The following article is the text of the sermon delivered on 20 February at St. George’s Anglican Church, Montreal.
Good morning sisters and brothers at St. George’s, Montreal and to everyone joining in virtually. Greetings and Shalom. I am Camille Isaacs Morell and I count it a humbling privilege to participate in your commemoration service for Black History Month.
Black History Month Storytelling
Black History Month was established in 1926 as a valiant effort to tell the story of people of Black African slave descent in North America and the Caribbean whose 12 million ancestors were transported against their will to the Americas and the Caribbean where they were enslaved for more than three centuries. The story of survival and the outstanding contribution of Black people to all spheres of life is conspicuously absent from mainstream history books.
Storytelling can be hard. It is uncomfortable to recount the acts of injustice, the cruelty of slavery and the complex issues of race relations. It is important to tell the story of Black people as it is intertwined with the story of all of us here in North America. And yes, telling the story of slavery is still relevant as we are living with the legacy of slavery.
The scourge of slavery has damaged all of us, Black and non-Black people. We are all caught up in the vices of systemic racism, ethnic privilege, unconscious bias, racial profiling, reverse racism, political correctness, to name a few.
The truth is descendants of African slaves continue to live under the veil of negative stereotypes and deprecating depictions of their history and culture.
Black History Month affords us the opportunity to identify deceptive beliefs about Black people and discuss how we may dismantle systemic racism where it exists and build a church and world that is based on the guiding principle of love.
This morning, my goal is not to portray Black people as victims and White people as evil racists, or to “stir up trouble” and “open wounds” that should have been healed many decades ago. My goal this morning is to explore how history and storytelling, when viewed through the lens of love, can teach us about each other and lead us to a better world.
My starting point this morning, is our readings from the Bible, that we accept is the inspired Word of God, in whose teachings we share a common faith.
Joseph’s interpretation of “his-story”
Our Old Testament reading recounts Joseph’s reconciliation with his brothers. Joseph who was favoured by his father Jacob, was given a coat of many colours which earned him the jealousy of his brothers. Thrown into a pit and then sold into slavery by his brothers, Joseph was a compliant slave and earned the favour of his slave master Potiphar, a senior minister to Pharoah.
Joseph suffered the injustice of false accusation by Potiphar’s wife. Rather than being embittered, Joseph remained committed to doing what was right and used his spiritual gift of interpreting dreams for the benefit of his masters and the nation. Thus, Egypt and surrounding countries were spared from years of famine.
Joseph, after many years of injustice received justice. He was not only freed from slavery, but he was given the opportunity to use his talents. As a result, Pharoah promoted Joseph to the high position of viceroy based on his moral rectitude and the effective use of his talents for the common good.
As we heard in our reading from the book of Genesis this morning, Joseph’s brothers feared that he would use his political power to exact revenge against them for selling him into slavery and the resulting hardship he endured. Instead, Joseph truthfully recounted the story of his life. Without denying that he endured suffering and injustice, he declared that the evil committed against him turned out to be for the highest good of his family and for the nation of Egypt. Most importantly, Joseph offered them a common space in the land of Goshen, where the entire family could live together in harmony, benefiting from equal opportunity through the fair access to the resources in the land that were warehoused for distribution during the seven-year famine.
Viewing history from the lens of love
We learn from this story that like Joseph, we can view history and current events through the lens of love. The best definition of love is that love always leads us to act in ways that are for the highest good, for ourselves and for other people. Joseph recognized that all the suffering and injustice he had undergone were ordained by God to ensure the common good of the people survival of Egypt and the surrounding countries. He was therefore able to forgive his brothers and repay injustice with benevolence. That is love in action.
The story of Joseph’s forgiveness of past pain and injustice seems to be a tough call. How could someone who had endured such hardship and injustice, through no fault of his own, lay down the weapon of vengeance and uphold the standard of love for his own family and the common good of the nation that had caused him tremendous personal suffering?
