Slavery, statues, and choices

Genesis 21:8-21; Matthew 10:24-39

Should we pull down the statue of Christ the redeemer in Rio because Jesus doesn’t condemn slavery?

There is a lot in our bible passages but the references to slavery seem to particularly stand out in light of recent events. The passages don’t make for comfortable reading. The casual way in which Hagar and her child are disposed of and the reference by Jesus in the gospel about the slave not being above the master is clearly not a refutation of slavery. Indeed, such passages have been used over the centuries to justify slavery by those claiming to be part of the Christian community. If nothing else, this reminds us of our capacity as human beings to deceive and justify ourselves.

Statues are less important than what they represent and the statue of Edward Colston, pulled down in Bristol, represented something vile, the buying and selling of people for huge profit. It should have been pulled down years ago as many people in Bristol had long campaigned for. The world changes and we adapt as we go along. At a different level the people of Glasgow learnt how to deal with pompous statues years back by simply placing a road cone on the Duke of Wellington. Was this an act of vandalism or perhaps something that has transformed the way people look at things? Such transformations are to be welcomed. And to be clear it would be foolish, an act of huge vandalism and a waste of money to pull down the statue of Christ the redeemer (even if it is questionable whether Jesus would have ever wanted such a thing).

For those with eyes to see and ears to hear it is obvious from the gospels where Jesus stood in the context of his time. He stands alongside those who are on the outside, who are judged and oppressed by those with power and control. And just as Jesus didn’t challenge the system of slavery of his day, nor does he set out to Rome to challenge the political authority there. In the gospel of Matthew we see Jesus among his own – ‘the lost sheep of Israel’, challenging and asking questions.

Jesus is, as the hymn has it, ‘working his purpose out’. Here we see him in uncompromising mood. He is making it abundantly clear that all have to make a basic choice. A choice that shapes everything else in life. A choice Jesus makes which costs him dear. What is the lens through which we will look? Family, life, relationships, the world are all viewed through are basic beliefs and understandings. What are the foundations on which we base our decisions, our choices? Jesus urges us to choose positively.

Jesus also makes it clear this is not going to be easy. It will be divisive standing up to authority and power. Jesus not only says this in the passage but shows in his ministry, and pays for it with his life. Our choices really matter! In this context today we say Black lives matter, climate change matters, the injustice of systems that treat others as less important matters and are a focus for the church going forward.

As we look at the next steps, what it means to be Methodists, to be church, are we rooting gospel values at the heart of who we are and what we do. Like me, if you don’t know your Bible off by heart, we have to keep going back to it, checking, listening to one another and God (praying) and working our purpose out.

The Methodist Conference meeting via Zoom beginning next week is helping Methodists to connect and to reflect on this together, asking questions of ourselves, one another and God and urging us to act. Jesus didn’t overthrow the system of slavery, or the Roman occupation but did turn the world upside down through love and service. And began something which has far outlasted those systems of his time and continues to grow in the lives of millions of disciples in the world.

There is much to challenge us, much that we get wrong, but I am encouraged by God’s response to Hagar. Despite petty jealousy, human frailty, getting it wrong, giving up hope, God somehow works through this and redeems the situation, redeems life. New understanding and new life come. I am choosing to be encouraged by this and I hope you will also.

Peace be with you.

Much love, Nick

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