Preached at St. Paul’s L’Amoreaux, Toronto, February 20th, 2011 (Epiphany 7, Year A)
Dr. Rosemarie Sadlier, president of the Ontario Black History Society, contextualized Black history perfectly when she wrote: “Black history refers to the stories, experiences, and accomplishments of people of African origin. Black history did not begin in recent times in Canada, but in ancient times in Africa. People connected by their common African history and ancestry have created Black history here. [Therefore] the African-Canadian population is made up of individuals from a range of places across the globe including the United States, South America, the Caribbean, Europe, Africa, and Canada.”
Black history is the history of a people who were uprooted from their native land, and made to journey to foreign lands primarily for their utilitarian value; millions of whom never survived the often perilous journey. In Canada we may have come to learn of the stories of: Mathieu Da Costa – believed to be the first black person in Canada. He was brought over in 1605 as a translator for the French colonizers of what is now Quebec. Or perhaps we may know of the 6 year old boy Olivier Le Jeune – also brought to Quebec in 1628 as the first African slave in Canada. To be sure, following the defeat of the Loyalists in the American war of Independence, many other African slaves would be brought to Canada by their British owners at that time who were looking to settle in Canada. On account of the popular biographies written about them, some may be more familiar with the stories of The Rev’d Josiah Henson who fled to Canada in 1830 from the South in search of his freedom. When he arrived, he joined forces with those working for the abolition of slavery while also helping to improve the quality of life for fugitive slaves in Canada. Or, some may be more familiar with the stories Harriet Tubman who similarly fled north toward the northern states and eventually to Canada in search of her freedom. She did this utilizing the informal network of escape routes and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad. Yet, not content with her own freedom, she again made the journey south between 13 to 19 times as a ‘conductor’ of the Railroad, risking her own life and possibility of recapture, in order to lead hundreds of other slaves to freedom. For this reason she was given the nickname Moses.
But judging from the experiences of those who were either brought here, or those who fled here in search of their freedom, even after they arrived, life was by no means easy. Slaves were promised that they would receive land, freedom, and rights in Canada, in return for their service at war only to be disappointed. They faced increasing hardship and hostilities at the hands of many Whites who in tough times were often in competition with them for the same jobs. Blacks were often prevented from establishing Black communities, or even socializing with each other. Widespread discrimination under the laws at that time meant that it was not only difficult to defend oneself but also to support oneself. Just ask the 1200 Blacks who left Halifax in 1790 and relocated to Sierra Leone in Africa. Nevertheless, those who remained continued to persevere in the cause of freedom. And with the help of abolitionist sympathizers such as Lieutenant-Governor John Simcoe in the 1790’s, Attorney General John Robinson in 1819, and George Brown in 1844 then the editor if the Toronto Globe – the Anti-Slave Trade Bill was passed, it was declared that Blacks were free by virtue of their residence in Canada, and the causes of the abolitionist forces were given a voice through the press, respectively.
Nearly almost 160 years ago to today, in 1851, the Canadian Anti-Slavery Society was formed. And, as if made stronger and more determined by the genetic knowledge of their ancestors’ struggles, personalities such as Mary Ann Shadd, Anderson Abbott, Robert Sutherland, Delos Davis, and Elijah McCoy began to emerge in Canada. These individuals made pioneering contributions to the shaping and development of Canadian society in the areas of education, medicine, law and the sciences respectively. They would pave the way for the accomplishments of those of future generations such as Nathaniel Dett, Addie Aylestock, Viola Desmond, Leonard Braithwaite and so many others in the areas of the performing arts, religion, business, law and politics. Much of the information I have recounted for you today I credit to the work of the Historica-Dominion Institute; an organization which is dedicated to deepening the knowledge of Canadian history.
But why have I gone to such great lengths to highlight for you so many of the details of Canadian Black history??? There are two main reasons. The first reason is that we are historically conditioned people. As historically conditioned people we are connected or associated to a series of past events. Therefore, having a proper sense of our history is foundational for knowing our identity. One of the ways that you and I come to understand who we are is by looking back at the stories, experiences and accomplishments associated with our life. This is why the nation of Israel came to the self-knowledge that they were a people who were called to live in covenant with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This is the reason why they continued to recount significant details of their peoples’ life and journey with God to their children and to their children’s children. Likewise, we are historically conditioned people. The second reason is that having a proper sense our history helps us to envision who we should be. What do I mean? Consider the example of your own family. Because you are a member of your particular family, either by birth or marriage at a particular historical date and time that you can point to, whenever you interact with the other members of your family, on account of your historical identity, you know who you should be with them. Your historical identity informs your role among them (i.e. as a parent to your child, or as a child to your parents, or as a sibling to your brothers or sisters, as a spouse to your husband or wife etc.) Similarly, on account of their historic identity as the covenant people of God, the Israelites knew who they should be in relation to Him and others. That is what the passage from Leviticus (19: 1-2, 9-18) for today is signalling for us. The Israelites’ covenant relationship with God meant that they should be a certain way in this world – that is, they should live in moral holiness with God and with their neighbour – not lying, cheating, slandering or harbouring hatred and grudges toward one another – but living justly, loving their neighbour as they loved themselves, and living in ways that brought healing and wholeness to community. This is a vision of human life lived from God’s perspective; a particular way of life made possible because of God’s word spoken to Moses. Hence, the Psalmist is able to speak of a whole hearted desire and willingness to follow in the way of God’s laws and precepts; covenant as a way of life and not as a list of “do’s-and-don’ts”!
