Sunday, 28 June 2020

How Do We Think about Racism? A Sermon on Matthew 22:34-40

It was my turn to preach on a passage from Matthew’s Gospel today and I felt strongly that I needed to say something about racism. I’ve read some articles and a couple of books over the past few weeks and have noticed that explicitly theological voices are few and far between. Do commentators, even Christian commentators, suppose racism is only a sociopolitical issue with sociopolitical solutions? I think there are resources in the logic of the good news about Jesus that should frame everything else we must say. Anyway, here’s what I preached today, for better or for worse. Feel free to comment!

‘White Jesus, White Saviour—Lord, you must be all like us.’

Matthew 22:34-40

As with so many, I too was shocked by George Floyd’s death. I don’t know why the death of this particular Black man sparked so many protests—it’s not like we haven’t heard accounts of racial prejudice or systemic racism before. And it’s shameful that we have often ignored or downplayed these accounts: as individuals, as a society, and even as members of the one body of Jesus Christ. It is equally shameful that so many White people are only now beginning to see racism for what it is: injustice, oppression, and evil. Racism is sin.

As a White man, as a White Christian, I am challenged to look at myself and by God’s Holy Spirit put to death whatever racist attitudes exist within me. And I am equally challenged to expose systemic racism, the sort of racism that benefits me as a White man whether I want it to or not, whenever I can. Neither of these things is possible to do alone. I need to listen to my Black, Asian, and minority ethnic friends so that I can tackle the racism within. I need to listen to a range of Black, Asian, and minority ethnic commentators so that I can help tackle the racism without. And I need to listen to what God’s Spirit is saying to the churches.

One of the questions I heard a lot in the wake of George Floyd’s death was this: ‘What should we do about racism?’ But the question that kept going around in my mind was slightly different: ‘How should we think about racism?’ And this raised more questions for me: How should we think as Christians? What do we have to say as Christians to a world that places its hope in little more than easily corruptible good intentions? What are the distinctive contributions Christians can make to conversations about racism?

Let’s see where today’s Gospel reading takes us. First of all, notice here that Jesus is being tested: ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ This seems an innocent-enough question, but Matthew tells us the question was to test Jesus, like if we were to ask the Archbishop of Canterbury, ‘So, Justin, why don’t we have more Black women in ministry?’, or ‘Do you think the Church of England is systemically racist?’ The questions are valid, but they’re designed to put someone on the spot and elicit a soundbite rather than sound judgement. So it is here: Jesus is being put on the spot.

But Jesus’s answer is a good one: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ However, Jesus goes further and says ‘a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”’ Now when I hear this, I automatically think, ‘What can I do to love my neighbour? How much money should I give to the poor? How many meals can I make for the hungry?’ And so on. And all this is, of course, good and right and necessary: ‘faith without works is . . . dead’, as James puts it. I know I can come across as not really caring about people because I joke around or have my head stuck in a book, but I know from childhood experience what it’s like to depend on the generous actions of others. ‘What can I do to love my neighbour?’ is a very important question.

But it’s also important to ask another question: ‘How should I think to love my neighbour as myself?’ This question is not as strange as it sounds. The things Jesus mentions in his initial response are aspects of being human that influence or shape the way we act: ‘heart’ is the core of what makes a person a person; ‘soul’ is essentially a person’s life, or that which makes a person ‘alive’; and ‘mind’ suggests not just a person’s intellect but also the process of reasoning and reflecting. Jesus is not saying that these are three parts of a person that function in completely independent ways; nor is Jesus implying that the ‘heart’ is more important than the ‘mind’, or that the ‘soul’ is more important than the ‘heart’. The point, says Jesus, is that we are to love the Lord with all of these aspects all the time to the fullest extent possible.

