“I have a dream … “
With those words, Martin Luther King began to wrap up one of the greatest speeches of the 20th Century. Delivered to over 250, 000 civil rights supporters from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, his words defined not just a mood but a movement.
That movement for racial justice has found recent expression of course in Black Lives Matter. I want to interact with the wider issues raised, draw some theological threads together and then ask, “so what is your dream?”
I am grateful to Chipo Muwowo for his two recent articles in this Going Viral Series and also to Ben Lindsay whose book, ‘We need to talk about race; Understanding the black experience in white majority churches, is a helpful, hard hitting primer.
These matters are uncomfortable to reflect on, but absolutely necessary. The emotional and practical experience of many from the BAME community is reflected in the physical suffering which George Floyd expressed in his dying words “I can’t breathe”.
We cannot ignore the cry of those who suffer injustice and feel that they cannot breathe, some of whom, perhaps, are even in our churches. Dr King once observed, “the most segregated time in the US is 11 o’clock on a Sunday morning”.
The perception of the two thirds world is that Christianity is a white man’s religion. A view which may still be prevalent in much of Western Europe.
But a brief analysis of current trends in global Christianity shows how different the picture is now in fact. Christian Mission has been declining in the West and expanding in the two thirds world. And in this we should rejoice. Not in our white, western decline (!) but in the non- white, non – western growth.
I for one am hugely grateful for the help we are now getting from those people groups to whom 150 years ago we first took the gospel – Africans, Asians, Latinos. What we have sadly lost since, they have found and are coming here to show us. Whereas the map of Missions used to be the West to the Rest, now its everyone to everywhere!
In that shift of the last fifty years, we are simply reflecting the origins of the early Church. There and then, the Christian movement began among non- whites. So history can repeat itself in good as well as bad ways.
The Relevance of the issues and how we relate to the past
The contemporary significance of this ongoing conversation about race, was brought home to me again this week. Firstly, by the standing down of politician, Rebecca Long- Bailey, for tweeting with apparent approval, comments by an actress that were deemed to be anti -Semitic.
And, secondly, by the latest statue smashing. This one in the Belgian town of Ghent, as King Leopold the second went the same way as Edward Colston, and was toppled from his memorial statue. Though unlike the Bristol philanthropist and slaver, he fell with a little more decorum.
Decorum or not, people like Leopold have become figures of shame in the last months, as the West begins to wake up from its cultural sleep and from the darker side of its past.
I was fortunate to have been reasonably well educated in a State School. But none of my reading up to the age of 18 was through anything other than rose tinted spectacles, when it came to the history of the British Empire and Commonwealth! The map of the world said proudly “Rule Britannia”. History as they say was written by the winners. And we won!
It was only when I was educated through University and taught how to think, that I realised at what cost we had won.
I then discovered, because of the nature of the subject I was studying, just how complex our relationship is with the past and how we need to be in constant dialogue with it, so as to learn all its lessons, not just the ones we have been told about.
It was here, among the dreaming spires, that I learned about Churchill’s less ambiguous perspective on race and white superiority. Not that that itself disqualifies him from the pantheon of great British heroes. But it does reinforce that all our heroes have feet of clay.
We therefore need to be mindful of who it is we might want to put on today’s pedestals. The future may look at our heroes the way that we are now revising our views of some of our former greats.
And it all can get very silly.
I heard the other day that the street sign Penny Lane, famous as the place name for one of the Beatles lyrics, had been daubed with the words racist. Liverpool City Council are being pressured to take down or change the street name because it was allegedly named after the slave merchant James Penny.
Some are even campaigning that Christians should no longer sing the hymn Amazing Grace because it was written by the drunkard and slaver John Newton.
True Newton was once lost. But grace found him and changed him to such an extent that he was hugely influential in supporting the Abolitionist, William Wilberforce, who of course successfully campaigned for the removal of slavery from the British Empire.
This attempt to totally delete the past, is in some respects driven by the same sort of agenda that drove the Communist Dictators of the 20th Century and others before them- the removal of every trace of cultural history which doesn’t fit in with a new order.
We need, to read people in the context of their own time and place, without of course condoning those wrong values and personal blind spots to which they may have been susceptible.
