Power and Privilege
Readings: Psalm 88; Acts 1:6-11
This Thursday, the morning I sat down to write this, was a particularly early one for me. For once, I think it was I who woke the persistent pigeon with whom I have an ongoing dispute, rather than the other way around! Lest you think this was due to an early morning jog, dawn prayer session or some other laudable reason, let me assure you that it was the combination of a sudden downpour, thin curtains and a weak bladder!
Once I’d given up on going back to sleep, I made my peace with an inevitably groggy day ahead and went to the kitchen to make a strong cup of coffee. Kettle on, radio on and as Today hadn’t started, in more ways than one, I listened to a few minutes of the BBC World Service and began to gain consciousness as a woman named Sybrina Falton was being interviewed. Sybrina had just qualified to run for office – for a county commissioner’s seat – in South Florida and was being asked about her hopes for election, her concerns about police brutality and her struggles in her Christian faith. It’s not often that you hear someone outlining their Trinitarian beliefs on Radio 4 but she did so shortly before admitting that she found forgiveness a hard ask, most particularly when it came to George Zimmerman, the neighbourhood watch coordinator who fatally shot her unarmed son in February 2012.
It was the killing of Sybrina’s son, Trayvon Martin, and subsequent acquittal of Zimmerman which saw the phrase Black Lives Matter gain traction in the US, ultimately resulting in the formation of the Black Lives Matter movement the following year. Since then, the movement that is committed to create a world ‘where every Black person has the social, economic, and political power to thrive’, has expanded exponentially whilst its foundational declaration has become ubiquitous since the murder of George Floyd last month, being seen at global protests and Government hearings, on church banners and professional football kits, on streets both Downing and Sesame.
Some commentators have questioned why it is now that people and marching and statues are toppling when we have tragically witnessed the murder of far too many unarmed black women and men at the hands of white Americans in recent years; when we often fail to even hear about other everyday acts of prejudice-enflamed police brutality across the globe; and when racist acts of injustice at the hands of the state have been allowed to occur in our own country all too frequently. One explanation which makes sense to me is an instinctive need to respond, to do something, when one feels an overwhelming sense of powerlessness. Powerlessness in the face of historic and continuing discrimination. Powerlessness in the grip of a paralyzing pandemic. Powerlessness in our response to increasing inequality. If racism can be understood as being prejudice plus power, it’s only natural that those subject to its pernicious outcomes are expressing ‘an anger over feeling powerless’.
Moreover, whilst the cause of our feelings of powerlessness are clearly different to our BIPOC sisters and brothers, several church members with whom I’ve spoken recently have also expressed a feeling of powerlessness to me in response to lockdown restrictions, family issues, a rise in right wing rhetoric and an ignorance about how best to challenge systemic racism to name but a few causes. All of which can leave one somewhat deflated and despondent…which won’t get us far! As anti-racism activist Reni Eddo-Lodge urges us in her now record-breaking book, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race;
I know how…the feeling of hopelessness works to utterly crush creativity, and passion, and
drive. But those are the three things we will definitely need if we’re ever going to end this
injustice. We have to fight despondency. We have to hang on to hope.
As followers of Christ, hope is central to our faith. The hope that we were born out of love and will die into love. The hope in a God who does not abandon us in our brokenness and marches with us on the path to justice. The hope in a coming kingdom where ‘righteousness and peace will kiss’ (Psalm 85:10b). So, as those called to be ambassadors of hope in the world, what do we do with any sense of powerlessness that we feel when we are faced with the insidious and systemic reality of racism?
Well, first, I think, we must acknowledge how we feel. Feelings are neither good nor bad in themselves and whilst acknowledging how we feel can lead to helpful ways forward, ignoring or denying our feelings usually only leads to unhealthy responses. It is okay for us to say ‘I see the problem; I acknowledge my privilege; and I don’t know what to do because I feel powerless to change anything’. An admission that we’re not in control, naming our own powerlessness, can even be a liberating first step on a journey to real change – hence why it’s the first of the life-changing 12-step program followed by Alcoholics Anonymous and its affiliate groups. The second is a belief in a power greater than ourselves that can make peace out of chaos. No wonder that the organization has often been called the Church’s best evangelism resource!
For us, then, we can bring our feeling of powerlessness to God in prayer. Just like the psalmists of old, we can come before God with a confession of confusion, with groans of helplessness, with a plea for God to do something. And when we do, we might hear the whisper, once again, of words of hope. We might fall into the hands of the living God. We might be reminded that, we are not alone. For the God who blessed Sarah and Abraham in the wilderness; who walked through fire with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego; who shared good news with Cleopas and his companion on the road to Emmaus is with us in our current trials. As we collectively wrestle with our country’s colonial past and prejudiced present, God is with us. As we personally encounter dark nights of the soul or long days of isolation, God is with us. As we communally ‘face the difficulties of today and tomorrow yet still have a dream’, God is with us. Perhaps that realization alone will empower us. Perhaps that realization might also help us question what true power is.