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Jesus doesn’t just leave it here, of course. He adds, ‘“You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”’ It’s important to see a connection between loving the Lord with all our heart and soul and mind, and loving our neighbour as ourselves. Putting it crudely, we love our neighbour because we love the Lord; and by loving our neighbour, we demonstrate that we love the Lord. But we do not love the Lord merely mentally or emotionally, while loving our neighbour only through practical action. Who watching this talk now would claim to love God with their mind alone? Who would claim to love their neighbour without also feeling compassion for them or considering the best course of action to take? There is a natural connection between our thinking and our doing, because what we think gets embodied in action, and all of our actions stem from and include within themselves our thoughts. Asking how I should think to love my neighbour is just as important as asking what I should do to love my neighbour because they are essentially two sides of the same coin.

Now let’s come back to the issue of racism. The immediate response to any painful situation—and racism in all its forms is nothing if not painful—the immediate response to pain is to find ways of stopping it. Sometimes this will mean dealing with the symptoms: putting soothing balm on the sores, for example, or bandaging up the wound. But when the pain is severe, more intensive action, sometimes invasive action, is needed to determine the cause and deal with it there. We need to use our judgement to know which treatment is best for which pain: it’s no good putting Sudocrem on a dislocated shoulder or a burst appendix. This use of human judgement applies equally for all sorts of social pains, too, including the social pain of racism. Of course we all want to do something about racism; we all want this pain to end; but is it the pain of racism itself we want to end, or just the pain caused by our feeling the effects of racism? It will be difficult to know where we are without listening first to what others are saying about racism and at the same time considering what the good news about Jesus Christ has to contribute to the conversations.

And what is the good news about Jesus Christ? If the good news about Jesus Christ amounts to no more than us dying and going to heaven, then I suggest this has nothing to say on the issue of racism at all. However, I think the good news about Jesus Christ has a lot of things to say about racism if we are willing to reflect on what that good news is. Consider the following:

The good news about Jesus Christ is good news about a person of colour, a Jewish man called Jesus from a small place called Nazareth. He was murdered by a colonial power at the instigation of the ruling religious elite.

The good news about Jesus Christ is good news because the God who created all things from nothing raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead and put him in the position of ultimate authority and power. God has made a person of colour, this person of colour, King for the whole world.

The good news about Jesus Christ is good news because Jesus is the only one in whom we find our true identity as people made in God’s image. If we are baptised into Jesus, we are clothed in Jesus, and therefore we are all one in Jesus. But our oneness in Jesus does not erase racial distinctiveness—and notice I say ‘racial distinctiveness’ and not ‘racial difference’. The world categorises people according to the prevailing ideas and ideologies; but in God’s kingdom, we receive our identities from Jesus Christ himself.

The good news about Jesus Christ is good news because the kingdom marked by love and racial justice is the kingdom where Jesus himself is King. And as people who are baptised into Jesus, clothed in Jesus, and are one in Jesus, it is our calling as the body of Jesus Christ to live out this reality in the power of God’s Holy Spirit from now until Jesus returns.

And finally, the good news about Jesus Christ is good news for everyone. The Christian faith is emphatically not a White man’s religion. In the New Testament, we see the good news about Jesus spreading not just from Jerusalem into Europe but into Africa and Asia as well. The issue is that the Christian faith has been woven into a story about White empires. But the good news about Jesus is good news for everyone: for if you are baptised into Jesus, you are no longer defined by the world’s empires or by the world’s unjust systems but by the risen Jesus himself.

The freedom of identity Jesus brings gives us space to become our true selves in him. This makes it possible for us to expose racism in all its forms as we live out God’s kingdom. The Church shows the world what true racial justice in Jesus looks like as we repent of racism in all its forms and work against it in and through all our relationships. But this will make little sense to anyone, not least ourselves, if we are not willing to listen and reflect in the first place. And this takes time.

The Church has to listen to the voices of Black people, the voices of persons of colour, and the voices of indigenous peoples, both from within the Church and without. And then the Church has to think about why the good news about Jesus of Nazareth too often becomes a chain around the ankles of so many people. The more we reflect on the good news of Jesus, the more we know and understand how and why this good news is powerful and transformative. And we are then well placed to work out what this good news means for us all as one in Jesus. Let our thoughts about who Jesus is and what God has done in and through him by the Holy Spirit shape how we love our neighbours, including, and especially at this time, our Black, Asian, and minority ethnic neighbours.

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