Churchill should, in my view, be left on his plinth in London, if for no other reason than that he called out the evil of fascism. Not even my school history would let Hitler get away with his monstrous racism aimed at the Jews primarily, though not exclusively.
The tragic loss of millions of lives in the concentration camps of Europe far outnumbers the 500, 000 thousand who have sadly died because of Covid 19.
We do need the perspective which a proper reading of history can give us. The deaths of 1 million Europeans that Julius Caesar was responsible for, the 6 Million killed to make Bonaparte great, the 800, 000 Rwandan Tutsis slaughtered in 100 days, are only a few historical examples of the viruses of colonialism and racism which are far more deadly than Coronavirus.
There is an argument that these statues should be taken down and instead put in a museum so that we will not forget the past. A recent visitor to Auschwitz found herself conflicted that such death camps were still allowed to stand and at the time of her visit were being redecorated. But she felt the power of the phrase “never forget”.
There is some wisdom in the words of George Santayana “ Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it ” .
Pulling the theological threads together
First idols. The long history of idolatry, at least in terms of the Biblical narrative, begins with the command of God to His people, not to make an image of anything or worship it.
No sooner had the Lord indicated His intention to preserve Israel from such cheap god substitutes, than Moses comes down from the mountain carrying the Commandments, including the one that they should have no other gods before Him, only to find that the tribes of Israel had got fed up of waiting. They wanted a god they could see. So they had built a statue of a Golden Calf.
This ancient symbol of fertility was one of 400 Mesopotamian gods, worshipped by nations like the Egyptians, from whose oppression the God of Israel had just freed them. They were all little more than blown up versions of humanity; constantly fighting each other for territory, insecure and mean spirited . Not the sort of gods you’d want to worship. But Israel did. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie. So much for thankfulness.
But it was this desire to domesticate God, as much as to have a god on tap like the other nations, that drove the people of God towards a love affair with idols that in truth would last for ever. The human heart is never far away from erecting idols.
At the very beginning, Adam and Eve succumbed to that exact temptation in Eden, to worship the idol of knowledge in the tree of good and evil. Israel was constantly being told by the prophets to stop committing spiritual adultery with the gods of the other nations. Jesus would identify the God of Mammon ( Materialism ) as the main rival to the one true God in the hearts of all men.
In some ways the current statue smashing phase is a good thing, if it reinforces the need to dethrone all those ideals and individuals that can actually dehumanise us.
I would still though recommend that the rule of the mob is not the arbiter of what should stand or fall in our civic life. For that we need measured reflection even if it involves heated debate.
The celebrity culture of today is another thing which pretends to offer people a way of making sense of, if not out of, their ordinary lives. The trouble is that, as with all man made idols, it is a lie, a pretence. Idols do not satisfy. In fact in the case of celebrities, a made for TV lifestyle is a complete counterfeit.
And then there are the idols we worship, not made of stone and wood, but that are ideas and ideals. The gods for example of education, progress, science, technology and race.
Equality and race
The problem with race, and by the way, we are all potential racists, whatever the colour of our skin, is that it makes difference the basis for and ground of our superiority/ inferiority.
Our identity is too tied up with secondary factors like nationality, gender, accent, class, age background. We are different of course. But in the soil in which racism grows, that difference becomes a marker that we are better than others.
Have we today become obsessed by difference, infatuated by the competition and exploitation which it feeds among us as a society?
Identity is a good thing. But only when it is understood as deriving ultimately not from the country in which we were born or the school we attended or the ethnic group to which we belong, but from the God in whose image we are made.
And when we trace all our secondary identities, important as they are, to that original identity, what do we find? Not that we are different but that we are the same.
Every human being carries the dignity of that image equally, fully and eternally. There are no races that are more god like than others, no ethnicity that are superior.
Paul made the case for equality in his sermon to the philosophers of Athens, “from one man he made all the nations… as some of your own poets have said, we are his offspring.”
The great doctrines of Creation, from which Paul argued in so much of his writing, are established in the opening chapters of Genesis. They are fundamental to the nature of our
human identity and equality. If Genesis is not in your bible you are probably going to be a racist of one kind or another.
Yes, there are anatomical, biological differences between the genders. As there are temperamental and cultural differences between individuals and races. These are each part of our identity. But to be a man or a woman, as to be black or white, English or Welsh is not the most important thing about us.
