Emancipation Day Sermon
Location: St Mary’s Kilburn and St James’ West Hampstead
Emancipation Day is kept on Aug 1 in the former colonies of the British Empire and marks the coming into law of the Abolition of Slavery Act. This is a sermon preached by Father Charles Morris who is the Deputy High Commissioner for Barbados, and who is part of the community in St Mary’s Kilburn and St James’ West Hampstead.
Isaiah 55: Pt 2
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
‘Emancipation is a topic that I have taught at Combermere School in Barbados for every year of the past 35 years. Each celebration of Emancipation opens new insights and new areas of concern and indeed new perspectives on freedom from the many slave-like conditions that still balk us.
And so, I wish to wear my historian’s hat this morning and theorise that even though emancipation came 182 years ago, we are still not free; that no matter how hard we try, somebody somewhere still tries to enslave us one way or another. This goes back to ancient time as described in the Old Testament Lesson for this morning.
Isaiah is writing this poem to the Jewish exiles in Babylon. They had virtually lost their identity under the coercive extremities of the Babylonian lords. They had plunged themselves into a state of depressed ambivalence; they felt pressured, coerced and exhausted. They could not sing their own song in a strange land. Imagine writing a poem about a poem that you cannot sing. That is the result of a people who have lost their identity, who have lost their freedom. In Babylon, the Israelites were deprived of their freedom.
But we can go even further back with the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt. The time had come for the Israelites to be delivered from their bondage in Egypt and as the lesson goes, on each occasion the Pharaoh freed them, he rescinded his decision and re-imposed it. This attitude has persisted throughout history by the neo-slave masters that exist even to this day. I am saying to you that Emancipation has come but we are still not free.
Let me say to you that the plagues in Egypt were not just about freeing the Israelites. It is about God establishing his power over the Pharaoh. A free God wants His people to be free. God has created us in His own image and that means He created us free and equal and God who created the universe in freedom, desires that we as human beings create conditions in this life where all can live in liberty.
Those of us who are familiar with the film La Amistad can recall the words of the African Cinque in that movie. The Africans were illegally captured in Africa by Spanish slave captains, even though the slave trade had ended, and they were eventually taken to the United States instead of their original destination Cuba. A court battle ensued, during the trial Cinque the leader of the Africans recounted his ordeal in being ambushed and taken away from Africa. He did not speak or understand English, but he understood that his lawyer Stephen Baldwin was fighting for their freedom; and Cinque got up and said on three occasions: ‘Give us, us free; Give us, us free; Give us, us free. Those Africans won the case, but the State appealed, and they were put back in prison. Then John Quincy Adams finally took their case and they were freed.
The same thing happened in the Haitian Revolution, when the enslaved Haitians had defeated the French, Napoleon re-imposed slavery but the Haitians defeated them again. The French then imposed an indemnity on Haiti which has impoverished them to this day; with almost 90% of their GDP being paid to France. In the entire Caribbean, political, economic and social restrictions were placed on the people and they could not enjoy freedom. The result was two rebellions. One in Jamaica in 1865 known as the Morant Bay rebellion; the other in Barbados in 1876, called the Confederation Riots. People wanted full freedom and they were prepared to die for it. During the 1930s every Caribbean country rose in rebellion.
Let my people go; give us, us free has been sounded throughout the ages. You can find them in political philosophy in the words of Jean Jacques Rousseau, who in his treatise on government wrote “man is born free, but everywhere man is in chains.” They are embedded in theological thought in words of theologians such as Kortright Davis when he wrote His book: Emancipation Still Coming.
Let me say to you this morning that the Church has a role to play in this quest for true freedom; the Church must be an example of that freedom that God has wrought for us. The Church can point to God’s acts of freeing His people throughout History. Every Church; every society must have as its point of departure the fact that freedom is a God-given human right and attribute.
We can point to the Old Testament where the liberation of God’s people from slavery in Egypt is primary. Moses confronted the Pharaoh by telling him “let my people go”. This act of emancipation is paramount to the Israelites to this day. No matter what has happened to them throughout their history, they have looked back on this event for strength and inspiration. As Bishop Rufus Brome says, this event “marked them as a people with an history, with a sense of belonging, with character, with identity and with a mission”. I believe that a sense of belonging is important to a society because belonging is not the same as fitting in. You see fitting in is a hallow substitute for belonging. Fitting in requires you to change who you are; belonging requires you to be who you are.
This call for freedom is at the nucleus of the Gospel message of Jesus Christ. Jesus came proclaiming the Kingdom of God; He was anticipating that period when God’s will would be done on earth as it is in Heaven. For Jesus, all human institutions would be judged according to the standards of God’s Kingdom. At the very beginning Jesus proclaimed the intentions of His ministry. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” (Luke 4: 18 & 19) Here Jesus condemned slavery and any social order in which persons were subjected to less than human conditions.
Paul himself addressed this issue when he addressed the issue of divisions in the early Church. The world in which Paul wrote his letters was full of divisions and social barriers. The intellectual Greeks and aristocrats looked down on those not so intellectual and socially gifted. The Jews looked with contempt on non-Jews. Barbarians were impertinent and lacked civility. Scythians were notoriously the worst of the Barbarians. Slaves were the lowest of the low in society; they were living tools with no rights of their own. The only group worse were the hired servants.
