Thursday, June 11, 2020

Idol chatter

And God spoke all these words, saying: “I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slaves. You shall have no other gods beside me. You shall make you no carved likeness and no image of what is in the heavens above or what is on the earth below or what is in the waters beneath the earth. You shall not bow to them and you shall not worship them, for I am the LORD your God, a jealous god, reckoning the crime of fathers with sons, with the third generation and with the fourth, for My foes, and doing kindness to the thousandth generation for My friends and for those who keep My commands.”

Exodus 20:1-6

(The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary, Robert Alter)

In these days, I find myself in conversations with very defensive white people. Our defensiveness ought to tell us something, if we will listen. I hear bewildered statements like “The world’s gone mad” and “Where will it end?” and a particular focus on statues.

The power statues have over us calls to mind the Commandments. Through Moses, God warns against the raising of likenesses, images. Later in the biblical account, as this word is ignored, such likenesses are called idols. Representations of some claimant over us, to our allegiance; things made by God, for blessing and fruitfulness, to whom we hand over a power to hold us captive. To enslave us.

When we cannot even acknowledge that there may be good reason to pull down the likeness of a literal slave trader, or, even more recently, to revisit whether it is a good idea to immortalise a man who was a vocal supporter of Adolf Hitler, then are not these images idols?

I am not arguing that there should be no sculpture, no three-dimensional tactile art. Indeed, such things are a way in which we explore the world, and our place in it.

I do wonder whether it might be a good practice for any and all public statues to stand on their plinth for one hundred years, and then be removed; alongside an assessment—a re-evaluation—of their impact. This would not be to erase history—and certainly, not to lose the gift of the sculptor to society—but to engage with history.

In issuing such a strong warning against the power of likenesses to cut us off from our Creator and Redeemer, from ourselves as created and redeemed, and from our neighbour, God speaks about generations. God demands retribution from only three or four generations, and upholds treaty obligation to the (vastly more) thousandth.

And this is why I wonder about a one-hundred-year statue limitation. Three or four generations. The longer reparations go unreconciled, the more difficult they become. We are all guilty of sin, of that which separates us from God and neighbour, and of the particular ways that manifests itself in our lives. It isn’t enough to argue, “On such an exacting measure, no-one is guiltless!” and it isn’t enough to say, “It is dangerous to assess historical figures on the morals of our times rather than theirs.” Yes, Baden-Powell’s vocal homophobia must be seen in the context of a society that was structurally hostile to gay people; yes, our common values are very different today; and, yes—take note—these may change again in the future. Neither removing a statue too soon nor leaving it for ever are wise.

Statues commemorate the people we look up to, and statues in turn shape us, mould us, set us hard—and brittle—in bronze. The longer we gaze upon a slave trader in admiration, the harder it is for us to be set free from our own captivity to the believe that some people are justifiably more human than others. (The great irony being the diminishing of our own humanity.) The longer we gaze on statues of Queen Victoria, Empress of India, in public parks and squares the length and breadth of the land, the longer we justify ‘our’ Empire, and the harder it becomes to journey on into freedom.

Sometimes what we need is to be melted down and remade, by the One who creates and redeems, and who is committed to doing so through all generations.

Where does it all end? My hope is in it arriving at the life shared with us by the God who unites all. My expectation is that this will be a life-long pattern of being brought out of the house of slaves. I note how hard we resist that kindness. Lord, have mercy.

Corpus Christi

Today is Corpus Christi, the day the Church gives thanks for the institution of Holy Communion. That institution took place on the day we call Maundy Thursday, on the night of Jesus’ arrest, illegal trial by night, hours before his murder. We mark that too, but as a sombre occasion. This day, Corpus Christi, is a celebration of the gift, of the benefits of this tangible expression of an intangible reality, Jesus with us, nourishing is with his presence.

As a faith tradition, we remember by enacting. Our memory, our belonging, our identity is embodied. Our being drawn into the body of Christ is embodied. As a faith community, the local congregation of which I am a part enacts Holy Communion every Thursday and Sunday. But this year, we have been unable to enact Holy Communion, on Maundy Thursday or Corpus Christi, or any of the days since we went into lockdown. So, what does that do to our remembering? What impact does it have on our memory, our belonging, our identity?

