A Time to Break Silence
"It is possible to move into a new country in ways that are mutually beneficial. And, Mr Putin, there are ways not to do it."
I thought of our Lent theme some time before Christmas. I thought we would take the opportunity to deepen our understanding of being Christian in challenging times.
I remembered Martin Luther King Jnr’s telling phrase ‘The Beloved Community’. The inspiring leader tells us that God’s love is not just for the church but reaches into every corner of troubled humanity and draws us into communion with each other.
I thought the big question of the season would be - when I pull back those absurdly grand front doors of our Chapel, for whom are we opening them?
So together with Katharine and Harley, we set about planning a programme.
What we did not know, is that our European continent would be caught up in this tense moment of history.
It is frightening, heart breaking, and full of real risk.
A sovereign territory is being invaded by another country without justification. This is an unjustified war executed with barbaric weaponry. It is a violation of international law and the human right to self-determination of a whole people.
Does this mean we planned for the wrong thing?
No – it just means that our vision needs to be bigger and that our thinking has greater urgency.
Our reading from Deuteronomy this morning, then begins with a difficult declaration –
‘when you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it…’
The Bible tells of the Hebrew slaves gaining their own freedom from Egyptian tyranny. This was a liberation to celebrate.
The downside was that entering their new land meant the displacement of others. The Bible tells us of generations of battles between the original inhabitants of the land and newcomers. This is a battle which continues today in Israel/Palestine and is certainly not unique in human history.
Deuteronomy retells Israel’s history. It aims to justify the Hebrew presence in what we now call Israel/Palestine. God promised them this land because they did not have a land of their own.
They were nomads – wandering Arameans. They were not taking a land but returning to their land. They had an ancestral claim, and the Bible is making their case. At the same time, the Bible says that the produce of the land is to be shared not only with the priests but also with the resident aliens.
It is possible to move into a new country in ways that are mutually beneficial. And, Mr Putin, there are ways not to do it.
The title I chose for this morning’s service – ‘A Time to Break Silence’ – is the title of a famous speech given by Dr Martin Luther King Jnr. Known as his Riverside speech, it was delivered to a clergy meeting in New York’s Riverside Church. In it he broke his silence and came out openly in opposition to the Vietnam War.
Up until that point in 1967, the Civil Rights Movement had distanced itself from broader issues of poverty and opposition to the war.
King said, ‘A time has come when silence is betrayal. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak’.
He told his audience that the prophets of America had to move from what he called ‘smooth patriotism’ to the high grounds of a firm dissent based on the mandates of conscience and the reading of history.
Luther King was not addressing the Vietnamese, the Chinese or the Russians but what America was doing.
I believe that we must emulate Dr King today.
The United Kingdom has responsibilities for the creation of this crisis.
We have given haven to Russian money. We have given comfort to the supporters of Putin. We have allowed oligarchs to accumulate property, playing havoc with local house prices.
Allowing businesses, football clubs to be conduits for dirty money.
Flooding our estates with drugs, fuelling gang wars, addictions and the incarceration of young people.
We have been silent as our beloved city gained a reputation for being the ‘corruption capital of the world’.
We grew accustomed to the infiltration of propaganda through our social media networks, the interference in our democratic process and the purchase of politicians and their parties.
And shamefully, we have played the geopolitical games. Giving only a glance of concern to those people who flee the grand geo-political posturing between Russia, Saudi Arabia and Western powers.
Refugees from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Eritrea, Mali are all victims of the same power games that are at work today in Ukraine. Yet we just tutted when they drowned in the Mediterranean the English Channel and government closed off the borders to the vulnerable.
The devil is at work as surely as he was in the wilderness where Jesus was led by the Spirit.
Jesus was tempted three times.
Firstly, to turn stone into the bread that would feed his hunger.
Secondly, to claim absolute temporal authority over the kingdoms of the world.
Thirdly, to protect himself from the contingencies of this life by invoking angelic powers.
These are not ancient temptations. They are ours.
We are tempted to take the resources of the earth and turn them into temporary satisfaction for our gluttony rather than cultivate them sustainably and share them equitably.
To continue imperialistic ambitions – and it is not only Russia which does that. So do Western powers and China, and large unaccountable corporations.
To develop increasingly lethal and devastating weaponry facing one deadly arsenal with another in a defence mechanism which makes us more vulnerable not less.
These are the temptations which have put Ukraine where it is. And there are no easy solutions for them. Human greed and hubris along with military might hold the world to ransom and cause terrible suffering.
Dr King said in the Riverside speech – ‘We are faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are faced with the fierce urgency of now.
‘In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged along the long, dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality and strength without sight’.
Yet - time and again, when devastating events overtake humanity, we witness an outpouring of love and compassion. We hear of immense bravery, self-sacrifice, and an overwhelming determination not to let evil triumph.
We owe it to those suffering to change the way the world has been working over the past decades and to be part of a revolution of values.
The more we spend on weapons and the less we spend on caring for our citizens then the more we will be drawn into dangerous shows of strength between nations.
The more we shut out the refugee, the more we collude with the warmongers.
The more we accept corruption in our financial systems, allow individuals to amass absurd piles of wealth, the more we impoverish countries and disable them from caring for their citizens.
The way of Jesus is to resist temptation.
To tell the devil where he gets off.
We do not live by bread alone. We live by ensuring everyone has enough. We live through work, art, music, sport, relationships and community. We live through being compassionate with creation.
We do not worship our football team, our city, our country, our identity. We worship the Lord our God and serve only him. That means that we preserve the gifts of grace which God gives us, with gratitude and with love.
We do not put the Lord our God to the test for our loyalty is not to tribal gods. Rather we are loyal to all humanity.
We are loyal to the people of Ukraine.
We are loyal to refugees.
We are loyal to Russian soldiers uncertain of why find themselves where they are. We are loyal to their mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, fearful for their safety.
We honour our own history of resisting the forces of fascism and our forebears’ struggle for democracy and freedom of speech, just as Israel was exhorted to remember its own story of liberation.
We devotedly remember victims of genocide and all who brought their murderers to heel.
We are faithful and respectful of all who tell the truth and expose propaganda, lies, and false news.
We are steadfast to the conviction that to love your enemies is the only way to bring peace.
The worst outcome of these days would be a Ukraine with ‘nothing less to build on than bitterness.’
And we must pray and pray for the people of Russia that they too are released from the tyranny under which they live.
We do not test God - we trust the God who hears the cry of those who are afflicted and oppressed and who continues to hold out the promise of a land flowing with milk and honey.
We do not test God - we go into our Lenten wilderness prepared to be with the Saviour who resisted evil face to face.
Luther King concluded his Riverside speech with a poem by James Russell Lowell.
Once to every man and nation,
Comes the moment to decide
In the strife of truth with falsehood
For the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God’s new Messiah
Offering each the gloom or blight
And the choice goes by forever
Twixt that darkness and that light.
Though the cause of evil prosper
Yet ‘tis truth alone is strong
Though her portion be the scaffold
And upon the throne be wrong
Yet that scaffold sways the future
And behind the dim unknown
Standeth God within the shadow
Keeping watch above his own.‹ back