The New Testament teaches us that when the Word became flesh and lived among us, the early Jewish Christians came to realize that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who had called Israel in covenant to be His people, was the same Lord Jesus Christ. And so, given that their history with God established their identity and also gave them a sense of who they should be, the fact that God had now been made flesh and stood among them meant that their identity – that is, how they understood who they were and who they should be – was clearer and more tangible to them now than ever before…..for Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil.” The early Jewish Christians also came to realize – through the evidence and the work of the Holy Spirit in and among them – that God’s covenant relationship, and this particular way of living, was no longer restricted to Israel, but was extended to the whole world! (John 3:16-17) In other words, this meant that, in Christ, ALL humanity – indeed, the whole world – was to understand its identity and what it should be.
For this reason, Paul’s letter to the Corinthians for today reminded them never to forget who they are and Whose they are – that they are God’s temple in which the Holy Spirit dwells, and that Christ is the foundation upon which their lives are built. He is the One to whom their ultimate allegiance ought to be given, and it is in accordance with the wisdom of His life that their own lives ought to be patterned. You see, Paul was now marching to the beat of a different drum. Paul’s whole sense of history and identity had been broadened. In Christ, Paul had recognized the One God who is Alpha and Omega – the beginning and the end – the Maker and Redeemer – the source of all creation and the One toward Whom all creation is moving. Paul was able to perceive God’s hand at work in human history – calling Israel to be His people, and sending the Son – uniting all creation to Himself. He saw history now as God’s own salvation history; a history through which God makes Himself known. Therefore, the secular world’s division of humanity by race or class or gender, as a basis for special privilege or status, are no longer valid within the Church. The Church is one body; the new creation which has come into being in Christ through the Spirit. This is why Paul could say that “there is no longer Jew or Greek….slave or free….male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus….Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise…” and those in the Corinthian community who were either boasting about which leader they belonged to, or quarrelling amongst themselves, had completely missed the point – which is that, in Christ, all creation comes together as one, and we are all inextricably interconnected.
My friends, the God we serve is the God of all time – of our past history, our present reality – our future expectations. And so, just like the Israelites saw, and as Paul and the early Christians saw, so too, through the eyes of faith, we need to be able to perceive God’s hand at work in this time and history which belongs to Him. Sometimes we perceive God’s hand at work more clearly in hindsight. But the point is that we need to correctly perceive ALL history – whether it be Black history or any other ethnic history from Christ’s redemptive perspective, that is, knowing that, in Him, all things are being made new. To see history merely as the history of a particular culture or race is to see history partially, in a segmented and fragmentary way. Sadly, when we view history in isolation from its truer and fuller context – i.e. when we focus in too closely on our particular history – or when we sit back and compare our particular history to the history of another race or culture – then we will have a greater tendency, like the Corinthians, to quarrel amongst ourselves and either become vain or bitter. In that regard, I believe the scriptures are challenging us to look at Black history more holistically within the broader context of what God has done, is doing, and will do within the common history of all creation in order to make himself known.
When we view history from this perspective, then we see that each race, culture, or ethnicity is God’s good gift to creation. Israel in its particular calling and vocation is and continues to be a gift to the creation. Indeed, I am certain that we can all think of countless examples throughout human history of the evilness, wickedness and other atrocities which have been perpetrated in the name of race, culture and ethnicity – when these are not seen as God’s gifts. Thankfully, in the Church, God has given us grace to heal from the scars of such evil and wicked atrocities; that is, through confession and acknowledgement of past wrongdoing, forgiveness for past hurts, and repentant hearts endeavouring not to repeat or perpetuate past failings. Nevertheless, the important point is that in Christ, through Whom all things are made, your race – your ethnicity – is a gift to the creation. It is an opportunity that you have – uniquely within the skin you are in – and in spite of whatever else you may have encountered within that skin – to make God known by recognizing your fundamental identity in Him, and therefore understanding how you should be – that is, how you should live – in relationship with Him and with your neighbour.
Today’s gospel passage from Jesus’ sermon on the mount teaches us just how God chooses to make Himself known, even in the midst of present evil. He does so when – on account of our identity in Him – we continue to show the perfect ‘one-sided’ love of God when we are struck on the cheek, sued, forced into labour, when everyone begs from us, or when we are persecuted. The perfect love of God is ‘one-sided’ because it is a love that continues to love one’s neighbour even when that love is not returned. Christ gives us an enduring demonstration of God’s perfect love in the cross!
I am reminded of the example of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and of the fact that his “I Have A Dream” speech was so powerful simply because it helped those who participated in the civil rights movement to perceive God’s hand at work not only within their present circumstances but also in the greater plan of God in Christ in all of human history – past, present and future.
So, while the secular world may observe Black history for any number of social, cultural or political reasons as being a particular history………….within the ‘broader environment’ of God’s present and coming kingdom, we in the Church give thanks to God for the stories, experiences and great accomplishments of our black brothers and sisters to the extent that in some way their lives made God known by reflecting those covenant values – of loving God, and loving neighbour as oneself even when that love is not returned – values which tell us that they too perhaps knew something of the greater history of which their lives were apart – that is, God’s salvation history with humankind. May we be challenged to allow God to make Himself known through our stories, experiences and accomplishments in our own generation. Amen.