The long wait for justice
If we turn to David’s testimony in Psalm 37, we find the answers we are looking for. Don’t be afraid of the wicked, they will in due time wither as grass. Keep trusting in God and keep doing what is good. God is faithful and don’t lean on our own understanding. Wait patiently, and in God’s time, the desires of our hearts will come to pass. Justice will eventually be established. That was David’s testimony. The same is true for Joseph who received justice within his lifetime.
Most of us – regardless of our race – agree that there is still a long way to go for justice to be established for Black people.
But how long must we wait?
Black people in North America have been patiently waiting and praying for true justice, equal rights and respect for our heritage and contributions to the common good for a very, very long time.
That long time accounts for more than 300 years of slavery, the following 200 years since the abolition of slavery, the subsequent colonialism in the Caribbean, segregation in North America, which have legally ended, and now we continue to wait as we appeal for the dismantling of systemic racism.
Black History Month summons us to tell the stories of injustice, yes, as well as the stellar achievements and contributions of Black people to the world. A large part of the history of Black people in North America and the Caribbean is rooted in the struggle for civil rights, and the creation of laws to enforce justice and equality. Many lessons are being learned about the challenges, threats and dangers that Black people live with every day. Many victims of racism and police brutality are now telling their stories, and they are being heard.
Through their own struggle against injustice and their insistence upon equality under the law, Black Canadians have bequeathed an impressive structure of constitutional rights from which all Canadians benefit today. As a result of their activism, several laws have been passed in Canada to enshrine racial equality. A few examples are:
- Fair Practices and Human Rights legislation in the 1950s and 1960s
- The Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982)
- The Employment Equity Act (1986)
- The Multiculturalism Act (1988)
We can definitively say that much progress has been made over an extended period of time.
That said, the brutal suffocation murder of George Floyd under the knee of a police officer in 2020 brought to light the continuing injustices and challenges faced by Black people. As tragic as it is, through this incident, George Floyd has taught the world that there is still an enormous amount of work that must be done to establish justice and eradicate the pernicious, malignant disease of racism.
If we are seeing much progress being made to eradicate racism, why are we still struggling with ongoing acts of racial profiling, affirmative action, systemic racism, injustice, and police brutality against Black people and other visible minority groups?
The answer is simple. Laws are not enough to eradicate racism because they only provide minimum standards and cannot bring us up to be the best we can be.
The emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement and the focus on diversity and inclusion in employment, sports, and all other aspects of life, tell us that although there is a far way to go, there is a growing number of people who are willing to go the distance.
That, dear sisters, and brothers in Christ, confirms that the will and intention to dismantle racism does exist.
How do we move forward?
Turning to today’s Gospel reading, Jesus preached His Sermon on the Mount. The theme was love as the way to resolve injustice and to make things right. He referred to various Roman Civilian Laws, which were oppressive to the Jewish people. I will focus on the law which gave a person of high social rank the right to use his left hand to slap the cheek of the person of lower social rank. Jesus surprisingly instructed His listeners to do more than what this oppressive law permitted. His followers are told that we must turn the other cheek and love our enemies.
Under Roman law at the time of Jesus’ ministry, persons of higher social rank had the right to slap the face of a person of lower social rank – but the slap had to be given with the left hand as the right hand was reserved for religious actions and could not be defiled. If someone wanted to slap another person in the face with their left hand, they would have to deliver the blow to the right cheek. If the person receiving the slap were to turn his left cheek as Jesus suggested, the slapper would have to use their right ‘holy’ hand to deliver the blow. By following Jesus’ suggestion to turn the left cheek to be slapped, it would mean that the oppressor would have to stop and think before striking again. He would have to consider firstly if he should defile his right ‘holy’ hand. Secondly, and more importantly, he would hopefully question himself as to whether or not his action was right and fair to the other person.
Radical form of nonviolent action
What I understand from this, is that Jesus was advocating a radical form of nonviolent action as the line of defense against oppressive laws and injustice. This principle of nonviolent protest and moral suasion is meant to appeal to the conscience of the oppressor to consider whether or not the law is fair and serves the highest good of all citizens – regardless of their race, gender, religion or any other differentiating criteria.