For most of my life, I have been a writer. From perhaps the age of four, I wrote, first with a pencil and then with a pen, until the age of eighteen. A pencil and a pen are not the same, exactly, for it is easier to erase what you write with a pencil; but they both involve the physical shaping of characters with a tool.

From the age of eighteen, my writing experienced a shift to a keyboard. The muscle-memory of writing started to be over-written. As it happens, I have dyspraxia, a spatial and memory impairment, and one that has impacted me more as I have grown older. I have never been able to keep hold of the layout of a keyboard. I go looking for every letter every time.

More recently, my writing has experienced another shift. Now, most of my writing is done on a virtual keyboard. Now I write with my two thumbs, rather than the index and middle fingers of my right hand. Now, the gap between locating the letters is shorter, though I still have to locate them.

I am a writer, and yet I have forgotten the art of using a pen. That is to say, I can still make marks on a page—indeed, I do so as a deliberate, intentional discipline, keeping a paper journal of my days—but they are scrawls. As a lover of words, and a lover of letters, as a lover of crafting these things and of the physicality of paper over a screen, these inky scratchings rarely give me pleasure.

When we gather together in a church building and share in a common liturgy that draws us once again to Jesus, standing around the Lord’s table or kneeling before it side by side at the rail; when I take bread in my hand and press it down onto the outstretched hand of another member of the body of Christ; this is a precious thing.

But it is far from what Jesus did. As fundamentally connected, and as fundamentally removed, as writing this on my smartphone is from writing it with a pen. We have lost the embodiment of a meal eaten together, watered it down to elements of wafer and wine, followed by a chocolate-coated biscuit and a cup of tea.

At this moment in time, we cannot meet together to participate in Holy Communion as we have been familiar. But we still need to eat and drink. And in so doing, we may remember or forget Jesus.

It isn’t the same, and I’m not dismissing the practices of my church tradition that have evolved over time. But here is an opportunity to pick up something that has been lost long before novel coronavirus, rather than wring our hands at something that has been suspended because of it.

So, eat and drink boldly, with thanksgiving. A broken blessing, and a blessed breaking.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

White chalk

If we are honest, we all have ‘kairos’ moments that break into our days, confronting us with systemic racism and the white privilege it perpetuates. Opportunities to turn from one often unconscious perspective and to seek to move deeper into a new outlook. Here’s another of mine.

Jo Saxton is my second-favourite Jo in the whole world, second only to the one I married. When I first knew her, she was Jo Oyeniran, and she was the first British Nigerian I properly met. She was an undergrad in the university department where I was a postgrad. I was the teaching assistant on one of the modules she took, on the portrayal of biblical characters in art and film.

On one occasion, I wrote the names of several students on the board. I don’t even remember why. On the list, I wrote Jo O. This was the name by which I was aware that she was called, more ‘neutral’ and, from a white perspective, ‘less racist’ than ‘Black Jo’, by which she was also referred to. But I had never taken the time to find out how she felt.

Jo called me out. Not good enough. You need to do better.

Say my name.

Jo called me out, to do better, to overcome my toxic laziness. Lazy, because it is quicker to write O than Oyeniran. Toxic, because I probably would have written Oliver or O’Brien in full. Probably; I can’t say, for sure: I am not a committed racist, but a casual one. [Edit: even had I abbreviated a white name, the action would not have had the impact. Jo responds, “Hey Andrew—thanks for your reflection. I don’t recall that specific conversation, but I remember how tiring it was, how frustrating and dehumanizing it was to have my name erased, or to be known as “the Black Jo”. And how over the years I stopped calling people out, stopped demanding people learn my name, because I didn’t have the capacity to do it all the time. I side eyed some people, backed away from others. But I noted it and absorbed it all. It cost me. So it was good to see an example of where/who I was before I was worn down in that area.”]

And Jo called me out, to try harder, to do better, to overcome my fear. Fear of an unfamiliar name, fear of spelling it wrong, fear of causing offence, fear as an excuse—I don’t think Jo would have minded had I needed help spelling her name.

Say my name.

