Now More Than Ever, We Need To Stand With Refugees

It starts with the language; words like ‘infest’ and ‘hordes’ and ‘armies’, words that weave images of war and plague. The language seeps into our hearts and minds, like some toxic incantation that transforms human beings fleeing for their lives, men, women and children, into an invasion force come to rape and pillage. “They’re here to take our women, they’re here to take our jobs” yell the tabloids; after all, it gets votes and ad-clicks, no matter how distorted or untrue the screaming gets. This is the era of Fake News after all, and people profit from it. Never bet against the darker angels of our nature; the race starts with the language and ends with kids in cages, or worse.

And yet I’ve met asylum seekers and refugees. I don’t work on a border or in a camp; I make no claims to nobility. That’s the point – I’ve met asylum seekers at work, people who just want to get an education, to learn English or Business or Engineering. They have families and aspirations, they have hopes and a sense of humour. They’re ordinary, albeit forged in extraordinary circumstances that I wouldn’t want to face. And that’s why we need to stand with refugees, because we’re all human and we need to look after each other. Cut through the rhetoric and the rage, shout down the prejudice and profiteering, because we’re one and it’s a sin to sacrifice our brothers and sisters to the idolatry of lines on a map.

We live in dangerous times, shadows that once crept around corners now coalescing into a cold eclipse. Injustice and hatred have their sway, and despite the cries of “This isn’t who we are!”, the dirty secret of history is that that atrocities are committed by those who would have once thought themselves incapable of it. And so we need to stand together, stand together and be caring, be compassionate, be kind. Bad times start with language, but so do good, so speak words of hope, of humour, of peace and mercy and grace and welcome. Use words to cast visions, not curses; speak kindly of your neighbour, speak well of those fleeing the armies that arrived or the rains that didn’t. All the Never Agains started with people like us, for good or ill, and so we face the eternal choice. Be good. Be humane. Be kind.

 

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Loose the Chains of Injustice: Foodbanks, Bishop Curry and the Prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 58:6-12)

food-bankOne in eight people in the UK go hungry every day. Let that statistic sit with you for a while. If it helps, it’s around three-quarters of a million people, roughly equivalent to everyone in Leeds. The statistic appeared in a Guardian article earlier today, which talks about FareShare, a charity which redistributes food that would otherwise have gone to waste; 17,000 tonnes of it (or, say, 85 blue whales worth). The article talks about various responses to this hunger crisis, all of which are positive, but it doesn’t touch on the deeper issue: that 12.5 of people in one of the world’s richest countries are going hungry. This is on the heels of a report saying that children are filling their pockets with food from their school canteens, with a head teacher describing them as having “grey skin, poor teeth, poor hair.”

What’s going on?

This isn’t a new thing. Way back in ancient Israel, the prophet Isaiah tore into religious supplicants who made a show of fasting but who ignored the plight of the poor. And for all that charities and foodbanks and churches are springing up to respond to this crisis, the fact is that this doesn’t happen overnight, and if we need an infrastructure to deal with the best part of a million people going hungry, something, somewhere has gone horribly wrong.

A couple of weeks ago, Bishop Michael Curry stood in front of Britain’s great and good and powerful, and saidWhen love is the way, then no child will go to bed hungry in this world ever again. When love is the way, we will let justice roll down like a mighty stream and righteousness like an ever-flowing brook. When love is the way, poverty will become history.” People seemed to respond well to his words, but at the same time there were plenty of smirks, plenty of eye rolls, plenty of complaints that 14 minutes was too long to talk about love. People aren’t used to being taken to church during a royal wedding.

But hey, Bishop Curry was nice about it. Isaiah would have been brutal:

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?”

I’d say the church has a choice, but it’s only the same choice that we’ve always had. And this isn’t simply about collecting for charity and foodbanks, although if your church isn’t it should be. No, it’s about staying silent and complicit, or about asking the question that got Martin Luther King labelled a Communist – why are people going hungry? Because statistically speaking, this affects people in your congregation; they may be open about it, but they may be hiding it out of shame and despair. And we need to care for those going hungry within and without our walls, but we also need to challenge and convict a society that’s happily letting this happen, that allowed horrors like Grenfell Tower because of cost cutting and neglect. Spreadsheets are still spiritual. And Isaiah’s words still ring.

Martin Luther King Jr

Fifty years on and Martin Luther King Jr is an icon, the Civil Rights hero, the non-violent activist, the man with a Dream who preached from the mountaintop. We respect him, honour him, hold him up as one of the towering figures of our time. My ten year old, born continents and decades away from Jim Crow and Ebenezer Baptist knows who he is, what he did.

But King was a prophet, and so we run the risk of neutering him if we try and freeze him in sanitised amber. He’s an icon now, but fifty years ago many people hated him, firebombed his house, kept detailed FBI files on him. Today we don’t commemorate a man who died peacefully of old age, we remember a man who was gunned down at the age of 39.

He was murdered in Memphis, in town to support a sanitation workers strike, part of his attempts to establish the Poor People’s Campaign against poverty. We tend to see King purely as a Civil Rights leader but that ignores his work against militarism and economic injustice. His legacy is more complex, more vital, more relevant than we find comfortable.

