laid out in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5-7), beginning with the Beatitudes that proclaim that it is those people whom we have been unconsciously educated to view as cursed and abandoned by God, to whom God is in fact closest. In Jesus’ insistence on love of enemies, riding ourselves of judgementalism, and in everything doing to others as you would have them do to you, the Sermon reveals another secret, the rejection of othering, of building and policing and perpetuating hierarchies that position us as superior to others. In his invitation and challenge to reject anxiety about food and clothing, another secret, utter dependence on God. As the gospel continues to unfold, Jesus reveals that those who would strive to enjoy life according to the world’s values will ultimately lose a meaningful life, while those who risk all on him will find what they long for (10:39). Highly educated powerful men are in the dark, while infants are let-in on the secret (11:25-27). And in his parables, seeds die in the ground, yeast loses itself in leavening bread, people sell all they possess in order to take hold of the greater prize, a net only serves its purpose when thrown into the sea (Matthew 13). And all of this is heading towards Jesus, naked and beaten, hung out to die on an executioner’s scaffold…before being raised by God and given all authority on earth and in heaven.

And the key question facing God’s people in every time and place remains, will your values and your corresponding actions be shaped by God’s values and corresponding actions; or will they be shaped by the values and corresponding actions of the world around you, such that you are indistinguishable from anyone else?

Again, and again, throughout scripture we are first warned and then shown that our decision has consequences.


Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Pressing on

Two things I am appreciating this July:

on Monday evenings, listening-in on a series of four conversations between Denis Adide and Richard Moy on racism and anti-racism—and Denis’ reading lists;

and on Tuesday evenings, taking part in a series of four Bible studies on Paul’s letter to the Philippians, hosted by St George’s House.

In Philippians chapter 3, Paul lists the many hierarchies which have enabled him to benefit personally;

rehearses his coming to realise that he needed (not to disown his sense of self—not a self-loathing and hatred of his background—but) to deconstruct those privileges in order to participate more fully in what God was calling him (and others) to in Jesus Christ;

and calls those he is writing to, to imitate him in this ongoing act of leaving behind and pressing on towards the goal which is yet to be realised.

The pattern holds.


Sunday, July 19, 2020

Crisis, and beyond

Sunday morning, and I am thinking about the parable of the wheat and the darnel (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43).

Matthew’s whole presentation of the gospel—the good news of Jesus—emphasises the contrast between those who receive Jesus and those who reject him. And this is a parable of what the Church will look like. In contrast to the expectation that God would soon vindicate the Jews (as a whole) and judge the Gentiles (as a whole, and in particular the Roman Empire), Jesus points to a crisis—the end of the ‘Second Temple’ Age in 70 CE—in which God would judge the nations, beginning with his own people, and establish a new humanity made up of both those Jews and those Gentiles who found reconciliation in the community formed in and through and around Jesus.

This is a parable that profoundly undermines our culture wars.

In our own present crisis, God is again judging the Church and the world, in order to bring about a renewed humanity. The wheat and the darnel are both uprooted.

In what ways will the Church look different beyond this moment in history?

The truth is, we don’t know—because it hasn’t happened yet. But this is the story that is unfolding. And so, attentive to how it may unfold, we hold on to being a community shaped in and through and around Jesus, as we rehearse our creedal confession and participate in sharing in communion.


Saturday, July 18, 2020

Culture wars

We are currently watching Mrs America, the ‘dramatised history’ account of the efforts of second-wave feminists including Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm, Flo Kennedy and Bella Abzug to see the Equal Rights Amendment ratified, and the STOP ERA counter-movement led by Phyllis Schlafly. The production values are high; the cast, stellar. And it is fascinating to see how the culture wars of the 1970s have continued to shape the landscape today, and not only in the USA.

There is much that I would affirm of second-wave feminism. I take on board some of the criticisms levelled against it by later waves; while, on other issues, I’d remain more closely aligned to the second-wave: I do not subscribe to the idea that the values of each generation are inevitably and unquestionably better (or worse) than those of earlier generations. And alongside this, I have sympathy for some of the concerns culturally conservative women had—and have—regarding feminism.

