Approximate reading time: 20 minutes
The following is the text of a sermon delivered by Camille N. Isaacs-Morell on 19 February 2017 at the Anglican Parish of St. Andrew and St. Mark, Dorval, Québec, Canada.
Today we are celebrating Black History Month and the sacrament of Holy Baptism. Both these events cause us to focus on the themes of identity and inclusion. Through baptism a person is identified as a child of God and welcomed into the family of Christian believers. Black History Month celebrates the identity and contribution of persons of Black African descent.
Today, Ella will be marked with water, a sign that Ella belongs to God, is a follower of Christ and a member of the fellowship of Christians.
Like Ella, I was given my Christian identity through the sacrament of baptism and the promise made by my parents and godparents that I would follow the way of Christ. Like Ella I am female and a citizen of Canada. But there are other names to identify me that are different from Ella’s.
I am the descendant of Black African slaves who worked on sugar plantations in Jamaica centuries ago. Among my ancestors are Jewish, Irish and German free men who made their way to Jamaica two centuries ago to seek their fortune. I identify as a Black person with cultural ties to Jamaica.
Finding one’s identity is a personal and public issue. Being who you are and who you associate with can be problematic – especially if you are a Muslim worshipping in a mosque in Quebec City or if you are a Black male living anywhere in the United States of America.
The questions of identity are not new. At the time of Paul’s writing, the early Church in Corinth was dealing with identity issues. The Church in Corinth was a wealthy congregation comprised of persons of diverse backgrounds, religious experiences and affiliations. In the verses we read today from Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians, he warns Christians there against basing their identity on affiliations with human leaders and creating factions and alliances built on human definitions. Paul instructs them to base their identity on Christ and on Christ alone, as Christ is the foundation of the Church.
Laws also play an important role in defining who we are. Laws that govern nations, define religious behaviour and create associations and clubs, shape the way people behave, think and act. In our reading from Leviticus, when Moses receives the law, God establishes the people of Israel’s identity as a reflection of God’s essence. They are to be holy as God is holy. The people of Israel, God’s people, are to differentiate themselves from all other people by adhering to the law that requires them to respect their parents, honour the Sabbath, give to the poor and the stranger, refrain from stealing, abstain from profanity, oppression, injustice, hate and revenge.
By following God’s law, the people of Israel claim their identity as God’s chosen, holy people, set apart and favoured by God.
And here comes the big, huge, hairy problem of “us” and “them” that inevitably arises when we address questions of identity and the complex maze of diversity through which we are called to journey together as we build an inclusive society that ensures justice and respect for all of its citizens.
So although laws intrinsically define the identity of nations, religious groups and associations, laws also have the potential to exclude and discriminate against “them” who are different from “us”. And exclusion and discrimination lead to ignorance, stereotyping and injustice. This is why and how racism insidiously thrives in many social institutions.
Black History Month was established in 1926 with the aim of overcoming the issues of identity and exclusion of people of Black African descent, whose 12 million ancestors were transported to the Americas and the Caribbean where they were enslaved for more than three centuries. Here we are, 90 years later, with valid reasons justifying the need to have Black History Month.
The economic contribution of slave-based labour and the slave trade to the world is still conspicuously absent from mainstream history books. The financial proceeds of trading in slaves lined the pockets of plantation owners and fuelled the industrial revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries.
- Slavery was a highly profitable investment which yielded rates of return that compared favourably with most investment opportunities in manufacturing. For example, a study conducted by Alfred Conrad and John Meyer and reported in The Economist magazine, indicates that slave capital yielded a return on investment as high as 13% compared to a yield of 6% to 8% on the railroads.
We still need Black History Month because the many inventions and accomplishments of persons of Black African descent have yet to be widely acknowledged and publicized beyond the four weeks in February every year.
- Did you know the first Canadian to be awarded the Victorian Cross for gallantry was Alexander Roberts Dunn, a Black soldier from Nova Scotia, who served in the Crimean War?
- There’s Elijah McCoy, the Black Canadian inventor and engineer. His 57 patents including lubrication devices for steam engines greatly contributed to workers’ safety, transportation systems and industrial development in Canada.
- In more recent times, we have Henry T. Sampson, the inventor of the cell phone. There’s the trio of Black women mathematicians – Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, whose work at NASA contributed significantly to space travel safety.
The Church also needs Black History Month. Eurocentric interpretations of the Bible have generally failed to acknowledge the presence and role of Black people in Biblical history, in Jesus’ ministry and in the spreading of the Gospel. There is Moses’ wife Zipporah and the Queen of Sheba among several Old Testament personalities. There is Simon of Cyrene, the Black man who helped Jesus carry his cross. Mary Magdalene was in Jesus’ entourage. The Ethiopian eunuch, a man of great influence, accepted Jesus Christ as His Lord and Saviour and continued on his way back to Africa, where I am sure he spread the Good News.
The systemic exclusion of the contribution, presence and truthful history of Black people has served to perpetuate negative perceptions of the Black race and has undermined the progress of Black people everywhere.
Black History Month is a valiant effort to highlight the on-going need for the inclusion of the missing pages in the world’s history books and seeks to remind us and educate us about how we came to this place….together.
But Black History month is not enough.
In the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement championed the need to enact anti-discriminatory laws and affirmative action. These laws acknowledge the presence of visible minorities and legislate the prevention of exclusion from economic opportunity and social participation on the basis of race.
The recent emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement and its militant demands for formal dialogue and recognition tell us that the war on identity and inclusion is still being waged. Race riots, reports of racial profiling and the disparities in the economic and social conditions of visible minorities are persistent reminders that anti-discriminatory laws don’t guarantee inclusion and justice.
So laws are not enough because they only provide minimum standards and cannot bring us up to be the best we can be.