Yes, power can sometimes be seen in public acts of might, the Berkeley professor pf psychology Dacher Keltner observes in ‘The Power Paradox’, but more often it is seen in everyday actions – how we shop, speak, vote, interact with our neighbours. Keltner defines power as ‘your capacity to make a difference in the world by influencing the states of other people’ and we have the potential to do this – for good or ill – all the time. By asking a neighbour if they need any shopping, we are using our power. By picking up the phone to a friend in need, we are using our power. By purchasing books that might educate us on how our BIPOC friends see the current situation, we are using our power. These might seem like small acts of little consequence but ‘small acts, when multiplied by millions of people can quietly become a power no government can suppress, a power that can transform the world’. So acknowledged civil rights historian Howard Zinn, fifteen hundred years after a monk from West Wales told us to ‘do the little things’.
Indeed, far more than just the findings of social science, the last Earthly words of Christ, (according to Luke) speak of the power God grants us. To his friends, who knew all too well what it was to feel powerless in the face of a brutal and oppressive Empire, Jesus promises;
You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in
Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
How are we to witness to good news at the present? How are we to hold on to hope; to claim that righteousness and peace will kiss; that the structures of racism can be dismantled? Through the power of God’s Spirit within each and every one of us, that’s how. This is the truth that slave-turned-abolitionist Fredrick Douglass drew upon when he called upon every church in America to ‘array their immense powers against slavery and slave-holding [so that] the whole system of crime and blood would be scattered to the winds’. And slavery in America was abolished. This is the truth that saw the members of St Nicholas Church in Leipzig pray for the end of Communist rule and the peaceful reunification of Germany. And Germany was reunified. This is the truth that inspired Desmond Tutu and his oppressed sisters and brothers to campaign for the end of Apartheid. And Apartheid did end.
We may feel unsure of what to do next. We may feel tired or despondent. We may sometimes even feel like the task ahead is just too great, too complicated, too much. But we do not face it in our own. As Tutu himself once put it –
We are temples of God – each one of us, every one of us…[and] God is asking you here, “Please
be my partners. Will you please be my collaborators? Will you please help me to change the
ugliness of the world? Will you please help me to bring peace where there is war? Will you
please help me to bring reconciliation where there is quarrelling? Will you please help me to
bring joy where there is sadness?…Will you please help me to make my children know that they are
my children, that we belong together, that we will survive only together, that we will be free
only together, that we will be human only together?”.
Through the power of God’s Spirit, let’s try.
 We would all want to declare that ‘all lives matter’ of course, whatever our ethnicity or gender, sexuality or nationality, religion, physical ableness or any other part of our identity. However, in learning why, in our current context, it is important to affirm that Black Lives Matter, some have found this explanation helpful – If my wife comes to me in pain and asks “Do you love me?”, an answer of “I love everyone” would be truthful, but also hurtful and cruel in the moment. If a co-worker comes to me upset and says “My father just died,” a response of “Everyone’s parents die,” would be truthful, but hurtful and cruel in the moment. So when a friend speaks up in a time of obvious pain and hurt and says “Black lives matter,” a response of “All lives matter,” is truthful. But it’s hurtful and cruel in the moment. -Doug Williford
 Any hesitation I initially had about putting up a banner connected to a US-born movement that I believed few in the church had heard about or knew the history of was soon overcome as the phrase dominated the news cycle. I do, however, still encourage church members to educate themselves about the movement we are endorsing.
 For those who might have wondered how to talk to younger children about racism or Black Lives Matter, Elmo’s conversation with his Dad would be a very good place to start – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xBUFcv0y0yk&t=182s
 Even the slogan “I can’t breathe” is sadly nothing new as it has been used ever since Eric Garner uttered the phrase eleven times before losing consciousness whilst in a chokehold during an arrest back in 2014.
 For example, how many of us heard about the murder of Iyad Hallak, a Palestinian man with autism, who was shot by Israeli police last month as he made his way to a special education school where he studied? Iyad’s shooting comes at a time when justice for Palestinians seems more precarious than ever. Please see the following for more details https://www.churchnewspaper.com/83072/archives
 The Destructive Power of Despair, Charles M Blow, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/31/opinion/george-floyd-protests.html
 Revd Dr Martin Luther King Jnr
 The Essential Douglass: Selected Writings and Speeches
 ‘Watch it! Watch It! On Hope and Human Rights in Situations of Conflict’, in God is not a Christian