What is striking about the series (which is not unsympathetic towards any character) is how deeply divided the women are, not only across the Right-Left, conservative-liberal, Republican-Democratic divide, but also within the uneasy (and, at times, unholy) alliances on either side of that divide. In this regard, of course, they are no different to—no better than, no worse than—the men who dominated public life. And while this is a drama based on history, shaped for dramatic impact, we can be confident that such personal battles took place, and still take place.

Left and Right, female and male, black and white, as mirrors—in a hall of mirrors seemingly with no way out?

And what is so deeply needed is to be able to see—without our distorting lenses—and appreciate the ‘other’. In its deep and generous empathy as well as its unvarnished honesty, Mrs America is a welcome example of engaging the challenge. Catch it if you can.


Thursday, July 16, 2020

Field notes




The Parable of the Sower, the Seed, and the Soil

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

In Jesus’ parable of the sower, the seed, and the soil, the sower is the one who represents God’s active sovereign reign in and to the world, the blessed one who comes in the name of the Lord; and the seed is the word of the kingdom, always new, each seed giving rise to new seed, scattered liberally, with no anxiety that it might run out, no anxiety that it will not all bear fruit, each seed the word that contains a potential expression of the kingdom, for those who hunger.

The soil is the human heart, depicted as a communal field, cultivated land on the edge of the village, within which each family in the village had its own strip. The heart—our ability to choose between good and evil—is composed of both personal agency and interconnection with others. Within the boundary of the field is found the path, providing connections; the rocky soil, providing foundations; and the thorns, providing boundaries. Connections, foundations, and boundaries are inevitable, and can even be good; but what has been good for us is not necessarily just and fair towards others; and what has been good in the past may need transforming. (The Lectionary pairs this parable with Isaiah 55:10-13, which depicts a vision in which the Lord sows; in which connections are renewed, creating paths that enable us to share joy and peace with one another; foundations are reimagined, reminding us of God’s faithfulness and encouraging us to praise his holy name; and boundaries are replanted, securing a place of shelter and healing rather than being a cause of enduring pain.)

As the seed is scattered, some are snatched away before we even register them. Some are received with joy, taken up with enthusiasm…and abandoned when proclaiming them results in trouble. Some sprout but, while still vulnerable, are chocked by our anxieties and our love affair with wealth and the comfort and status wealth promises. And yet, some words bear fruit, again with varying results.

An example: in this season, the sower is scattering seeds of racial justice. Some falls on the path, where social connections quickly mobilise in a defensive, dismissive response: “Black Lives Matter? No, All Lives Matter!” Some falls on rocky ground, a jumping on the bandwagon of a movement in the news cycle—perhaps even a buying of books, a subscribing to podcasts—but a moving-on just as quickly as we took-up the cause. Some falls among thorns, and is choked when enthusiasm wears off and hope—which always remains—has dirt beneath her fingernails and sweat on her brow. And some seed produces a harvest of righteousness, feeding the hungry and investing in sustaining future generations…


The Parable of the Seeds

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

In the parable of the sower, the seed, and the soil, both the sower and the seed are good, while the soil is varied. In Jesus’ following parable, two sowers are at work, with two kinds of seed. The custodian of the field sows good seed, which will bear a harvest of grain. But he has an enemy: and the Greek word here emphasises a person resolved to inflict harm, motivated by a deep-rooted and irreconcilable hostility. And under the cover of darkness, this enemy sowed seed of his own: and the Greek word identifies darnel, an inedible and potentially poisonous ryegrass that closely resembles wheat. Indeed, it so closely resembles wheat that the only way to tell them apart with certainty is to wait until the grain is ripe, at which point wheat grain is brown and darnel grain is black. This, then, is a subtle sabotage; the field is not captured by force, but the anticipated harvest is less than hoped for. It is a long-term strategy to persuade the owner of the field to abandon it for loss. (I have been to Galilee and stood in a field abandoned to darnel.)