Turning to today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is preaching His Sermon on the Mount, where he declared earlier that He has not come to abolish Roman Civilian Law or the Religious Law upheld by the Prophets. We hear Jesus refer to Religious Law – an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth – straight out of the book of Deuteronomy. He then refers to Roman Civilian Law which gives a person of high social rank the right to use his left hand to slap the cheek of the person of lower social rank. Jesus also refers to the law allowing a Roman soldier to force a citizen to carry a Roman soldier’s heavy coat for a maximum of one mile.
Both Religious Law and Roman Civilian Law are exact and clearly define their versions of justice and the rights of persons.
Jesus surprisingly instructs His listeners to do more than what these oppressive laws permit. We are to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile and above all, we are to love our enemies. He says that it is by loving our enemies that we become perfect like God. Perfect love is God’s true identity. If our identity is founded on Jesus Christ, the Son of God, our lives must reflect the love of God.
And what is love? Regardless of how you define it, love always points us to the highest good. Love is given full expression in the way we treat people, individually and collectively. So we cannot speak about love without speaking about inclusion, justice and the rule of law.
I must admit that it took me a really long time to understand Jesus’ teaching about turning the other cheek. But on the day that I did understand it, I gained a whole new perspective on how Christians should respond to oppressive laws and acts of injustice.
As I mentioned earlier, under Roman law at the time of Jesus’ ministry, persons of higher social rank had the right to slap the face of a person of lower social rank – but the slap had to be given with the left hand as the right hand was reserved for religious actions and could not be defiled. So if someone wanted to slap another person in the face with their left hand, they would have to deliver the blow to the right cheek. If the person receiving the slap were to turn his left cheek as Jesus suggested, the slapper would have to use their right ‘holy’ hand to deliver the blow. By following Jesus’ suggestion to turn the left cheek to be slapped, it would mean that the oppressor would have to stop and think before striking again. He would have to consider firstly, if he should defile his right ‘holy’ hand. Secondly, and more importantly, he would hopefully question himself as to whether or not his action was right and fair to the other person.
So what I understand is that Jesus was advocating a radical form of nonviolent action as the line of defense to oppressive laws and injustice. This principle of nonviolent protest and moral suasion is meant to appeal to the conscience of the oppressor to consider whether or not the law is fair and serves the highest good of all citizens – regardless of their race, gender, religion or any other differentiating criteria.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. applied Jesus’ principle of nonviolent protest and moral suasion in the Civil Rights Movement. Under Dr. King’s leadership, millions of Black persons took to the streets for peaceful protests as well as acts of civil disobedience. A major factor in the success of the movement was the strategy of protesting for equal rights without using violence. And where did this lead to? Thankfully racial discrimination was outlawed and laws forbidding injustice and upholding racial equality were enacted.
Enshrined within Jesus’ radical teaching on nonviolent protest and moral suasion is the principle of love, which is the spirit of the law and the foundation of justice. Love is the guiding principle of the law that God gave to Moses. I daresay that laws in free and fair societies are enacted to uphold the principles of justice and the highest good of its citizens.
But in spite of anti-discriminatory laws, racism and injustice still persist. Why?
The answer is simple. Love cannot be legislated. Genuine love cannot be enforced by the law. Love comes from the heart and motivates right actions that go beyond the limits and requirements of the law.
Jesus is calling us, His people, to enshrine the principle of love in all our actions. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13, “Love never fails.” When all else fails, love, like God eternal, never fails. When everything else is lost, God’s love is all we have left. Paul also tells the Christians in Rome that “God’s love is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who is given to us.” The capacity to love comes from God. Love is the fruit of the Holy Spirit who dwells within us. We are channels of God’s love.
For my part, as a Black person who has had to confront racism and injustice, I am reassured that my identity as a Christian, is founded and built on the love of God. Like the crucified Christ, I must forgive and love those who don’t know that what they are doing is not loving, respectful or inclusive. This means that I must love and forgive the Christian woman I overheard saying that the ‘N’ word is not at all offensive. I must love and forgive the defense lawyer and judge who attempted to entice me to play the race card in a court of law. I must love and forgive the city official who considers my outrage at the selective removal of racist graffiti on public property as being my problem, not hers or the city’s. I must love and forgive Canadian border agents who harass me when I am travelling alone, but welcome me without any problem when I am travelling with my White Canadian husband. I must love and forgive my co-worker who openly declared that I need to trade in marijuana in order to give credibility to my Jamaican identity.
The indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit empowers me to love and forgive.
Black History Month reminds me that the love of God conquers all.
It is the love of God that sustained my enslaved foreparents throughout their journey to freedom. It is the love of God and respect for human dignity that motivated the Christian Abolitionist movement. It is the love of God that motivated the Civil Rights Movement, led by Dr. King who enlisted the support of persons of other religions and races to advocate for inclusion and equal rights for all. It is the love of God that motivates us here today as a fellowship of Christian believers to build an inclusive Church, nation and world.
Today, as Ella is marked with the water of baptism, she receives the mark of her Christian identity, which is the love of God. We join with Ella’s parents Amanda and Mark and all of her family, to make a commitment to nurture Ella in the ways of God’s love that transcends race, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, health status and all the other social identifiers.
As we lovingly encircle Ella and her family today, it doesn’t matter one bit that there are differences in our racial or cultural identities. We are affirming our common identity as God’s people – a people committed to love, justice and the highest good of all.
As we kneel at the altar to partake in Holy Communion, let us remember that Jesus’ death is the greatest act of love ever committed for all humanity. For this reason, we come to the Lord’s Table as equals, loved unconditionally by God and as members of the whole human race.
I end with the words of Nelson Mandela –
“No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
Thanks be to God and to you for giving me the opportunity to speak this morning.
I love you. May God bless you all! Amen.