Bishop Arora urges politicians to beware of race-related rhetoric

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Bishop Arun Arora has spoken plainly and powerfully on the real life dangers of inflammatory language at a special service to mark Racial Justice Sunday.

Preaching at Blackburn Cathedral, the Bishop of Kirkstall examined how misplaced notions of patriotism, combined with reckless political rhetoric, can result in racist outpourings on our streets.

He also stressed the need for those in power to choose their words with greatest care when referring to asylum seekers and refugees.

“Over recent weeks there has been a disturbing rise in the actions of those who label themselves as patriots. Far right groups targeting asylum seekers. We saw it recently in Leeds, in Mansfield and on Friday night in Knowsley,” Bishop Arun said this morning.

“People who have fled countries such as Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, those who have risked life and limb fleeing persecution being met with hatred found on the internet and amplified by social media.     “There has been violence and vituperation flowing from the lips of mobs who feel powerless when they perceive the injustice of a system which preferences incomers over those for whom their birthright seem to result in little. 

“The pulpit is not a place to be party political but it is a place to reckon with politicians whose own words and rhetoric  – those who speak of an invasion of asylum seekers and swarms of refugees. The language that our politicians use matters.

“Language which dehumanises, language which incites, language that enables those bad actors of the far right to march from the margins and threaten the common good,” he said.

Bishop Arun’s Racial Justice Sunday sermon may be read in full below:

Some years ago I found myself filling in forms for posts to serve as a parish priest in the Church of England. One of the questions was: “what passages or verses of scripture were particularly important to you or had shaped you?”

I remember filling in that form and writing about our Gospel passage today. I wrote that I considered myself to be a Luke 4 Christian or in other words someone who had been shaped by the words we have heard read to us this morning.

Whilst it’s true to say there were are passages of the Bible – Romans 8, 1 Corinthians 13, John chapter 3 and the whole of the book of Psalms   which have informed my faith and understanding  – it was this passage more than any other that shaped, formed and inspired me in my first steps in my walk with Jesus.

I became a Christian in the 1980s. I was baptised at the age of 16 at my local Baptist church in 1988.

As I began to explore my faith and to learn more about Jesus of Nazareth I began to change the way I saw the world and the injustices that were apparent in it and those who were leading the fight against those injustices.

And at that time back in the late ‘80s at the forefront of those movements were Christian women and men who were putting their faith into action by being part of, founding or leading movements of justice.

There were the worshippers of St Nicholas Church in Leipzig, whose prayer and action became the focus point for the fall of the Berlin Wall, there was Lech Walesa, a leading the Polish trade union Solidarity, there was Bruce Kent who chaired the campaign for nuclear disarmament, Cecily Saunders who founded the worldwide hospice movement to combat the injustice of loneliness for the dying,  Peter Bennson, who had founded and was still leading Amnesty international and Chad Varah who had done the same with the Samaritans.

But it was in the area of racial equality that I most understood how the Jesus’ words in the synagogue at Nazareth took shape.

To begin with, it was the Anti-Apatheid movement whose work focused on the daily injustices endured by people of colour in South Africa. The movement was founded in 1959 by an English Anglican priest, Trevor Huddleston, but in the ‘80s it was another Anglican priest, Desmond Tutu, whose Christ centred actions in campaigning for justice, in praying for his enemies, in calling for the release of prisoners that served as an inspiration for me

In the years that followed I became an active anti-racist campaigner, joining in marches and demonstrations for justice for those who had been murdered in racist attacks in Britain – young men such as Ricky Reel, Rohit Duggal, Stephen Lawrence.

Some weeks ago I led a training day on anti-racism in Leeds for our diocesan interns and ministry experience volunteers. It was something of a reality check to discover that most, if not all, of those sixteen people were unaware of the name of Stephen Lawrence. None of them had been born in April 1993 when the aspiring architect was waiting at a Bus Stop in Eltham, South London where he was violently attacked and stabbed to death simply for being black. His death has become an emblematic reminder of the continuing call and work for justice that forms a core part of our discipleship.

Justice is not an arbitrary add on to being a disciple of Christ. It is not some form of wokery that has infected an otherwise unsullied path of prayer and worship.

Rather it is the at the core of our response as disciples individually and collectively in our saying Yes to becoming followers of Christ. Our mandate lies not in ideology, sociology or critical theory –  it is a biblical mandate.

As the theologian Andrew Kirk has said: “For a Christian who listens to the witness of the Old and New Testaments, the problem of finding an adequate basis for justice is solved. Both the basis for and the meaning of justice spring from the nature of the God who is. Justice is what God does, for justice is what God is” .   

And this understanding takes us beyond mere theory and moves us into the realm of action and response.