I am deeply thankful that she called me out. I am deeply sorry that she needed to. I am glad that she was brave enough—for, in that room, I held the structural power; she held onto the moral empowerment.

Say my name.

My own name causes me enough problems. I cannot begin to tell you how many people can’t say my name. Dowsett. Dow•sett. The ‘e’ hovers somewhere between ‘e’ (Dow•sett) and ‘I’ (Dow•sitt). But I get Daw•sett or Dossett or godknowswhatelse. My wife’s maiden name is similarly problematic. Is it Mar•fell, or Marf•le? In his best man’s speech at our wedding, my brother commiserated with her. He had taken to using his flatmate’s name when ordering pizza, and would recommend it, except that her new flatmate had the useless name. And so, as his wedding present to her, he gave her his flatmate's name—Matthews—to use at her discretion. Oh, for a good, solid name like Saxton!

Even when I correct people’s pronunciation, they persist; largely, I think, because we tend to listen to confirm what we already think we know, and not to hear and understand and learn and grow. One form teacher in particular refused to say my name correctly. In the end, I refused to respond at registration, forcing him to look up from the register to see me in the room. Reader, I called him out.

On a superficial level, this is the same. “See! Not racism! You’re being overly sensitive, unnecessarily defensive. Black stubbornness. White guilt. Get over it!” In fact, they are entirely opposite. No-one ever shied away from my name because it was different. On the contrary, they assumed a familiarity.

White friends, we need to stop making excuses, attempting to justify ourselves, to distance ourselves from the problem, to tip the playing field back in our favour.

Jo, I am so grateful for your presence in my life, your friendship over the years, your challenge on more than one occasion. Forgive me for honouring you, perhaps clumsily, and without permission. You are welcome to edit this telling, as you have edited my life; though you may choose not to. You are undeniably part of my story, but you are so much more. Thank you.

Friends, you will benefit from Jo Saxton’s writing and podcasting.

Tuesday, June 09, 2020

White privilege

I’ve seen several posts shared over recent days, written by white people who want to stress that they have never seen systemic racism in their workplaces; the occasional explicitly racist individual—bad apples—yes, but not systemic racism. And I believe them. Not that there is no systemic racism, but that they don’t see it. That we don’t see it. That we don’t see what it costs people of colour to inhabit spaces shaped by whiteness, default spaces seen by whites as neutral.

There have been moments that stand out for me, when my white privilege has been made visible. At the time, they have been deeply uncomfortable. Nonetheless, I am thankful for them. I need more of them in my life. This has nothing to do with self-flagellation, and everything to do with being awoken and invited into a deeper experience of life as a human being.

A story. Back when my wife and I were engaged, she worked in an Anglican cathedral bookshop. It is hard to imagine a whiter space, nor a more English one. I used to meet her there, arriving ahead of the end of her shift, in order to browse the shelves. On one occasion, a Rastafarian came into the shop, like me, looking around. I watched him, and a smile broke out on my face. I smiled because his presence was a joy to me, a delight. His very being in that space made it more colourful, in every sense but in particular in the sense of God’s creative handiwork. Watching him was as watching God breathe life into the room. Smiling was both a prayer of praise to God and a reaching out to another human being who bore God’s likeness.

He did not see it that way. In fact, he confronted me, wanted to know why I was watching him, why I was grimacing at his being in that space? Did I feel that he did not belong there, as I did, as people like me did?

I was shocked. That, by the way, is white privilege right there. It had not crossed my mind that this proud (I mean that entirely in a positive sense) man should be bone tired of white people watching him, keeping an eye on him, in case he stole something, in case he turned threatening.

I was offended. That, by the way, is white privilege. I had just experienced prejudice. And yes, it was prejudice; but it was not reverse racism. Prejudice is forming a conclusion ahead of all of the facts; racism is prejudice plus power. In this case, his prejudice was founded on countless previous experiences, encounters with white people; more than reasonable odds. But in that space, and however I felt, I had the power. I was the one who, taking offence at prejudice, could have accused him of causing a scene, of being ungrateful, of demonstrating the very reason why some white people are explicitly racist and why it is just so damn hard for those of us who aren’t. I was the one who could shut that space down to him in a way he could not shut it down for me.

