Over the past three weeks of leave Wendy and I have taken a little time to watch TV shows that we had recorded months ago, that we hadn't had time to watch yet.
Last week we watched the period drama called Sanditon. It first aired on ITV in August last year. Watching it last week was particularly interesting in light of the Black Lives Matter protests, issues of the legacy of slavery in Britain, and questions regarding ongoing structural racism in British life and institutions.
In the story of Sanditon one of the key characters is a young black women called Georgiana who hails from Antigua, a British slave colony, upon whose slave trade and slave plantations, great wealth was injected into Britain helping to make it the powerful nation it became. Georgiana is a wealthy heiress, and her father, who it appears was himself an ex-slave, had somehow turned his own fortunes around after being freed from slavery, and now as a rich man himself, sends his daughter to England in order for her to learn the ways of an English lady and hopefully become part of English high society through marriage and a large dowry. But Georgiana’s experience of English society is one of prejudice in which she is not truly accepted and often treated with disdain.
Questions of race and racism are difficult subjects. On the Stephen Nolan show on Tuesday morning, I caught a segment of his show debating levels of racism in Northern Ireland. There were some who completely denied that racism exists in Northern Ireland. There were others who said that racism in Northern Ireland is alive and well. A report put out by amnesty international in 2018 based on a survey of people in Northern Ireland suggested that 47% of people in Northern Ireland would not accept a Muslim as a close friend or family member, and up to a quarter of all respondents to the survey said that they would not willingly accept someone from an ethnic minority as a colleague at work.
What such a report suggests is that not everyone in Northern Ireland is racist, but a fairly large minority do hold very strongly racial views.
My own reflections on these matters is that racism is in fact a very natural phenomenon. In saying that, I am not saying that it is a good thing, but it is natural. When considering the history of human development from our days as cave-men and cave-women it could be said that we all come from a racist past. Psychologically speaking, part of our early human survival strategies and instincts, were to be suspicious of anyone who was different from ourselves.
It happens across species as well. Jane Goodall talking on Radio 4 a few weeks ago spoke of her early interactions with chimpanzees in the wild and how at first they were extremely suspicious of her. It took weeks if not months to begin a process of breaking down that cross species suspicion and to begin to forge new and positive interactions with them.
From our instinctual, primitive past, racism comes naturally to humanity. We regard those who are different from us with suspicion, as part of our instinctive desire to protect ourselves from the unknown and from potential harm. Along with this instinct towards self-protection, is also the tendency to regard those who are different from us as less valuable. We all do it. It is natural to regard those who are closest to us, our family, our friends, as more valuable than those who we do not know and who are outside our inner circle and those who are different from us. It is part of our conditioning and our early emotional attachments that began from the time of our birth. When human society was ordered primarily by tribes and clans it was natural for people to regard their own tribe or clan as more important and more valuable than people from other tribes and clans. And when it comes to issues of race and nationality, it is natural that human beings have intellectually regarded people from their own race or nationality as being of more value and more trust-worthy than people of other races and nationalities. We are conditioned to trust them more because they are more like ourselves.
In this sense, racism is built into each and every one of us. The tendency to value our own race or nationality above others. The tendency to be suspicious of other races and nationalities whose ways of speaking and behaving are different and less predictable than our own.
It is also quite natural that the way societies are structured have historically reflected these biases within us. Those who have held power in society have structured society to benefit themselves, their loved ones, their friends and those who are like themselves. When we consider our primitive past, it is quite natural that these instincts are still a part of us.
Based on the above analysis, I believe (and this is really my own personal perspective) that no-one in this world can truly claim that they are not racist. We all have been programmed and conditioned with the seeds of racism within us. At the most, I believe that we can call ourselves recovering racists, just as an alcoholic who has lived 5 or 10 or 25 years of sobriety would still speak of themselves as recovering alcoholics, because they recognise that the seeds of alcoholism still lie within them.
And so rather than claiming to not be racist, which I believe is a dangerous thing to claim, because it cuts me off from being willing to look critically at myself and the way I behave towards people of other races, I would rather, cautiously, refer to myself as a recovering racist. At least I hope that I am on the road to recovery. And the more I can become aware of the racist tendencies and conditioning within me, hopefully, by the grace of God, the more I can consciously seek to treat people of other races with equal dignity and equal value.
But it is hard, because we carry so much unconscious conditioning within us and we are often most drawn to people who are most like ourselves.
But why bother some might say? Why should we even try to value people of other races equally to our own?
On answer to that question is because it is really the only path to peace in this world. If we really value peace, then we need to build a world of greater fairness and greater balance. A world that is structured to favour my group and my race is a world that inevitably is structured to disfavour other groups and other races. A world that is not fair, breeds anger, resentment, fear, violence. Over-coming racism in our world is ultimately in our own best interests, because building a world where people are not judged by the colour of their skin, their language or ethnicity, is ultimately the only road to true peace in this world.
A second answer to that question is that our Christian faith compels us to become aware of the seeds or racism within us. It compels us to become aware of how our societies are biased towards some and not others. The whole trajectory of Jesus life was a life of breaking down barriers between people or crossing over old boundaries that keep people apart, raising up the lowly and bringing the powerful down from their thrones (Luke 1:52).
In our passage today where Jesus calms the storm, it is a passage about crossing over to the other side. In Mark 4:35 where we read the story, Jesus explicitly says to his disciples… “Let us cross over to the other-side of the lake.” Who or what was on the other-side of the lake? In the story that follows this episode, we learn that it was the land of the Gerasenes. It was Gentile foreigners who lived on the other-side of the lake. Crossing over the lake must have been hugely anxiety provoking to the disciples. They had probably never been to the other side before. The other-side of the lake was a land of foreigners. Would they even be safe when they disembarked on the other-side? Was the storm that raged in the story perhaps a symbol of the storm that was raging in their own hearts and minds as they began to fear for their own lives. Is it possible that this is not just a story about overcoming the external forces of nature, but perhaps more specifically a story about overcoming the internal forces of nature, the internal tendencies within each of us that keep us apart from others due to our fears.
In the story, Jesus invites us to cross over to the other-side. What could it mean for us today?
And then in Ephesians 1:10, we read that Jesus has come to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth. Unity to all things clearly also means unity between all people because in Ephesians 2:14 we read that Jesus, who is our peace, has come to destroy the dividing walls of hostility between people in this world. And lastly for today, in Galatians 3:28 Paul writes, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” At the heart of the message and the way of Jesus is the call, and the invitation to overcome our divisions based on racism and sexism, and we do this Paul says, because on the cross, Jesus came to make peace in our world. The cross shows that work of making peace is costly.
And so, by the Grace of God at work within our hearts, may each of us become aware of the seeds of racism that live within us and which affect the way in which we order our world. And in becoming aware of those seeds of racism within, may the Mind of Christ that comes to unite all things in heaven and on earth be made manifest within us as we seek to become agents of his love, fairness and peace in the world. Amen.