This Sunday, as well as being Trinity Sunday, marks the retirement of John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York. He is the first black holder of that office. He has been known for being charismatic and uncompromising. He is a forceful person. He has been a passionate advocate for social justice and to transform the welfare of people in poverty. He has also been on the receiving end of vile racist abuse. As he retires, we give thanks for his ministry and pray for him as he enters a new phase of life.
I was listening to the comedian, campaigner and actor Lenny Henry being interviewed on ‘Grounded with Louis Theroux’, a podcast for Radio 4. He spoke about his life, his work and racism in the UK. The shock was how much racial abuse has been a part of his life – in the background, directly at him and through prejudice. He referred to racism still going on today, overt, not just hidden, but at bus stops and on the underground. For all we celebrate a multicultural society we know there is this darkness beneath the surface, and both Lenny Henry and Archbishop Sentamu can attest to that.
It can be so easy to ignore and pass-by at the casual and low-level end, but it’s not so easy when it is explicit. When a police officer in the United States thinks it is acceptable to kneel on a black man’s neck until George Floyd died of asphyxiation, there is no longer a neutral place to hide. To be neutral is to say that he acted in an acceptable way, which it most clearly was not, or to not care enough to take a stand. It is to become complicit in it or drawn to be complicit. Archbishop Desmond Tutu put it with characteristic punch when he said ‘when an elephant is standing on the tail of a mouse, your neutrality will not be appreciated by the mouse’. Neutral takes a side by default; it takes the side of the aggressor.
The hashtag and slogan #BlackLivesMatter, circulating at the moment, is an important reminder that racism can lie hidden behind blander statements like ‘All Lives Matter’. Of course, all lives do matter but the point of the specific is to challenge the prejudice, the hatred and the violence. It is to shine a light on the vice and call it out. ‘All lives matter’ can be a way of watering that down. We have inclusion as one of our core values but we have to spell it out at times, just where that rubs so that it is challenged. As Lenny Henry said in the podcast, someone has to take a lead to effect change.
On Saturday there is a demonstration planned to take place in Cathedral Square. Most of us will not be there – because we are still shielding or keeping distance from large gatherings as we are required to do. The church building will be there, though, standing as it does at the heart of the city. As it stands there it can be a symbol of inclusion and value or of indifference. It can be a symbol of standing in solidarity with those feeling unheard and discriminated against, even if we as its congregation are not able to do so physically, through a poster in the main noticeboard. As St Paul put it, in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free, all are one (Galatians 3:28). Today he would highlight the racial unity and equality too. The equity needed spelling out then and it needs it now.
Even in lockdown and shielding, we can proclaim the light and hope of Christ. The political challenges continue and there are people who suffer at the hands of others’ hatred and prejudice. When we want to see a more compassionate and caring society, one that does show that all lives matter, it is important to be prepared to make this clear when others are behaving differently, to be specific. Being known by our fruit is more important than posing for photo calls outside churches – especially if the way has been cleared by rubber bullets and tear gas, as for President Trump this week. It’s not enough to hold a bible, we have to hear, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest it, then live it in justice, truth and peace proclaiming the love of God in Jesus Christ for all.
God bless, keep alert, and find ways to show the light and love of Christ in this coming week.
Opening Letter in weekly newsletter for Peterborough Parish Church, 5th June 2020