I was confused, as to why a black man—someone used to prejudice—would be guilty of prejudice. That, by the way, is white privilege. An ignorance—not wilful, but lazy; questions I had never had to ask, let alone wrestle with.

I was hurt. That, by the way, is white privilege, exposed. Over sensitive. Myself cast as victim. I am neither an explicit racist nor a bleeding-heart liberal nor a right-on Leftie; but I have been, largely unconsciously, shaped by white privilege (among other privileges) my whole life.

We talked, and it was okay. But I was left shaken. Which, as I said, was deeply uncomfortable at the time, but necessary. Absolutely necessary. My experience in no way whatsoever equates to his; but, it did make my white privilege visible to me.

It is about me, about what I needed to learn, and need to re-learn again and again and again. But—the paradox of all true learning—it wasn’t and isn’t primarily about me. I move closer to who I am when I am dethroned from the centre of my life. No-one needs my approval—and only when I understand that does my affirmation truly build the other person up. No-one owes me a debt of gratitude—and only when I understand that is it safe for me to receive gratitude when it is freely-given. And no-one needs my awkward smile, but that’s another matter.

There have been other such moments I could tell you about, and perhaps sometime I will. This is not a class we graduate from, though our sight can become clearer or more clouded.

If you are white—and if you have read this far—I wonder how you reacted to this re-telling? Honestly. But, please, respectfully.

If you are black, please forgive me my ongoing mis-steps, as I try not to shed my skin but to see you more clearly, and with a clean heart.

Monday, June 08, 2020

Love is all you need

To my friends who say, “Why can’t we just love one another?” I hear you. I really do. But to love one another must include dismantling systemic injustice* and to say “Why can’t we just love one another?” without seeking to do so is not love.

So, yes, may you love truly and be truly loved. For that is, indeed, the greatest imperative on all of our lives.

*including the hold systemic injustice has on ourselves—which, I’d argue, we can’t do in our own strength but only by the grace and power of God’s Holy Spirit and in community with others so empowered. And this, of course, is an answer to the question, “Why can’t we just love one another?” for we are all enslaved by fear of the other, and need to be set free.

On the toppling of idols

Edward Colston was a seventeenth century English merchant, slave trader, Member of Parliament, and philanthropist. That is to say, he sold black people as a commodity, using the profits to secure political influence and to bestow benefits upon white people. Between 1680 and 1692 the company he worked for and went on to direct trafficked 84,000 souls across the Atlantic. In order to maximise profit, an estimated 19,000 sick or deceased Africans were thrown overboard. Both those figures are conservative estimates.

For years, decades, people have campaigned for his statue to be taken down. And yet it remained. Some pointed to the good public works he had done (perhaps we should sell a few more black people to raise fresh capital?). Some argued against the erasing of history (then why not replace it with a statue honouring the dispossessed?). Yesterday protestors pulled down the statue and symbolically rolled it 'overboard' into the harbour.

Conservative Home Secretary Priti Patel called this action “utterly disgraceful” and went on to say “it speaks to the acts of public disorder that have become a distraction from the cause people are protesting about...It’s right the police follow up and make sure that justice is undertaken with these individuals that are responsible for such disorderly and lawless behaviour.”

What does justice look like?

There is a long history in this nation, as in America, of protesting injustice, of rallies and marches. Of peaceful protests that turn to violence when met by heavy-handed policing, or to vandalism when peaceful protest is ignored and ignored and ignored. This would include the Jarrow march, the Suffragette movement, the Peterloo Massacre, multiple Tudor uprisings, to mention just a few English examples.

There is just as long a history of those who benefit from the status quo denouncing such actions as utterly disgraceful, public disorder, an affront to every law-abiding citizen.

But law and order without justice always perpetuates injustice. Always. And under such circumstances, justice is more important than law and order. Indeed, lawless disorder may be the imperative of justice.

If you are more outraged that a statue of Edward Colston was pulled down yesterday than you are that it stood for over a hundred years, you are part of the problem.

Indeed, we are part of the problem. We are also part of the solution. Listen, not for the purposes of refuting but for the purpose of understanding better. Learn. Educate yourself. I say that to myself as much as to anyone else.