Race Awareness Sunday
Trinity 13, Sunday 9th September 2001
Galatians 3:23-29; Luke 10:29-37
On Wednesday evening here in this building, in between flying eggs, a voice screamed “Racist Scum” at our visiting speaker Ann Widdecombe. It is a cry which trips easily off the tongue of many an activist on the far left. Now I cannot say that I warm to very much of what her party has to say on issues of race relations, immigration and nationality, but I think it would be hard for any of those who were present on that occasion to accuse Miss Widdecombe of racism. She came across as compassionate, thoughtful, and genuinely understanding of the pressures which cause many people to look for refuge in this country, whether for political or economic reasons. She demonstrated in her address the complexities of homelessness, and that she at least is struggling to uncover possible paths towards the resolution of the problems associated with refugees and asylum-seekers. There is no obvious answer, and the fact that a judge has this week undermined present government policy simply reinforces that observation.
Nonetheless, a quick glance at this past week’s newspapers will paint a gloomy picture for those of us who would simply prefer to ignore that rather violent protestor, who infringed our comfortable, polite and respectful hospitality on Wednesday evening. I was not alone, I know, in noticing the cartoon on the front of the Guardian on Tuesday morning, below the story which has dominated the news all this week - a little girl in school uniform returning home to her mum, with a black eye and her arm in a sling, saying “We had religious education on the way to school today”. The same edition carried stories of the US and Israeli walkout from the conference on racism in South Africa, the devastation of a family of a young Asian man killed by his cellmate in a young offender’s institution, the humiliating treatment apparently handed out to the Indian rifle shooting team by British officials at Bisley, contortions by one candidate in the Tory Party leadership race on homosexuality, the burning of a Muslim primary school in Bradford, the Australian treatment of Afghan refugees, and the usual stories from the Middle East, Zimbabwe, the Balkans and more. If that young lady was throwing abuse primarily at one politician, she had a message for us all.
It is a message which highlights a problem of the human condition. Racism is as old as the hills. It is prevalent throughout history, and it takes root like ivy and bindweed in the garden. One moment you hardly know it is there, the next it is everywhere, out of control.
And let us face it frankly, we who espouse the Christian Faith are especially susceptible to it. Many of the stories which appear in scripture, if read without discernment and prayer, could easily lead us to hold racist views. Indeed a quick examination of Christian history will embarrass us greatly. The Crusades, the conquest of South America, the resistance to ending slavery, many stories associated with the great nineteenth century missionary movements, apartheid, Northern Ireland - all this and much more through the centuries can be traced to those who believed that those who carried the Gospel of God were infinitely superior to those who did not. The story of the Chosen People and the Promised Land which is the root and the stem of the Old Testament heritage is fertile ground indeed for such views. Texts beloved by us all lead us all too easily that we are better than our neighbour. “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one can come to the Father except through me.” “We are children of God, and those who know God listen to us; those who are not of God refuse to listen to us.” Yet almost always it is at best careless reading and at worst wilful misuse of the texts which lead us to such views.
Our readings this morning remind us of the radical teaching of Christ and of St Paul about the inclusivity of the Kingdom of God. The story of the Good Samaritan is a lovely story, and at one level simply reminds us that love and care for our neighbour is the heart of living out the Gospel. But Jesus was saying something much more radical than that. Remember that it was a lawyer, quite clearly a member of the hierarchy, probably a temple official, who asked the question “Who is my neighbour?” The picture which Jesus paints in response attacks all the rules of purity which had come to dominate the Jewish religion. Here was a man, a Jew, in a deeply vulnerable position, alone, abandoned by those who taught the injunction ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. In his broken and helpless state, a Samaritan, dirty, despised, outcast - not as an individual, but as a member of his race - destroys the barrier of religious and national purity. The story is almost sensuous in its description of the care shown - he was moved with compassion, he bound up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them. He lifted him on to his mount, carried him to the inn and looked after him. And beyond that he paid for the care and promised more. Jesus explodes at one stroke the myth of the Chosen People. Is your mind not taken on from there to that great vision of Peter’s in the Acts of the Apostles, the vision which disgusted him so much, of the sheet let down by four corners containing all manner of animal and bird and living thing; and a voice says, “Now Peter, kill and eat”. Peter refuses three times, to be reminded of his own rejection of Jesus, and the voice says “What God has made clean, you have no right to call profane”.
And Paul, writing to the Galatians, takes up the same theme, only now writing to a community which is ‘clothed in Christ’ - and for anyone who is clothed in Christ ‘there are no more distinctions between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, but all of you are one in Christ Jesus’.
We have learned this lesson no more effectively than any generation before us. And it is sadly true that the Church has struggled with this fact as much as any body. That is not surprising, because the church is made up of human beings and is, as an institution, as fallible as any other, however much we might wish or believe it to be otherwise. So nursing a constant sense of guilt about it may not be the most constructive way forward. The first step we need to take is to be honest with ourselves and with one another and with God. Each one of us is as weak as the next person in our ability to raise the walls of segregation - race, colour, gender, sexuality, religion, disability, politics. How many of us could in truth raise our hands and say we had never recognised an irrational twinge in our response to someone - “oh, he’s black, she’s a catholic, he’s gay, typical of the Irish…” Or cracked some joke we know to be in bad taste. Or been patronising to someone whose command of English or style of life seems less good than ours. Or… well, you name it. So we must be honest, and having recognised our guilt we should be moved to penitence. We are not irredeemable, any of us. We are human. And God loves, and makes holy all that he has made, and his grace and forgiveness are there for the taking in this as in every case. And in good Catholic tradition, having received the assurance of God’s love, we could set out to do an act of penance, or to use different language we could do something worthwhile like make a resolution for the future. We, here in St Peter’s or wherever we come from - could resolve not to allow such behaviour at any level in our community to go unremarked, and to reinforce what I believe already to be the case, that those who find little acceptance elsewhere will always find a home here, where they can be themselves, and can join on equal terms our common journey in search of the Gospel of God. A Gospel which has been revealed to us and yet which still lies broken and wounded in the dust and the dirt as we march by, longing for the touch of the one who is willing to break down the barriers of division and prejudice to love without hesitation or precondition. Jesus will meet us there.