I didn’t read too many books during my teenage years. I was not particularly happy at school and therefore skimmed over just sufficient reading to pass my exams. I found that books got in the way of my sports and social life. But there was one book, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which did leave an impression upon me.
It triggered something within me that was later fanned into flame when I became a Christian. Something that is so abundantly clearly from the Bible, that racism is a sin in the eyes of God and an evil on the face of the earth.
A number of years ago when I studied at Newcastle University I was proud to be awarded my Masters in the same hall that back in 1967, Martin Luther King was awarded an honorary doctorate. It was an incredibly audacious thing for the university to do back in the 1960s and as such it received a lot of criticism. Thank God that it did and thank God that the amazing film, Selma (that is showing throughout cinema networks now) tells the incredible story of Martin Luther King and in particular the campaign to secure equal voting rights through the epic march from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama which contributed to black people the right to vote. I not only commend the film but urge you and everyone else you know to go and see it.
Years before the Selma experience, there was an incident where Rosa Parks, a black woman, refused to surrender her seat on a bus to a white man. Her act of civil disobedience triggered the 13 month Montgomery bus boycott which fuelled the Civil Rights Movement in America and brought about a revolution and change in the law throughout the United States.
A young Black Baptist pastor, found himself as the spokesman for the movement. Unprepared for such role, on the night before the first public meeting of the civil rights activists, he prayed, turned to Scripture and saw clearly from the prophet Isaiah how he was to stand-up against exploitation, racism and fight injustice in Christ’s name.
That was back in 1955. Eight years later Martin Luther King gave his famous “I have a dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. If you have not read scene that speech, follow the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=smEqnnklfYs
We need people who are willing to swim countercurrent to the popular mood when it is not compatible with the values of the Kingdom of God. This calls us out as nonconformists or as the saying goes that I first came across in Holland, only dead fish go with the flow…
We need those who can with creative imaginative thought and courage in their hearts project beyond the immediate and envision a world that brings about change and a future and a hope to the world. To dream as Martin Luther King dreamt of a greater realisation of God’s Kingdom here on earth. Now, we are not as public or as high a profile as Martin Luther King but we are all called to make a difference, and in one sense, to be nonconformists.
One immediate area that we can pray and pay time and attention to is that of the forthcoming General Election. I will write more about this in the coming weeks but suffice to say at this point that I believe that it is Christians responsibility to engage in the political process. To think about what kind of society we want to be a part of and to exercise the great freedom and responsibility that we have in a democracy to vote. Men and women have died for the right that we take so much for granted. I understand the disillusionment that people feel with our present politicians but would strongly reject Russell Brand’s line encouraging people not to vote. Apathy, indifference and the failure to engage is a retrograde step for any society.
Bishops and other church leaders have come under fire recently from politicians and the media for “meddling” in politics. However, we cannot as followers of Christ, stay silent on issues that affect people. As Christians we must be a voice for the voiceless, speak out for justice and righteousness, not as some whingeing, protesting movement, concerned only with our own welfare but for the poor of the world, the vulnerable, for the hungry and destitute, for the refugee and asylum seeker. People who are who are not statistics but real people, many of whom are in dire circumstances. Discussions on immigration so often carry the undertone of racism and bigotry. Debates on Europe are rarely reasoned and resemble more a rancid diatribe of ignorance, prejudice, bigotry, misunderstanding, fear and insecurity.
We cannot remain silent in a society where economic measures and government policies favour the rich on the backs of the poor, where there is such inequality of resources and opportunities in Britain and the world today. Pope Francis continues to speak out on issues of global poverty, challenging world leaders and disturbing a wealthy church in the West. He reminds us that, Among our tasks as witnesses to the love of Christ is that of giving a voice to the cry of the poor. I am more than ever convinced that the levels of poverty in the world are heightened by a global economic policy that serves profit and enterprise but fails to see the incumbent need and responsibility towards the poor. Given all that is going on in the world today I am surprised that there is not more debate on the relationship between poverty, injustice and the rise of terrorism.
Martin Luther King used to say that as Christians we were good at helping the Samaritan, tending his wounds, feeding and sheltering him but what we are not so good at is going back to the Jericho Road and challenging the conditions that cause the suffering.
It’s good, being motivated by the love of Christ, that we in our churches care for the people but the charge can at times be made against us that we are so busy treating the victims of a sick system that we forget the prophetic, nonconformist calling to change the system.
Remembering the words of Scripture that, the righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern. (Proverbs 29:7). We have to find a way, a different way of politics and economics. A new way, which as the Bishop of Leicester pointed out recently, where neither the state or the free market have almost unfettered power which divides people and defeats hope. Or as Pope Francis has said: A way has to be found to enable everyone to benefit from the fruits of the earth, and not simply to close the gap between the affluent and those who must be satisfied with the crumbs falling from the table, but above all to satisfy the demands of justice, fairness and respect for every human being.
It is with these things in mind that I am very encouraged to see the Catholic Bishops in England and Wales issuing a letter today ahead of this year’s general election which is encouraging people to engage with the forthcoming general election. It is a helpful piece that encourages us think about the issues. See the link: http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/news/2015/02/24/full-text-england-and-welsh-bishops-general-election-advice/
Another very useful link to encourage us to think about such matters has been produced by the Show Up campaign which aims to encourage positive Christian engagement in the run-up to and beyond May’s General Election.
It was Charles de Gaulle who when entering politics said, I have come to the conclusion that politics is too serious a matter to be left to the politicians. So let me encourage you not to grow weary or cynical, despite the soundbites, political posturing and daily rounds of politicians verbiage. Rise above that and pray much, think carefully, engage appropriately and cast your vote wisely, not for selfish gain but for the common good.