Enshrined within Jesus’ radical teaching on nonviolent protest and moral suasion is the principle of love, which is the spirit of the law and the foundation of justice. We see the principle of love personified in Joseph’s life and in the life of Jesus Christ our Savior, who sacrificed their freedom and their lives for the common good.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. applied Jesus’ principle of nonviolent protest and moral suasion in the Civil Rights Movement. Under Dr. King’s leadership, millions of persons in the United States of America took to the streets to protest peacefully and engage in acts of civil disobedience. A major factor in the many wins that resulted from Rev. Dr. King’s approach was the strategy of protesting for equal rights without using violence.
Rev. Dr. King’s legacy resides in the emergence of many institutions that have adopted this approach of moral suasion, dialogue, and nonviolent protest to combat racism and build a truly diverse, inclusive world that values the common good and ensures justice for all its citizens. This I believe is the way forward.
We are never going to rise above racism through the gun of vengeance and the silence induced by fear and political correctness. Racists and violent protesters need more than their day in court.
If as a human race we do not take the time to understand why racism persists, the suppressed outrage and pain will fester and continue to explode in sporadic race riots and other forms of violence and aggression. We can only eradicate the evil of racism by educating people and helping them to rid themselves of the deep-seated reasons why they believe what they believe.
We need to deepen our collective understanding of the fears, beliefs, and responses of people who use the authority entrusted to them to abuse others. These “people” include employers, landlords, judges, teachers, corporate executives, politicians, priests, pastors, healthcare workers and many more of us.
Keep up the great work
Your priest Rev. Deborah Noonan was instrumental setting up a task force in the Diocese of Montreal to engage in anti-racism work. On 14 November 2020, the 161st Synod of the Diocese of Montreal adopted a motion to implement the Anti-Black Racism Action Plan developed by a multi-ethnic group of concerned clergy and laypersons. The adoption of the Anti-Black Racism Action Plan marks a significant inflection point in the history of the Diocese in regard to race relations. We have witnessed the creation of ethnic enclave congregations of Black and other visible minority groups, without formal programs or processes to facilitate integration with non-Black congregations or representation in Diocesan decision-making and leadership.
Through the Action Plan, the Diocese is now adopting a different approach to address the needs of ethnic minority groups, starting first with persons of Black African descent, most of whom are immigrants from the West Indies. The Action Plan requires clergy and laypersons, of all ethnicities, to work together, to create a new vision of a truly united, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural Church whose prevailing identity is the love of God.
Here at St. George’s, I understand that the work of last year’s Black History Month organizing committee and the study groups in the Fall of 2020 and Winter of 2021, the Promoting Diversity within the Community group was formed. This group has sponsored several book studies and educational events this past year and has been involved in advocacy work in regard to the use of police cameras and public accountability in the City of Montreal.
As we are celebrating Black History Month, I have focused my thoughts today on the experience of persons of Black African slave descent and origin. I do realize that there are other groups that have been victimized by racism, injustice and other forms of discrimination. I am heartened that the Promoting Diversity within the Community group includes all marginalized groups within the scope of its work.
I applaud the parish of St. George’s for the courage of your priest and of your members for having taken these bold steps to address the injustice of racism through education and storytelling. It is through education and storytelling that we learn and through learning that we see the need for reconciliation and justice. We build understanding of each others’ experiences. We dismantle our fears, stereotypes and biases – whether conscious or unconscious. We realize that we’re all in the same boat, even though we came here in different ships. We value the common good above the need to hold on to past hurts and injustices. Then we are motivated to work on our collective healing, forgiveness and reconciliation. This takes time and we work consistently and wait patiently, seeing God’s hand at work, as we co-create with Him, a better world transformed by love.
At St. George’s, you have embraced the testimony of David, giving hope that truth, reconciliation and justice will come in God’s due time. Through the work you are doing, You are adhering with hope to the principles of love and moral suasion that Jesus taught, and that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr practiced. As Joseph dreamed and took action for the good of Egypt, may your work bring to fruition, Dr. King’s dream that the sons (and daughters) of former slaves and the sons (and daughters) of former slave owners will … sit down together at the table of (true) brotherhood…and that is where true love prevails.
Thank you and may God continue to bless you all.
Christ in us, the hope of glory. That’s why glory matters.