What is surprising, even to his own servants, is the owner’s response, which is to let both grow together, even accepting the partial loss. To be proactive rather than reactive; to be true to the vocation of custodian of the field he fully identifies with, and not caught-up in the games of the one committed to causing him harm (hurting him by hurting the field which is essentially interchangeable with his own personal identity as custodian).

A parable is a comparison: if you want to know what x is like, consider y. If you want to know what the kingdom of heaven is like, says Jesus, consider (the sower, who is) the Son of Man. This is the title he gives himself (drawing on prophetic tradition) as representative of a faithful remnant community. In other words, the loving rule of the king of the universe is exercised on earth in the lives of persons in community focused on Jesus. And this community is active in the field, which is the world, the entire scope of human life, activity, and divinely mandated authority. Jesus says, the good seed are ‘the children of the kingdom’, that is, those who belong to the kingdom. This is multi-layered imagery, in which the community focused on Jesus is both the (rightful, opposed) custodian of the field who sows good seed, and the good seed that is sown: this is a community that reproduces a harvest for those who hunger for righteousness, so revealing the very kingdom of heaven they belong to and participate in…

The backdrop to this parable, as with the whole of Matthew’s Gospel, is the clear distinction between those who welcome and those who reject Jesus—and, by extension, his disciples—and the consequence of such rejection. That consequence, for the nation, will be that, having rejected the one who comes in the name of the Lord, they will find themselves judged, crushed by the might of Rome. The first and primary horizon of the explanation of this parable is the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple, which brings to a decisive end the ‘Second Temple Judaism’ of Jesus’ day. In this moment of existential crisis, those who are revealed to be ‘children of the evil one’ are gathered-up by heralds of the Son of Man and consumed with fire, to the lament of their families.

It is a stark image, emphasising the stark choice between life and death. It is an image in continuity with the tradition that God will judge the nations that surround his people…starting with his own people—and judging them by a stricter measure—a vision in continuity with the exile into Babylon, and eventual fall of Babylon.

But it is also a story of rescue, of protection over the lives of the children of the kingdom, of the promise of continuity for the faithful remnant community beyond the imminent judgement—in continuity with the exodus from Egypt. And alongside that, a story of purification, where that judgement will consume that which does not produce a harvest, that which consumes nutrients and land without giving anything back.

Crisis—genuine national and international existential crisis, such as the times we are living in—reveals the human heart; the ways in which our accumulative choices, for righteousness or wickedness, ultimately shape our souls and our communities into something that embraces Life, or Death. In the end, we get what we desire.

Questions:

The custodian fully identifies with the whole field. Do we identify with the whole world, or just our small corner? Do we lack love for those in our neighbourhood; elsewhere in our nation; or of other nations?

Who do we judge as being darnel, while considering ourselves as wheat?

Conversely, do we consider ourselves as darnel, of less worth than others who, in contrast, we consider to be good wheat?

How might we view the times we are living in through the lens of biblical imagination, in particular relating to crisis and judgement?

What is Jesus saying to us—personally, as a family (however you define that), and as a community (however you define that)?

What is Jesus saying to us—personally, as a family (however you define that), and as a community (however you define that)—that we are ignoring?


Wednesday, July 15, 2020

On earth, as in heaven

I’ve been doing plenty of reading and listening to podcasts around the issue of racism recently, from the perspective that it is a pervasive evil, but also seeking to understand the push-back I note among my family, friends, local church congregation, and the wider city where I live. This push-back is deeply rooted in cultural conservatism, which differs from political conservatism: it is possible to be politically socialist and culturally conservative (indeed, that might describe a majority of the population of Sunderland), and, moreover, advocates of cultural conservatism would argue that the Conservative party has capitulated to the Left on culture (for example, it was a Conservative government that legalised same-sex marriage). The key argument of cultural conservatives is ‘Take Back Control’.

