Sermon for Racial Justice Sunday, 12 February 2023
By Bishop Dr Joe Aldred, Church of God of Prophecy[Bible readings: Amos 5: 18–27 and Luke 11: 37–52]
Racial Justice Sunday calls us to remember, to reflect, and to respond. This year we mark the sad death of Stephen Lawrence, almost thirty years ago. There is, if you haven’t yet seen it, a wonderful resource pack provided by Churches Together in Britain and Ireland that is available on line, and it is doubtful (a second self-deprecation statement) it is doubtful that I can say much today that will surpass in any way, or even rival the breadth and depth of the information that you have in that resource pack., that helps us to focus on the issues around Stephen Lawrence’s death and what has happened since. I encourage you, if you haven’t yet come across it, to search it out on line and spend some time examining it Nevertheless, I will try to indulge you, and I hope you will indulge me for a little while.
Our Old Testament text comes from the eighth century bc, the prophet Amos (ch. 5). It is a lament and a call to repentance. The background is interesting, it is of Israel, the people of God, falling well short of God’s requirement for justice. They were a people, the Bible says in that chapter, who turn justice into bitterness and cast righteousness to the ground (Amos 5: 7). They oppressed the poor and the innocent. They loved evil and they hated good, and yet perversely these people longed for what was called the Day of the Lord. And they longed for it because it seems they thought the Day of the Lord would be when others, maybe foreigners, and people they did not like, would get their come-uppance from God. As they looked away from themselves and their behaviour towards their fellows, they saw others who were deserving of God’s wrath. So they say, ‘We want the Day of the Lord to come.’ To their wrongly premised wish God said, and says to us today too, ‘Beware what you wish for, when you’re asking God to come.’ And to the church also. The Day of the Lord will call everyone, including you and me, to account. God is saying to Israel, ‘And right now your prospects are not so good. Your religious festivals,’ God says, ‘your burnt offerings, your grain offerings, they all ring hollow as empty noises because of your self-righteousness, because of your lack of justice.’ And God says, ‘If you don’t change, the Day of the Lord will be when you get sent into exile for your injustice and oppression.’ Then God says, and he says to us today,
But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!
Amos 5: 24 NIV®
But alas, my friends, in spite of all of that, justice did not come, and they were sent into exile.
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is invited to dinner by a pharisee. Jesus is upbraided by the host for not washing his hands before eating. Jesus takes the opportunity to point to the fallacy of paying attention to the external, the symptoms, and not to root causes: to what appears instead of what really is, to doing what is expected instead of what is needed, to what pleases man instead of what pleases God. Jesus exposed so much of the pharisees’ contradictions, and the pharisee said ‘You’re offending me.’. I don’t know if anybody’s told you the truth to the extent that you felt deeply offended, but the trouble is that we are often too nice to each other and so we never really hear what each other thinks. But Jesus says to him, ‘Building tombs to honour the prophets means nothing if you didn’t listen to the voice of the prophets, because the voice of the prophets spoke to you the Word of God, and sometimes, when you don’t hear the Word of God, you make monuments instead, and we spend time around these monuments.’
I have been an ecumenist working with churches, trying to bring churches together around some of the big issues. I met Glynne years ago in that way as I worked in the centre for black and white partnership where we tried to bring people together and we launched a journal and I remember Glynne being particularly helpful around that time to me and my work. So, although grown up as a Pentecostal, I have spent much of the last thirty years of my time working with and alongside mainstream churches, and I have to say that I applaud the work of mainstream churches in this area of racial justice engagement and in particular with establishment of Racial Justice Sunday. It has been quite exemplary, the way black and white people in mainstream churches have worked around the areas of racial justice. One thing has struck me, though, is that the black-led churches have not exactly been very active in this cause, I mean this area. And it is interesting to me that we have not spent a great deal of time engaging across that juncture to find out why it is that black and white people in mainstream churches find something like Racial Justice Sunday something to take up and run with while our brothers and sisters in black Pentecostal churches in this country do not, and maybe we can pick that up in the conversation afterwards. But maybe somewhere in the crack are some lessons for us.
A salutary lesson from our texts and from elsewhere is that God calls the unjust to do justly, but few actually do justice, and our texts bear this out and it is I want you to indulge with me in looking at. The pharisees used their expert knowledge, (you know the saying that the truth will set you free) not to free people; they used their expert knowledge of the law to oppress people, laying on them things that they themselves had no real interest in obeying. If liberation, justice, freedom are to be more than words, more than careers that we carve out, more than reputation enhancers, maybe we need to look closer at what it means to actually achieve God’s will that justice roll down like a river, and righteousness as a mighty stream.