What transcends all of those, is our identity as the bearers of the divine image. And because we are in that sense the same, we are therefore all equal.
We can choose to amplify the secondary differences. Which is what racism does. Or we can choose to minimise the significance of these differences. Which is what the gospel does.
We need an altogether different bandwidth to operate on, we need a fundamental revolution in how we see ourselves in relation to others, we need a new heart.
Jesus and the new humanity
One of the great freedoms which the gospel of Jesus offers is the freedom to re-imagine ourselves as we truly are in God’s sight. The grace of forgiveness resets the clock to Genesis. We find our way back to Eden through the righteousness of the one the New Testament calls both the Second Adam and the New Man.
And what opens up is a world in which because of the Cross of Christ, the old divisions are demolished. The walls of race, gender, class and culture that create winners and losers- the oppressed and the oppressor- are replaced with a new humanity.
‘ For Christ himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and had destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility. God’s purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace” ( Ephesians 2:14,15)
Now to be clear. The gospel doesn’t erase those secondary identities of culture, ethnicity, gender or colour. They still matter and to that extent define us. I don’t stop being Welsh or formally educated or a white male, when I become a Christian. But that’s not who I truly am now. And that‘s not who anyone, in Christ, is.
This is what, again Paul, means in Galatians 3 vs 28 “ There is neither Jew or Gentile, slave nor free, male or female , for you are all one in Christ”.
We need to see, not just ourselves in the light of who we are in Christ, but everyone else too.The same divine grace, forgiveness, mercy that saves me, saves everyone.
But the gospel doesn’t just reset the clock to Genesis, it points us forward to the future .
Justice and the Kingdom of God.
Studying the psalms for our Daily Devotions, I have been impressed again but just how frequently the song book of the Old Testament majors on the theme of justice and the victory of God.
Often inspired by the earlier narrative of Israel’s history as a slave nation liberated from the Egyptian oppressor, the God of justice comes to the rescue of his people and will come in future to establish that justice on the earth. This is the Day of the Lord to which all the people of God look forward in hope.
It is a vision of that coming Kingdom which is present in Jesus throughout his ministry. In fact he describes it, as he takes the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue in Nazareth to begin his public role as Messiah. ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because He has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind , to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” Luke 4:18
All the ministry of Jesus that follows in those miracles of healing and deliverance, and above all in his resurrection from the dead, signpost the Day of the Lord, when the Kingdom of God will be established forever.
That will be the day when death will have no dominion and the trees of the fields will clap their hands and the lion will lie down with the lamb. It will be the arrival of the new creation because of the new humanity because of the New Man.
The great prophetic hope of Isaiah, Jesus and John in the Book of the Revelation, looked to a time coming when the glory of the Lord would cover the earth as the waters cover the sea. And part of that universal glory would be justice for all and a multi -cultural community around the throne of God made up of people from every tribe, language and nation.
Their vision has inspired many of the world’s greatest dreamers. Among them Martin Luther King, with whom we began. Remember his famous oratory at the end of his, I have a dream speech
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today!
So what is your dream?
The fact that Dr King’s dream has not yet arrived, and if the events surrounding George Floyd are anything to go by, it is still a long way off, does not make that dream impossible.
For it is based ultimately not on human structures succeeding, human revolutions rising or human statues falling.
The Kingdom of God awaits the coming of the King. Only then will the dream be realised. That does not make the struggle for it now, redundant. It just means that our final hope lies not in politics but in the Prince of Peace, not in the ballot box but in his cross and resurrection.
The call to dream for the Christian is the call to hope in God. And God is always worth waiting for.
But that doesn’t suggest we sit back and do nothing until then. The call of the gospel is to seek to mirror that dream in our local Churches and in our individual lives today.
So what is your dream? Of a more integrated Lansdowne where people from a BAME background are not just in worship but in leadership? Of a more love -of -neighbour focused Christian community, in which differences in accent, culture, nationality , gender and class are welcomed warmly and appreciated as gifts, not allowed to be walls that separate us?
If the future is one of multi cultural worship, shouldn’t we get in some practice for that right now?
Peter Baker | Senior Minister