A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on September 12, 2021 by Revd Dr Sam Wells
Reading of address: 1 Peter 2:9
I recall being on the terraces at the Easter Road stadium in Edinburgh in 1988 watching Hibernian play Rangers. This was before the Hillsborough disaster, so we were all standing. Mark Walters was the first black player in the Scottish league for a generation, and he was on the wing for Rangers. Every time he came to the corner beneath where I was standing, two men near me started monkey chanting. I had no idea what to do. I was too cowardly to confront them. I felt sick and wanted to move away. I wondered how Mark Walters would react, if he was used to it, if it made it impossible to play. I felt part of something horrible. That combination of horror, shame, anger and powerless is one that recurs often when the reality of racism is painfully revealed.
But for those who are its target, it can prove deadly. A month ago in Liverpool Zakiya Janny watched as her attacker was sentenced to eight years for slashing her face with a machete, as she protected her four-year-old son in a local park earlier this summer. Her attacker left a five-inch wound. The vile epithets he shouted as he assaulted her made it clear he had no motive other than racial hatred. The line between such vicious violence and the chants directed at Mark Walters is clear and unambiguous. And yet, as I stood on the terraces in my early twenties, I only was beginning to wake up to how the culture I’d grown up in was saturated with racist assumptions, jokes and judgements, systems and structures, how I’d participated willingly in all these things, as if they were the air I breathed, and how they were intrinsically linked to subjugation, violence and death.
There’s no question the urgency of the conversation about race has picked up in the last 16 months, as the George Floyd murder demonstrated that racism is a deadly reality today, not a gruesome inheritance from history. I want to acknowledge three reasons why race is a challenging topic for a sermon. First, almost every term and argument in this conversation is contested and contextual. To take an example, the phrase ‘person of colour’ is today a positive assertion of identity; but the term ‘coloured person’ is frowned upon. That’s about context. But even that statement is contested. So nothing I say today is free of controversy.
Second, a person who looks and talks like me may not be the right person to lead this conversation in our community. That’s because the assumption that, whatever the problem is, it’s for the white guy to define it, fix it, and take the credit for it, is central to what we’re talking about. Scrambling such tendencies is essential to imagining a better future. It’s called decentring – ceasing to think the white guy is the centre of the story, and carefully reshaping imagination and society accordingly. Whether that can be advanced by a white guy preaching a sermon I’ll let you judge when I’ve finished.
Put my second challenge together with my first, and you have a third: the word ‘we.’ Usually a preacher will speak of ‘we’ as if the whole congregation and anyone else who might be listening constitute a single body with a united view of the world. But on this issue, that’s just not true. Some people live with limited opportunities, significant risk of verbal or physical assault, and widespread discrimination, while others don’t. And there’s a lingering, if often false, assumption that a sermon is where the preacher gets to tell the congregation what they should do – and that whole idea breaks down because what we each need to do depends on our social location.
Having recognised the dangers of any sermon on this subject reinforcing precisely the things that need to be dismantled, I want to separate out the different things we’re talking about when we talk about race, particularly in this country. I suggest at the bottom of the evil of racism is the sin that leads humans, in their anxiety about deprivation and death, to make themselves secure, superior and sacred, and as part of that, to create hierarchies that control other humans, and treat some as of lesser value. Such oppression inevitably creates antagonism. To offset the guilt of what they’ve done and to defuse the retribution they anticipate, oppressors then create a whole ideology that justifies the subjugation they’ve brought about. Once that process has been going on for centuries, it becomes hard for everyone, persecutor or persecuted, to think outside the habits and language it involves. Then, when a construct has emerged, it can be manipulated in such a way that those subject to it come to be blamed for precisely the situation that was deliberately created to keep them subservient.
Beyond those general characteristics, racism in 2021 has focused particularly on the legacy of slavery and segregation in America, and the way to be an African American today is to be liable to state-sanctioned violence, incarceration and murder, constituting a society-wide declaration that black lives don’t matter. While Britain ended slavery much earlier than America, this country remained, through the Mississippi-
Manhattan-Manchester cotton production triangle, a central part of the slave economy. Racism is about economics before it becomes about prejudice.
But there are differences between Britain and America. African Americans are 400-year residents who can trace their ancestors on American soil longer than the large majority of other Americans. The presence of large numbers of black people in this country is largely a post-war phenomenon. Many black Britons trace ancestry to the Caribbean, and often know what it means to share their surname with that of the man who owned their forebears’ bodies. But more come from Africa and have no direct ancestral legacy of slavery. Meanwhile those from the Indian sub-continent and elsewhere experience racism but are outside the Atlantic slave story entirely. The overarching story of empire that unites the Indian sub-continent, Africa and the Caribbean affirms that race and economics have long been inseparable. It doesn’t for a moment mean that racism in this country is not real, sinister, and a scar on church and society. It just means we can’t take an American template and transfer it straightforwardly to the UK like a Broadway production coming to the West End.
