Sermon, St George’s College, May 20 2010
The first event I did this year – in the New Year was at the headquarters of the Dalit Solidarity Network in Delhi in India. I sang and I spoke under a portrait of Dr B R Ambedkar.
Ambedkar was a most significant player in Indian politics; a Dalit who rose up to become the chair of those who put together the Indian Constitution.
On Christmas Eve I had stood at a Buddhist meditative centre dedicated to Ambedkar right opposite the Taj Mahal – over the Yamuna river.
On the wall outside were the words that Ambedkar wrote to explain his reasons for conversion from Hinduism to Buddhism. It is couched in the shape of twenty-two oaths that he took, and he starts off by saying:
“By discarding my ancient religion which stood for inequality and oppression today I am reborn. Buddhism is a true religion and I will lead a life guided by the three principles of knowledge, right path and compassion.”
Ambedkar converted to get away from the Varna system within Hinduism that described him as ‘outcaste’.
Those formerly called ‘outcastes’ are now called Dalits, a word they have chosen themselves which means the ‘crushed’ or ‘oppressed’. Over 700 million, struggling for equality & dignity.
It is very interesting to see why he converted.
Number 9 in his statement says “I believe all human beings are equal.”
Number 10, “I shall endeavour to establish equality”.
Number 13, “I shall be compassionate to all living beings and I shall nurture them with care.”
19 “I thereby reject my old religion, Hinduism, which is detrimental to the prosperity of humankind and which discriminates between man and man and which treats me as inferior.”
My guide who translated for me was a Hindu himself and it was kind of him to keep translating.
Ambedkar converted with hundreds of thousands of other so called ‘untouchables’.
As a Christian believing in the same things, I have to ask the question, why didn’t Ambedkar convert to Christianity? And the sad response is that he said he no longer favoured this option precisely because of the persistence of caste prejudice amongst Christians. So deep is the impact of caste within Indian society that even some Christian churches reflect it.
One of my most precious memories is preaching outdoors in Gomathimuthupuram, a Dalit village down in Tamil Nadu, and being translated by our Amos Trust partner there, and preaching the liberating message of the gospel of the value of every human being. It sent a shiver down my spine when people interrupted me to check the verses I was quoting from the Bible and to look it up in their own Bibles because of the affirming message of Christianity and of the Old Testament prophets. They were checking to see if this was true.
One of the problems of sharing the gospel message is the church too often takes what we can call the Constantinian compromise – it’s nice to be liked, it’s good to be accepted within a community, it can be attractive to be accepted by power but we must never lose our prophetic role, our call is to speak truth to power. We must never lose the double-edged sword of the gospel.
We are called in our Epistle reading today (Colossians 3. 2-17) to clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience, to bear with one another, to forgive… and above all to clothe ourselves with love which binds everything together in perfect harmony; and to let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts and with gratitude sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to God. I shall do that later at the end of the sermon.
But these words are much tougher than they might sometimes appear. I sometimes fear the vague anemia which is the style in which we interpret words such as these, but these are very powerful and sometimes painful words. What does it mean to be humble and meek, to have the patience that will change this world? What does it mean to let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts? What does it mean to clothe ourselves with love? At the very least it means to live out the words that echo from the beginning of the Bible that every human being is made in the ‘image of God’, we are all equal – in Christ the barriers come down.
The wonderful challenge of the Sermon on the Mount is to be peacemakers, to bring wholeness into a broken and unjust community, to echo the prophets of old, to do justice and to show mercy and walk humbly with God. And humility itself is so important because it refuses to dominate, it refuses to colonise, it sees everyone through the eyes of God and when we fail to do that we deny the gospel, we deny the tremendous message of the incarnation which started in such a humble and powerful way in Bethlehem; and in the end people like Ambedkar will not walk our way unless they see the power of this humble, just faith – a faith that treats everyone equally.
We are called to be a community that brings down the mountains of oppression and lifts up the valleys of justice and righteousness so the pathways are made straight – as Martin Luther King was so fond of saying.
Last year I took an Amos Trust group to South Africa (we work there with a project called Umthombo, which is working with street children in Durban,) and one day we went up to the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal to a centre called Ujaama. This is a very practical theological centre and I wanted to ask them the question of what liberation theology means in the new South Africa, and their answers were absolutely fascinating. It was a group of young women and men who told us about their praxis – their action – the way they behaved as a result of the gospel.
But one of the later speakers, a man called Solomuzi Mambuzo, knowing nothing about us as a group, started off by saying, “This is a Kairos moment for Palestine and we are committed to supporting them.” Our group was stunned. We were not expecting this.