The Baptist preacher Steve Holloway put it this way:

“If we simply “do church” and ignore the injustice in our society, it is too weak to say that we disappoint God. The prophet Amos says that God finds a church like that disgusting. “I don’t want your offerings,” the Lord says. “I can’t stand the noise of your praise songs and your organ preludes. If you don’t want to do justice, get out of my house!”

And my friends the news over recent days suggests we may well all need to spend some time getting out of our beautiful houses of worship and to be out praying on the streets.

We know from history that during times of economic hardship there will be those who seek scapegoats for our collective ills. When times get hard, when things seem overwhelming, there is a tendency  – in the words of Jim Wallis – to look up and blame down when instead we might do better looking down and blaming up.

Over recent weeks there has been a disturbing rise in the actions of those who label themselves as patriots. Far right groups targeting asylum seekers. We saw it recently in Leeds, in Mansfield and on Friday night in Knowsley. People who have fled countries such as Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, those who have risked life and limb fleeing persecution being met with hatred found on the internet and amplified by social media.

Thankfully, there have been precious few reports of physical attacks. There has been violence and vituperation flowing from the lips of mobs who feel powerless when they perceive the injustice of a system which preferences incomers over those for whom their birthright seem to result in little.

The pulpit is not a place to be party political but it is a place to reckon with politicians whose own words and rhetoric  – those who speak of an invasion of asylum seekers and swarms of refugees. The language that our politicians use matters. Language which dehumanises, language which incites, language that enables those bad actors of the far right to march from the margins and threaten the common good. The political arithmetic of our leaders needs to multiply hope, enabling cohesion, rather than dividing communities through enabling hatred.

When the prophet Micah in our reading today calls us to “do Justice, to Love Kindness and to walk Humbly with our God” we are being called to show the love and generosity to those here as this country has in its outpouring of generosity to those in Turkey and Syria where £50 million has been donated by individuals in the first 48 hours alone.  

The former Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, has suggested that the Christian faith can best be understood as an unfinished five act play which is based on a Biblical reading of history:

In Act One, God creates the world, with an unspoilt creation

In Act Two, we have the Fall

In the Third Act we have the Story of Israel as documented in the Old Testament

In Act Four – the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in first century Palestine over a thirty three year period – this more than any other part of our narrative is the decisive act

And finally Act Five – A day of reckoning and Christ’s return, with a new heaven and new earth  –  the coming of the Kingdom of God when in the words of the Prophet Amos: “justice will roll on like a river and righteousness like a never-failing stream”

In Tom Wright’s analogy we live today in between Act Four and Act Five, waiting, yearning for the coming of the Kingdom of God –  that state of affairs where dictators are deposed, injustice is at an end and God’s will for his creation is fulfilled in glorious redemption.

But In the midst of trouble, danger or snare it can be hard to hold on to this promise.  In the face of injustice or persecution, that promise can seem thin and even doubtful. In all of these there is a temptation to give in to a sense of helplessness – what can I do? –  which in turn gives birth to detachment, cynicism or a cruel nihilism.

Yet our confidence in knowing where they story ends can give us courage to stand, even in the face of state knowing that God’s promises are sure.

I started with mention of Desmond Tutu and I want to end with a story which some of you may have heard told by the during the Apartheid era in South Africa in the 1980s. 

A political rally against Apartheid was taking place in Cape Town. In an attempt to shut the rally down the South African Government sent in armed police and troops to arrest the demonstrators and break up the rally. Those demonstrating fled the rally and went into St. George’s Cathedral.

Outside the cathedral hundreds of police gathered whilst other officers entered the Cathedral, armed, and lined the walls.

As they did so the Archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu, mounted the pulpit and began to preach.

He preached against the evils of apartheid, declaring it could not endure. At one point he addressed the police directly: “You are powerful. You are very powerful, but you are not gods and I serve a God who cannot be mocked.”

The tension in the Cathedral was at breaking point.

And then the Archbishop climbed down from the pulpit, flashed that Tutu smile and began to dance. He turned to the police and said: “You see we know where this story ends. You have already lost. So why not come over and join us?  Why not come over to the winning side?”

The congregation cheered as Tutu led them in dance and song whilst the police melted away.

We know where the story ends.

Jesus announced his ministry in that synagogue in Nazareth. He inaugurated it in his teaching, in his life, in his death and in his resurrection. We are called to live that story. To continue it, to be part of it, to drive it as disciples to its conclusion – as we read in Revelation –  to that day when God’s dwelling place will be found among the people. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

Today, on Racial Justice Sunday, we declare our intention to work as builders of the Kingdom Of God, to work for that day when the words of the Prophet Amos will be fulfilled – when justice will roll down like rivers and righteousness like a mountain stream.