Paul demonstrated that in Christ all barriers are broken down and in God’s presence all lines of demarcation are diminished. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” “Here there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free man, but Christ is all, and in all.” (Galatians 3: 28; Colossians 3: 11)
And so, this morning I want to say to you that Emancipation has come, and we are still not free. There are principalities and powers in this world who believe that might is right and they are trying their absolute best to keep countries, which they consider undeveloped, in servile conditions. As they speak from their white edifices, they string together a masterclass of idiotic sentences which manifest themselves in racist vitriol and turn societies into dungeons of race-hatred and gun violence.
Give us, us free must be the cry of every individual and institution in the Caribbean and in this land. Give us, us free and stop the environmental degradation. The influential and powerful countries have targeted a limit of temperature to two degrees, 2 degrees, but the Caribbean needs a limit of 1.5. At 2 degrees the Caribbean will find it difficult to survive. So, we have had devastating hurricanes that have destroyed our countries. To repair such damage, we would struggle with economic survival. And it is the rich and powerful who are responsible for global warming. And they do not assist us in repairing the damage.
Give us, us free from the blacklisting of Caribbean countries. They have been brought to shame, not because of wrongdoing but because organisations representing the rich and powerful countries have imposed restrictions on them. Organisations like the OECD are imposing tax restrictions on our countries that they do not impose on their own countries. When you seek to take from a country its sovereign right to tax and raise revenue, you are driving such countries back to slavery.
Give us, us free, right here in this country. Commonwealth immigrants in this country have been descended upon like a mighty rushing wind and have been branded as the Windrush generation. The very people who rebuilt this country after the devastation of two wars are now being told that they do not belong; they are not citizens; even though they were brought here on British Passports. You have taken away from these people their right to life, identity, property and dignity.
Yes, give us, us free. True emancipation, true freedom is experienced when we treat one another with dignity and respect; when we see one another as dignified human beings; when we treat one another as equals, no matter ethnicity; colour, class, creed or sexual orientation. We are one before Almighty God; we are His children; there or to be no social barriers among us.
It means that larger, powerful and rich countries must assist the smaller, weaker and poorer ones rather than exploit them. The rich in societies must help the poor rother than place heavier burdens upon them. The healthy must heal the sick and the living must bring hope to the dying. That is what true emancipation; true freedom is about.
What good is political liberty if it does not guarantee the freedom of a people to choose their own government as opposed to a government being imposed form the outside. What good is it if a country cannot make its own decisions and choose its own friends and associates, without having the imposition of sanctions; thus, leading to suffering of the people. Give us, us free. When rulers have absolute power, freedom is eroded.
What good is economic enfranchisement if people’s salaries allow them minimal existence and survival? What good is it if they cannot meet the basic necessities of life: food, clothing and shelter? What good is it if people are taxed; if they have no avenues for investment to ensure a better future for their offsprings? Indeed, “what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” The cry for such people is Give us, us free.
Inequality is on the rise worldwide. What is the sense of social equality, if race, ethnicity, class, creed and wealth will determine where we sit or stand in the social structure? What is the sense if our people are not guaranteed access to education, especially if it is priced out of the reach of the poor? What is the sense if the colour of our skin determines whether we live or whether we die? Give us, us free.
We must learn a lesson from the plant. All life is sacred, and it must be protected. The thorn defends the rose and it harms only those who try to steal from it. Life is an honour and when we protect life, we honour it. We should act with justice to protect life. If we subjugate life, treat it with contempt and create conditions in life which make it impossible for people to exist, then I must ask where is the honour in what we do? No price is too high when honour and freedom are at stake.
We live in a world in which some leaders appear to be an authority on ‘fake news’, depending on how it suits their fancies. Even though lying is a difficult art, they master it beautifully. For such persons, truth and lie are the same; they treat it as something they just edit in and out. They wave it around like a flag or just shut it up in a drawer, whichever suits their professional, political and racist or even sexual needs. There can be no true freedom unless there is a commitment to truth. Give us, us free.
For true freedom to reign we must have trust. As Jonathan Sacks noted “all social institutions depend on trust, and trust means honouring our promise, doing what we say we will do. When this breaks down freedom is at risk.”
When trust is eliminated, social relations are compromised and then we will have to depend on law enforcement agencies or even the military to use force. But the use of force brings more force. When force is employed, society has lost its freedom. And I quote from Sacks, “the only way free human beings can form collaborative and cooperative relationships without recourse to force is by the use of verbal undertakings honoured by those who make them.” Oh yes, for freedom to exist, trust must exist.
The current policies, behaviour and actions of the rich and powerful countries to the more vulnerable ones resemble one of those follicular experiments that are regretted in hindsight. It is an unconvincing gambit that should not be pursued too vehemently. Somehow some aspects of leadership in this world seem ineffective, gullible and arrogant.
I believe that if we strengthen our resolve; we will overcome the ingrained psychological scars of over 200 years of enslavement that seem so much to beset us. But we must curb our instincts for revenge. Revenge does not guarantee us freedom. With all that is happening in our world now, there is a call for reparatory justice, and it must be given to us. But I am concerned that by justice some mean retribution. Tearing down statues does not mean we will have justice or freedom. Tearing down statues or even replacing them does not guarantee that I will love you. As Christians we must join the fight for reparatory justice, but our call must also be for reconciliation. Our God has been angry at evil, but He did more. He sent Jesus Christ who preached a message of reconciliation. God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself and if we have received God’s reconciliation, we too must offer that reconciliation to others. If we counter violence with violence that does not mean the societies will be made whole.
I believe that one day we will realise that prophecy of Martin Luther King and shout from the mountain top, ‘free at last, free at last, thank God we are free at last’. And we too will be able to look back to our emancipation for strength and inspiration. Amen.’