Because we can’t commemorate King’s death without hearing the cries of Black Lives Matter, without being outraged at children going to school hungry, without acknowledging police brutality and cultures of violence. It’s possible to see a long way from the mountaintop.

There are prophets in the world. History teaches us that we don’t always put them on pedestals until after we kill them. May the lesson of MLK50 be that we hear the words of those who see further, who see the truth; hear their words and act on them before we murder another generation of prophets before erecting statues in their honour.

Putting the Chairs Away (Maundy Thursday): John 13:1-5

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My eldest son loves putting chairs away. Give him a church full of chairs that need stacking and he’s happy as Larry, giggling and bossing people around as he tidies up. And while I love his enthusiasm, sometimes I just want to get home for lunch, you know? I mean, surely he can leave some chairs for someone else?

And that’s when I realise that my lanky autistic 13 year old has a greater servant heart than me. Because when he gets to the end of an act of worship, he doesn’t just want to drink his cup of tea before escaping to the comfort of the living room sofa, he wants to help put things away, to collect hymn books, to wash up.

I’m reminded of this here on Maundy Thursday, when we commemorate Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. The King stoops to do the job of a servant out of grace and compassion, even though the disciples don’t understand, even though he’s washing the feet of a traitor. The power of this moment extends beyond our squeamishness and our repulsion at washing another; it reveals the heart of God and as such it isn’t a ritual, it’s a fact of life.

Some churches latch on to this, making their Maundy Thursday events an act of service. Trinity on the Green in Connecticut holds a foot washing and examination service where they provide podiatric support for homeless people who, on average, walk 8.5 miles a day. There’s something of the original power of the story reflected through this – I doubt Peter ever had a pedicure. The heart of service reflected here isn’t a mere ritual, it’s genuinely showing the love of Christ to people in dire situations, a pair of socks becoming a blessing. Maundy Thursday becomes an act of remembrance of those who are too easily forgotten. In that sense we should also be convicted.

We also remember those carers who embody this every day, when they wash a child or a parent or a spouse who can’t wash themselves, when they clean up after visits to the toilet, when they stay up all night making sure that their loved ones are safe until the morning. And this brings with it stresses and strains, but it’s done out of love, as a way of showing a loved one that they are precious and protected and cared for. And those being washed are made in the Image of God and we also remember that, even when they’re persecuted, dehumanised, neglected. Maundy Thursday is a singularity of compassion; we turn it into an annual ritual at our peril.

Last Sunday I was out preaching, and eldest was with me, and at the end of the service while I’m shaking hands, he starts collecting books and washing cups and charming old ladies just by being helpful. And he’ll never be asked to preach, he’ll never lead worship, but he’s embodying the heart of Jesus and that’s far more powerful.

Many will go to foot washing services tonight. Maybe during those services there’s an opportunity to remember those who wash and clothe others, to take our rituals and turn them into practice. And as we remember Jesus washing feet, maybe the lasting power isn’t just about remembrance and sacrament, maybe it lies in the grace of putting chairs away at the end, of doing the washing up, the grace of showing up, of a clean pair of socks.

Tombs for the Prophets: A post on Martin Luther King

Look, the last thing the world needs is another white guy talking about Martin Luther King. I get that. But thoughts have got lodged in my head, and I keep going back to words spoken by Jesus in the last few days of his life. In a searing attack on the Pharisees, he yells “You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous”, even though they’re complicit in the acts that put the prophets and the righteous in the tombs in the first place. And Jesus is rightly furious at this, because it’s hypocrisy of the highest order.

Martin Luther King is a towering figure of the 20th Century. “I have a dream” isn’t just a great speech, it’s a prophecy, a glorious, beautiful vision that’s rightly remembered decades later. But the tragedy is that King gets frozen in amber during the March on Washington. He’s considered a Great Man, and we learn about him in schools, and the Americans have a day dedicated to his memory. He’s an icon.

But he was more than that. He was a flawed man who found himself caught up in history, and he made mistakes, and by the end of his life, people were questioning his relevance and noting the tensions inherent in his message. He was also a prophet, but not in the sense of a plaster-cast saint; he spoke words of righteousness, against racism and inequality and violence and war. And so the FBI wanted to destroy him, and people beat him and firebombed his house; he got thrown in jail and, ultimately, he was murdered. We like prophets who talk about non-violence, because they’re less likely to beat us in response to our own violence.

That’s what happens to real prophets. We like them once they’re dead and gone and we can sanitise their message, but while they’re actually running around on earth, we’d much rather just shoot ‘em. Two thousand years ago, Jesus railed against how we treated prophets and just a couple of days later he was nailed to a cross. If we think about it long enough, we can probably come up with the names of prophets who are being persecuted right now.

The worst of it is, we then erect statues to their memory and publish their words in nice little gift books, and the rage and the fire and the Spirit that danced through their words gets extinguished. We praise Martin Luther King for his vision of an integrated word, but we’re still cheering on wars, we’re still a grossly unequal society, we’re still seeing unarmed black people shot by police. And the prophets will still rage, and they’ll still get killed, and we’ll still use them as inspiration porn in an effort to quiet their cries and put out their fire.

Maybe we should just start listening and changing instead