I would contend that the Left is pretty much spot-on in its critique of the Right, but, mirroring it, fails to offer a genuine alternative. Those on the Left are right in claiming that power exists, and is often marshalled to oppress people (and so provides an ‘umbrella’ for such groups). The Right dissembles on this, presenting the myth of the heroic individual who, by virtue of their superior qualities, overcomes the struggles every human faces, and so demonstrates that they are best-qualified to guide nations. The Left, they argue, is ideologically committed to destruction. This is at best a half-truth, equating deconstruction with destruction and positions in their ‘logical’ extreme with a wide spectrum of thought and practice. But in general, the Left and the Right only play one another at their own game.

The argument, from both sides, goes like this. Thinkers and influencers on the Left realise that they cannot overthrow the Right by force, and so seek to do so by stealth, by subversion and resistance within cultural institutions. Seeking to take control. Thinkers and influencers on the Right recognise the success of this, that they have lost the culture war—that the Left has occupied and consolidated their hold over our places of education, the BBC, the Church of England, even the Conservative Party—and that they must now employ stealth, subversion and resistance in order to take back control. Winning the vote to leave the EU was a victory, but the war is far from won.

Take Back Control expresses a fundamental truth of the human heart, that we desire to be just a little bit above others.

When I look to scripture, I see a clear contrast.

A recognition of sin—of the fundamental breakdown of relationship and universal need for reconciliation—expressed at the personal level (as the Right emphasises) and the structural level (as the Left emphasises) of ‘powers and principalities’.

The choice of Jesus to empty himself and willingly take on the nature of a slave (Philippians 2) and the call on his followers to be of a like-mind.

The insight that those who fight to save their lives will lose that life, while those who lose their life will find life. For control is an illusion, with destructive consequences for ourselves and those around us.

The building of diverse communities of reconciliation that, for all their difficulties, are able to not only survive but flourish beyond the end of the world as they have known it, the great and regular cultural upheavals of history.

And in almost every case where taking control is spoken of, it is not control of a nation (the exception being the books of the Maccabees in the Apocrypha/Deuterocanon, which concerns taking back control from an occupying Empire) or over another person, but self-control.

Interestingly, much of what I have been reading on racism is concerned not with control of others, but with self-control. In How To Be An Anti-Racist, Ibram X.Kendi writes:

“The good news is that racist and antiracist are not fixed identities. We can be a racist one minute and an antiracist the next. What we say about race, what we do about race, in each moment, determines what—not who—we are.”

We should not be afraid to examine our own views, for the life of discipleship is a call to the habitual practice of repentance and belief, of turning from one perspective and embracing another. Not by coercion, but as ministers of reconciliation. This is not of the Left, as it is not of the Right; but of the wholly other kingdom of heaven, the loving active participation of God with humanity in this world.



UPDATE adding a conversation with a friend in response to the above:

‘Thank you, Andrew … I particularly appreciate your observation that “Take back control expresses a fundamental truth of the human heart, that we desire to be just a little bit above others.” I like how you frame this as a fundamental truth, not just a problem that some other people have. And it definitely resonates with some of the push back I have felt from some of my family and friends to expressing an anti-racist perspective—the fear of ‘where will it stop?’, rooted in the fear of becoming oppressed (or at least not in control).’

and my response:

‘I think you get at something really insightful here in rooting the desire to control in the fear of becoming oppressed or at least not in control. I think this is, in fact, a fear of humiliation, of being humiliated before others, which, albeit in different ways, stems from childhood experiences—of being bullied, for a variety of reasons. It is a matter of shame, and a life-long attempt to have control over shame. Again, I come back to Jesus, who put shame to scorn by choosing to humble himself; and who, through his being humiliated by people but vindicated by God, triumphs over shame and empowers us to triumph over shame by not only being our example but our promise of future hope.’


Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Hannah

The Old Testament readings set for Morning Prayer on Monday and Tuesday this week (1 Samuel 1:1-2:11) tell the story of Hannah. She is an amazing woman, and an incredible exemplar of faith.

