Part of the Communion in Times of Coronavirus series of gentle reflections
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I greet you all in the Name of Christ, and wish upon you the peace and blessings of God.
It is a pleasure to share in worship with you today, and I do so at the invitation of Cathy Bird.
I want to begin by affirming your leadership team. You are well blessed to have their gifts and company.
Look after them.
Thank you, Cathy, for ensuring Black History Month is marked.
Some of you may be wondering where this idea of Black History Month is from, having been challenged by the Black Lives Matter campaigns following the horrific murder of George Floyd on 25th May this year.
Why all this focus on Black Lives Matter, and Black History Month?
We know white lives matter, that is why it is important to insist also that black lives matter.
All people are made in the Image of God, whatever the colour of your skin. Every person is a child of God. No one should be treated as anything less than that.
Black History Month calls us to ensure black history does not remain hidden. is an annual call to us all to ensure that how black people have been treated, for example in the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and more recently in the Windrush scandal, is acknowledged and not submerged in history.
Black History Month falls in October and was established a hundred years ago in the USA, having started in 1920 as Negro History Week.
Four Post Boxes been painted black as a way of celebrating black history month (London, Glasgow, Cardiff, Belfast), and featuring prominent black Britons like the Jamaican-born nurse Mary Seacole (Cardiff), footballer Walter Tull (Glasgow), and comedian Lenny Henry (Belfast).
A significant Methodist contribution to the theme of colour has been Racial Justice Sunday which was established in 1995, so among other things, we are celebrating the 25th Anniversary of Racial Justice Sunday, though this particular marker seems to have faded out of church life.
Racial Justice started out as a calendar date in September, it has now been moved to February. I hope you will mark it in your circuit.
Black History Month holds three important features.
It highlights the colour black, the theme of history, and that it is a month, not a day.
The most controversial part of Black Lives Matter, and Black History Month, is the term black.
Some argue, why black?
We are familiar with the cry, white lives matter, and then there are those who say, we don’t have white history month, where does it stop…do we need to go through all the colours of the rainbow throughout the year?
There appears to be a real difficulty in holding up the colour black positively.
However, because of the remarkable Black Lives Matter campaign, there seems to be a greater take up of Black History Month this year.
More people appear to be giving attention to the lives, writings, art, preaching, books of black people.
I want to return to the colour black.
It is so often the colour associated with that which is bad or negative.
People talk about black mood, black sheep of the family, black cloud and so on.
In contrast whiteness is related to good and positive things.
Black came to represent bad, in contrast to white representing good.
White is pure, black is polluted.
White is clean, black is dirty.
This moved on to white skin being seen as positive, and black skin came to be seen negatively.
It is worth paying some attention to this.
I would like to use some biblical passages to aid our reflection.
Let me begin with a familiar verse.
Isaiah 1:18 where we read, “though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool” (KJV)Isaiah 1:18
I imagine you have heard this sentence used in prayers: O Lord, though our sins are as scarlet, wash them as white as snow.
What does that sentence actually mean?
Let me give you an alternative interpretation of this text.
Context: Punishment of Exile on the horizon.
Things are going to get worse.
White as snow does not mean better, it means quite the opposite.
Let us look at the meaning of the term “white as snow” as it is used in the Bible, by examining the first appearance of this phrase in the Bible in Numbers 12 where we read in verse 10 that “Miriam had become leprous, as white as snow”.
What does the phrase “white as snow” mean here?
Clearly it is pointing to something ad rather than something good, it is referring to illness rather than purity.
Let us take a closer look.
The context is criticism of the leadership of the great Moses.
To criticise him Aaron and Miriam pick on the choice of his wife.
Moses had 2 wives.
A Midianite, who is not mentioned at all.
But his second wife is mentioned.
All we know about her is that she is a Cushite.
We know nothing else about her.
Her name is not mentioned.
The women never allowed to speak in the text.
All we know about her is that she is a Cushite.
What does this tell us about her?
Cush is the southern-most territory mentioned in the Bible.
Cush is the ancient designation of territory on the Upper Nile, south of Egypt.
It is usually translated Ethiopia, but it is not the modern Ethiopia.
It can be reasonably assumed that the woman is of black African appearance.
Aaron and Miriam object to Moses being married to a black woman, and see this as the greatest weakness of Moses’ leadership to exploit.
Moses had married a Cushite woman, “for he had indeed married a Cushite woman”.Numbers 12:1
What is the result of this negativity?
It leads to God actually making an appearance.
And God says Moses, Aaron and Miriam, “right you three, come out to the tent of the meeting, I want a word” (verse 4)
Strips are torn off Aaron and Miriam in the meeting, how dare you question the leadership of Moses, says God.
Then we read, “and the anger of the Lord was kindled against” Aaron and Miriam, and they are punished.
What is the punishment?
Miriam becomes white as snow.
The punishment of Aaron is that he now has to be with someone who is different, something he found an anathema in Moses.
From here on, where ever the term “white as snow” appears in the Bible, we have to read it in this way.
It is a negative term.
That your sins are as scarlet and they shall become white as snow means things are going to get worse for you.
When Black theologians point this out, they are challenging bible based communities to examine how we use colours in our language and liturgy and hymnody.
Cathy Bird is on a similar journey when asks us to examine how we use the terms light and dark in our language and liturgy and hymnody.
So, how would you feel if at a service of Holy Communion a black cloth was used on the table, and to cover the elements, rather than, as the MSB requires a white cloth?
All kinds of questions begin to emerge for church life, and for theology when you examine the way we apply colour.
Just look at the portrayal of Jesus as a white skinned, blond haired, blue eyed Jesus in Christian art, in stained glass windows in churches.
I want to close by offering you some wisdom from a story related to the life of Jesus.
It comes from an encounter of Jesus with a black Canaanite woman.
Canaan is also in the territory of Cush.
What makes Jesus a role model for me is his capacity to learn and grow through encounter with the Canaanite woman.
This is the challenge of Black Lives Matter, Black History Month, and Racial Justice.
Engage with black lives, with black history, with racial justice.
Learn and grow.
Don’t court the anger of God with racist behaviour.
Racism is an obscenity.
It is a negation of our humanity.
It is a dehumanising form of violence.
Resist and stop racism.
At this point I want to commend to you a person who in my view is the best British Methodist theologian, namely Professor Anthony Reddie.
He has just written a most profound article on the matters before us this morning, and he insists that black lives matter, black history month, and racial justice should challenge white people to give more attention to whiteness and white supremacy, the way white people have exercised power in the last 400 years.
Thank you, and bless you.
4 October 2020