After the terrible attack on Gaza in December ’08 and through to January ’09 I kept thinking of this word, “It’s a Kairos moment.” Such was the nature of the brutal massacre that I felt we could no longer do the standing on the sidelines, trying to be even-handed. The mountains must be pulled down, the valleys must be lifted up. “Enough is enough of brutality,” I said as I opened the demonstration in Hyde Park on the 10th of January. And I kept thinking, this Kairos moment, this crossroads, this special moment in time, how can we reflect it? And I kept thinking about the Kairos document in South Africa; and Solomuzi told us about the importance of that document back in the ’80s in getting the world to wake up to the evil of apartheid, and said “Now is the Kairos moment for Palestine.”
And he was the first one to tell me that a Kairos document was being prepared in Palestine, in Bethehem, and put us in touch with Rifat Kassis, the coordinator; since then we have put together, slowly but surely, a campaign called “A Just Peace for Palestine,” with the subheading “means peace and security for Israelis too”. You can now find this up on the website and it is rooted in the call of the Kairos document, the call for the worldwide church to respond to a Christian ‘cry of hope when there is no hope’ from Palestine. -This is our way of trying to respond.
It’s not asking a lot, it’s only asking for equality. It’s not asking a lot – it’s only asking that Palestinians be treated as equal human beings. It’s only asking that we stop being one sided and start being even handed.
I was listening to a Dalit preacher at All Hallows one day and he was pointing out how Dalits interpret theology, and he said, “You see, when we come to the Exodus story, we don’t identify with the children of Israel conquering, we identify with the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizites, the Hivites and the Jebusites.”
They identify with those whose land is stolen, those who are treated as the ‘unchosen’; and I was fascinated to hear this and thought of Palestinian liberation theology which identifies this way as well: the concept of ‘chosenness’ is a deep problem and we have to journey to where we recognize that all are chosen or none, otherwise we make God cruel and biased.
But the Kairos document gives us hope. It says, “This is a moment when we must work out which side we are on, are we on the side of humanity or are we on the side of oppression?”
The writers of the Kairos document say “What is the church doing?”
•They point out the dehumanizing effect of the separation wall
•The effect of the Israeli settlements that “ravage our land in the name of God and in the name of force, controlling our natural resources including water and agricultural land.”
•They talk about the daily humiliation of military checkpoints (as people try to make their way to jobs, schools or hospitals).
•They talk about the separation between members of the same family making family life impossible for thousands of Palestinians.
•They point out that religious liberty is severely restricted, the freedom of access to holy places is denied under the pretext of security.
•They talk about the thousands of prisoners longing for their freedom.
•They talk about Jerusalem where homes are being demolished or expropriated. Thus the city of reconciliation, the Holy City has become a city of discrimination and exclusion.
•They say, “The aggression against the Palestinian people which is the Israeli occupation is an evil and a sin which must be resisted and removed”.
•So they call out to the world church – and call on us to repent – to repent of our silence when we should have raised our voices to condemn the injustice. They say ‘This is a time of repentance for indifference and lack of communion”.
•They remind us of the commandment of love and say love is seeing the face of God in every human being. Every person is my brother or my sister…
•This love seeks to correct the evil and stop the oppression.
•This is a profound theological document – they point out that God is not the ally of one against the other nor the opponent of one in the face of the other. God is the Lord of all, demanding justice from all and issuing to all of us the same commandments.
They say “we ask our sister churches not to offer a theological cover up for the injustice we suffer, for the sin of occupation imposed upon us. Our question to our brothers and sisters in the churches today is, ‘Are you able to help us to get our freedom back, for this is the only way you can help the two people attain justice peace, security and love.’”
•And they call for action condemning all forms of racism, they say “Use the tools of boycott and disinvestment,” “tools of non-violence, for justice peace and security for all”.
If Ambedkar had heard a voice that spoke with this authority coming from the Christian churches perhaps he would have journeyed differently. Maybe he would have made his home in the Christian community.
•Last year I was with Ernesto Cardinal in Nicaragua. Ernesto is probably one of the best poets in the world. He is a Catholic priest and was one of the Sandinista government back in the ’80s. I asked him whether he liked the term Liberation Theology and he said, “I prefer the term Theology of Revolution”. We chatted about that and I thought in particular that the theology of the Sermon on the Mount is a revolutionary theology.
It reflects a gospel that genuinely brings good news, that says all are equal because all are made in the image of God – do unto others as you’ld have them do to you. And therefore we are not passive people, we are not the vaguely anemic, we are those who act, reflecting the values of God’s community to bring change, to bring hope, to bring justice, to be an active part of God’s revolution of love, humility, compassion and the peace of Christ. And then with gratitude sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to God.
© Garth Hewitt
for permission to copy
please contact GHF