The central paradox of talking about racism is this. On the one hand racism is a construct. It’s not biologically defensible. Any notion that races are clearly distinguishable, that one is superior to another, or that they’re inherently at odds with each other, is nonsense. If you go back far enough, we’re all related to each other. Race is not a fundamental human characteristic. On the other hand, race is everywhere: it’s invoked as a battle for power, purity, identity, justice: so to discount or try to ignore race is naïve, idealistic, and too often part of a sinister agenda.
The world is not racial, in that significant differences are in our DNA; but it’s certainly racialised, such that we can’t simply relate to one another as if race was irrelevant to how we experience life. As Ibram Kendi puts it, ‘It is one of the ironies of antiracism that we must identify racially in order to identify the racial privileges and dangers of being in our bodies. (How to Be an Antiracist (New York: One World, 2019), 38). Racism is a poison that’s not inherent in the world, not natural in the world, but is at large in the world. This is the paradox we perpetually reckon with: this venom that shouldn’t be in the world but nonetheless characterises so much of the world. We must never underestimate its pervasiveness and power, but we must never regard it as basic to humanity or creation.
Once we’ve expressed the issue that way, it becomes a little less overwhelming to explore what we should do about it. I suggest we need to pursue two approaches simultaneously: one based on addressing present racism and the legacies of oppression all around us; the other about imagining, practising and inhabiting a different world. Let me say a word about each one.
Starting with present racism, for society, while racism is damaging in any circumstance, it becomes destructive when combined with political and economic (and not just social) power. Pursuing racial equality without addressing social inequality is half a policy; seeking economic equality without addressing racial inequality is just as flawed. Plenty of people have faced racial discrimination and yet found paths to flourishing; but when you add social and economic disadvantage, you’ve got a mountain to climb. Government can’t abolish racism, but it can address economic and social barriers that amplify the damage racism does. It can also avoid divisive rhetoric that sets against each other on racial grounds those whose interests would otherwise coincide on class grounds.
Meanwhile the church needs a radical transformation in its understanding of who God is. God is no different from the face we see in Jesus, and Jesus is not a north European white male: he’s a middle eastern member of an oppressed race in an occupied country, born homeless, killed because his people were not protected by the rule of law, and then, in a common racial move, blamed for his own oppression. If an artist portrays a black Jesus on the cross, it’s still considered provocative – but it’s closer to history than a white one. When the risen and ascended Jesus asks St Paul on the road to Damascus, ‘Why are you persecuting me?’ he’s addressing the question posed to all racists.
Moving to the second approach to racism, inhabiting a different world, I want to highlight the words of First Peter chapter 2, ‘You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.’ It’s a commonplace, often attributed to Rosa Parks, that ‘There’s only one race, the human race.’ Biologically that’s true, but First Peter makes the bold claim that in baptism Christians become part of a new race. In contrast to the distorted modern conception of race, the scriptural notion of race begins in Exodus 19, where God proclaims the Jews ‘a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.’ In First Peter 2, race is transformed from a genetic category conferred at conception to a gift bestowed to anyone who finds their home in God. Race is about God’s claiming of each one of us, not our identifying ourselves or others. Race is something none of us have, all can be given, and none can lose. Today baby Freddie has joined a new race. The so-called race he was born into is sociologically significant. But his primary identity is henceforth the one he’s just received.
The gospel’s prescription for a society beyond racist injustice and racialised identities is for us to discover what it means for our identities to be gifts from God that each other cherish. Identity is not something imposed by others that is feared or despised. It’s not even something crafted by ourselves that is clung to and defended. It’s a gift from God. Holiness is not a mythical purity or isolated superiority but a truly engaged gentleness and gracious encounter. Priesthood is not a role played by a few to save or lord it over others, but a gift to all to remind us who we are and draw out the diverse gifts God has given each one of us.
That society beyond racism, that priestly kingdom and holy nation, is what First Peter calls church. The sad truth is that church has peddled false ideologies of racialised injustice at least as much as anyone else, and even when it’s found a better vision, has frequently failed to realise that vision. But by describing the church as a race, First Peter shows that racism isn’t just an unfortunate human shortcoming or an inevitable struggle to comprehend difference: it’s blasphemy – the failing to perceive God’s true nature and purpose – and idolatry – the attempt to impose a false form of salvation, in this case by the ostracism and oppression of others. Thus cherishing the diverse gifts of one another isn’t just ethics, the ordering of our life in the image of God – it’s actually worship, our very recognition and response to God. If we can’t reflect in our life the gift of together becoming a new race, we’re not simply a sinful church: we’re not really a church at all.
My mind goes back to Mark Walters. How does he, on the football field, play on when beset by hostility, ridicule and abuse? And how do I, in the stands, find ways to challenge those whose chanting expresses hatred and threats of violence? Since Mark Walters retired, he’s spent his life organising to eliminate racism from football. It’s for each of us, in our own sphere of life, to do the same.