‘Black lives matter’ has been a prominent message since the death of George Floyd at the hands of American Cops in the American city of Minneapolis. He has become a global icon reinvigorating the worldwide campaign against injustice and prejudice for black people. Protests in Bristol led to the toppling of a statue of Edward Colston, one of the city fathers who had been a slave trader. The statue was unceremoniously dumped in the docks from whence his ships had sailed to collect black slaves.
Around the country, questions are being asked about monuments to other famous people with a dark past. Sir Thomas Picton in Cardiff and in Denbigh, the bronze erected less than ten years ago outside the town’s library to Morton Stanley a son of the town, are under threat. Here in Wrexham, we might recall the name Cunliffe. Part of the family fortune was made in trading slaves through the port of Liverpool.
When the memorials were erected to these great men, (and most seem to be men!) their treatment of black people was not considered such a stain on their character. Many of them were generous in using their wealth to benefit the cities and towns from which they came. It is only with the passage of time and the world’s failure to eradicate bias against black people that they now fall at the bar of public opinion. How many other sins are hidden behind the statues of the great and the good which might one day come to public prominence?
Today, George Floyd is seen as a martyr, but he himself was not entirely good. He was often in scrapes with the law and had just tried to buy cigarettes with a hooky $20 when he was arrested. In no way did his punishment fit the crime. The police brutality demands justice too.
Can we see a theme emerging here? Is anyone completely in the clear? What is true justice? …the justice demonstrators yearn for. Can it ever happen?
I would like us to consider that passage from St Paul’s letter to the Christians at Rome in the new testament which was read earlier. We shall be looking at other parts of this amazing letter in coming weeks. Romans is the most lengthy of Paul’s letters, written while he was in Corinth and carried to Rome by a saintly lady called Phoebe. Rome was at the heart of an empire known for creating wealth for its citizens, but justice could also be harsh. Not long after writing this letter, Paul was to end up in the city under house arrest and we believe was eventually executed in there.
It is in this letter that Paul sets out his stall, his argument, his rational for the Christian faith. In fact, he has largely already done that by the time we reach chapter 5 from which our reading came today. In the first four chapters, he explains why his message, the gospel, is so necessary. It is because all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory. (Romans 3.23) That’s equality for you; equality before God. There is no difference between the man on the statue and the man on the ground under the knee of an American cop. Even George Floyd is reported to have said on Instagram in 2017: ‘I got my shortcomings and my flaws and I ain’t better than anyone else.’ Paul makes clear that all, Jew and Greek alike are under the power of sin. (Romans 3.9) All are under the judgement of God (Romans 2.3) He then goes on to speak not just of God as the ultimate judge and source of justice, but also one who makes possible forgiveness for all, who justifies the sinner. He does this by putting forward his own son, Christ Jesus, one with himself, as a sacrifice of atonement. (Romans 3.24-25) Jesus dies a cruel and unwarranted death at the hands of law enforcement. The sin of both Jew and Roman lead to his death on the cross. What difference does all this make? There is forgiveness, there is cleansing from sin, we can all be justified before God not by what we might try to do right to cover up the wrong, but because of the mystery within the heart of God that means his righteous anger over sin is satisfied by the death of Jesus, the sacrifice of Christ. What we need is faith. Whether we are the man on the statue or the one on the ground, the protester in the park or reading the news on our phone, the good news that Paul has in Romans, the good news I want to share with you today is that by simply reaching out to God in faith acknowledging that like the rest of humanity, you are a sinner, you can be justified and received as a renewed child of God.
That’s where our reading picks up: ‘Therefore, since we are justified by faith…’ (Romans 5.1) Here, Paul tells us about all the good stuff which comes with it, all the things the demonstrators want, what black people want, Asian people, yes white people too for herein is true equality. What are the goodies? Peace with God. Access to God. Demonstrators want to get the attention of people of power and influence. We have Access to God! Justification, that is we don’t need to worry about what God might find lurking in our sin cupboards. By trusting in Christ’s sacrifice, we are free of that worry. Reconciliation, with God and with people of all races who find their peace in him.
But it follows that the reverse can be true. If we don’t have that peace with God, we are his enemies, with out access and our sin continues to condemn us.
How can that be you may say? Is not God love? It is interesting to note that Paul makes no mention of God’s love in his Roman letter until chapter 5. ‘He writes: ‘God proves his love for us in that while we were sinners, Christ died for us.’ (verse 8) While human ideas of right and wrong are fickle changing with generations and through circumstance, God’s justice remains sure. He despises sin and must judge it even in people he loves. The more we understand God’s justice, the more we see his love in Christ.
The mark of that love once stood on a small hill on the edge of a waste tip just a stone’s throw from Jerusalem’s wall. There is no statue there now. For a time, it was just a courtyard incorporated into the city and now an ancient church. Bits of that cross are reputedly all over that place. None of that matters. What God did there eighty or so generations ago stands as to this day as an abiding monument and statement of intent. Whoever we are, George Floyd, the policeman who knelt on him, the slave, the trader, whether black or white, Asian, or Hispanic, whatever is in your life and mine meets justice when we meet with God. In the cross of Jesus, we can gain our justification, the chance of peace hope.
Black lives matter: Amen. Your life matters too. It matters so much that God gave his son so that by believing in him, you might have fullness of life.
Jonathan Smith, Trinity 1, Sunday 14th June 2020