When we meet Hannah, she is longing for a child she has never been able to conceive.

Her husband, Elkanah, loves her, and is distressed at her distress; but he does not fully inhabit the covenant relationship between husband and wife. As much as he loves her, his ego is wounded that he is not enough for her, that she wants a child. He seems unwilling or unable to put himself in her position, or see through her eyes. Indeed, he cannot, for Elkanah has children by another wife, which further adds to Hannah’s pain.

Eli, the priest, sees Hannah praying in anguish, and assumes that she is drunk. He chastises her for being drunk in God’s house. He does not fully inhabit the covenant relationship between priest and people. Perhaps his ego is also wounded by this unseemly behaviour on his watch; but he is, at least initially, unable to see through Hannah’s tear-washed eyes.

With the best will in the world, Elkanah fails as a husband (as I fail as a husband). With the best will in the world, Eli fails as a priest (as I fail as a priest) (neither failure need be the final word). In contrast, Hannah understands and fully inhabits the covenant relationship between Yahweh and the Israelites.

If we see her prayer, in which she asks God for a son and promises that she will give him back to God, as an attempt to persuade God to act as she wants, we utterly misunderstand what is taking place. However familiar this approach is—"God, if you will only spare my life, or save my child, I will go to church for the rest of my days!”—this is not it. Hannah is not hoping to persuade a reluctant god, or give herself grounds to believe with more certainty. She could not be more sure, in evoking the covenant relationship between them; a relationship in which God is greater—able to do what she cannot—but in which both parties have agency. She calls on Yahweh to act in accordance with the covenant between them, to deliver her from barrenness; and reaffirms her side of the covenant, that, in response, she will dedicate her first-born son to the Lord.

As I said, an incredible exemplar of faith.

Sometimes, God may give us the benefit of the doubt when we try to win divine favour. In fact—and for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; to love and to cherish—that favour has already been held out to us. Hannah knew it. You can know it, too.


Wednesday, July 08, 2020

Grace and peace

This morning I led Morning Prayer at Sunderland Minster for the first time since March.

The Old Testament reading, Judges 15:1-16:3, part of the Samson saga, is a litany of abuse and violence, against women, animals, the natural environment and the communities that depend on the fruit of the earth, tribal rivals—the whole passage is concerned with the evils of ‘othering’—and even the built environment.

For some, this passage (and others like it) is reason enough to reject the Bible as worthy of shaping community, and to reject the community that holds it to be authoritative. Personally, I am glad that this passage is in the Bible, confronting me to recognise that there is nowhere I can stand outside of such a cycle of hostility, no community I can join that is above such things. I am not exempt.

Where is God in this passage? The spirit of the Lord rushes upon Samson to free him from his captivity; and, after Samson has routed his enemies, God responds to his thirst by splitting a hollow place and bringing forth water. We can see this as divine approval; or we can see it as grace: as the loving favour of God to even the most undeserving of sinners, or, those estranged from their neighbours and captive to destruction.

The passage is paired with Luke 18:15-30, in which we see Jesus interrupting the endless cycle of violence, just long enough to see whether others will step into the vulnerable space created. He interrupts his disciples in their intent to order people who were bringing infants to Jesus to stop; telling them that they must become as a little child if they are ever to enter into the kingdom of God. He interrupts a certain ruler (or, a man with enormous privilege in an unjust world) who is seeking even greater fulfilment through gain; calling him to give away his wealth to the benefit of the poor. In a world of enmity, calling him from a position of neutrality to be a peacemaker, one with God-given authority to participate in the active positive relationship between God and humankind, made possible by God’s initiative and revealed in the person of Jesus.

The ruler baulks, and walks away. The disciples don’t really get it, but stick with it, with wrestling with the call of Jesus on their lives—which is a call into community, the people of God, those who are in Christ.

The word of the kingdom is new every morning, always calling us afresh to know grace, and peace. However uncomfortable the reading from Judges; however barely-more-hopeful the reading from Luke; both readings this morning bring me back to this.