A lesson I share with you from Stephen Lawrence’s racist killing of nearly thirty years ago is that it took the dogged and inspired agency of Stephen‘s grieving parents, who refused to accept that the killers could actually get away literally with murder. And I take you back, those of you who are old enough to remember that it was as though no progress could be made in trying to find the young men who ambushed and murdered Stephen Lawrence. It was the responsibility of the criminal justice system to give justice; that’s why it’s rare. But justice didn’t come from that system. In fact they let go of the young men after a short while of holding them and dropped all charges. They who were responsible to bring justice, and it was Doreen and Neville who said, Not on your Nelly.
I take you back to 1959. (Some of us were alive then.) Kelso Cochrane was murdered and to this day his murderers have not been brought to justice. I come from Birmingham, although I don’t live there right now. But in 1962 a young Caribbean man, Oswald Grey ( a book has been written about him recently) was hanged in Winson Green Prison, Birmingham for a murder of a white person that he did not commit, and the person who testified that he did, did it purely for racial reasons. Justice had not been done there, either.
Justice is not done, my friends, because God has mandated it, and God has. It is done because we speak up and take action. Justice comes, if it does, and it doesn’t always, when someone stands up for it, and refuses to sit down until it is achieved! This is what the Lawrences have done, and continue to do. Here justice for them is simply that those responsible for their son’s death should be held accountable for their actions.
Justice does not come by Royal Mail delivery through the letterbox. It comes when we identify what it is that is justice and pursue it until we bring it into being. Jesus gives us some other clues as to how we actually get justice. For example, he tells us of the widow who made the unjust judge’s life a misery until he got her justice (Luke 18). Then, in John 10, Jesus tells that if a strong man robs you of your goods, you’re going to have to be strong enough to overpower him in his house and take your goods back. I tell that often to my friends involved in the reparations industry, that if you’re going to get reparations you’re going to have to be strong enough to take reparations. Power is a sturdy kind of given In Matthew 11 Jesus says the Kingdom of God suffers violence and the violent take it by force.
Of course, if we want to, we can sing Kum ba yah, we can do motherhood and apple pie stuff, but if justice is what want, we are going to need to find a cause, roll up our sleeves, rise up in the power of the Spirit and take it, however hard the battle and sore the conflict, rocky the road as we travel along, no matter what it takes, we are going to have to pursue justice, if justice is going to be found.
And in my last and closing moments (Pentecostals usually preach for 35 minutes): Justice comes not from a wishing well, only after struggle. Today we remember, and reflect, and we must respond. As we remember Stephen Lawrence’s death, we call to mind the fighting spirit of his parents and in particular, I must say, his mother. That was what brought about justice in part, that some of Stephen’s killers are now in jail. Theirs was a godly struggle for justice. Sometimes only when justice has been won before some join the struggle. They like the party after the struggle. We celebrate with the Lawrences for their victory, which does not bring back their son, but they bore the pain both of death and the struggle for justice.
Sadly our world, including the church, has plenty of leaders who deal in unjustness, with unjust balances and weights, and power and oppression, plenty of know-it-all pharisees, plenty of worshippers of God while the oppression goes on, and they see the weak, and pass by. I want to leave you with two quick thoughts.
In the struggle to flourish in a racialised world and indeed a racialised country, I encourage you, do not give in to nihilism. I see a bit of nihilism in the pack I mentioned, the pack that accompanies this Racial Justice Sunday. A theologian there says that black people in this country are in a place of ‘existential crucifixion’ with no resurrection Sunday in sight. I have to tell you I reject that. We are a people of resurrection and a people of hope. We must never give in to this idea that we are a people buried in the tomb and there is going to be no resurrection. Paul says if there were no resurrection then your faith is in vain, speaking of the resurrection of Christ.
And so I say to the black people here in this hall, do not sit in that place of the grave as though your fate is in somebody else’s hands, and unless they come and break through and let you out, you can’t get out. Well, no: that’s nihilism. Put yourself in the resurrection power of Jesus, who, after they had done everything they could to him, they nailed him or tied him on to a tree and then buried him in somebody else’s tomb, but by the power of almighty God on Sunday morning he broke free from all of that. You and I serve that God. That God doesn’t deal in nihilism. That God deals in resurrection power.
And the second thing and final thing before I sit down, having taken too long, is to say for those of you my white brothers and sisters in Christ, your ancestors and my ancestors had a very challenging time, but I want to challenge you, and say to you today that you can’t change the past, but you can very much influence the present and the future. And my hope, my hope is that in the search and the pursuit and the struggle for justice in the world, you won’t just talk glibly about eradicating racism from the world. That’s a wonderful, big vow, which maybe won’t come till the next life. What we can do in this world, black and white, is that we can make our hearts, our arms and our wills together under the leadership and power of Christ, and wherever we see injustice, wherever we see oppression, together we fight it until justice has been done.