The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Choral Evensong      28th July 2019
'We need to talk about race': power, privilege, and Joseph's wisdom
Ayla Lepine

Genesis 42. 1 – 25

1 Corinthians 10. 1 – 24


The people in Canaan are starving. Jacob has panic in his voice with Joseph’s brothers: ‘Why do you keep looking at one another?!’ Action must be taken. The necessary action is go to Joseph’s Egypt seeking food. The dramatic irony is extremely high.


The brothers don’t recognise their youngest sibling, with all his wealth and his different language. They have harmed him. He has thrived. And Joseph knows exactly who they are. He now has power over the family who have done him so much unjust violence. It’s not just the grain he possesses. It’s the power that comes with choosing to welcome or not welcome the stranger into a potentially hostile territory. He knows this group of men are desperate. He knows that they are his own people. Joseph’s character is ultimately profoundly forgiving. He sees potential for wisdom and teaching in this chance encounter. The tables are turned. Joseph is presented with a holy, wild choice. Will he let them survive? Offer food? Disclose his identity? Take revenge? So much freedom, suddenly, after so much suffering.


Joseph leans into the risky prospect that he might be recognised, and assumes his cover won’t be blown. He accuses the men of spying and detains them. Only one thing will set them free. The truth. But the brothers keep lying. They have been violent, so they expect violence. ‘Our younger brother is with our father back in Canaan’, they claim. What a disappointment, though perhaps anticipated, for Joseph to find his own kin still lying and undermining him in order to get what they want. Joseph asks for one brother to remain. Simeon is detained. The brothers can eat. To be continued….


This chapter in Genesis provokes reflection on the nature of power, who holds it, why it can be so profoundly imbalanced, and how it can be used or abused to bring about mercy or harm. The cliffhanger passage brings its own reward, too – Joseph has been generous, but is also waiting to see, with one brother imprisoned, what the group will do to account for the missing brother. How could they bring Joseph…..to Joseph? Without venturing further into the story or offer any plot-spoilers, I encourage you to read on….


This passage encourages a wider conversation about power. In exploring power, I want to talk about race. I’ve been thinking about challenges around being white in Britain, and how to better understanding racial justice. I’m curious, about what privilege and power looks like for different groups in our Church and I hope that there are more opportunities for this conversation to develop. I’m inspired to do this by two people: Ben Lindsay, a black leader of a white-majority church in London who’s just written a book about racism in the Church, and Rose Hudson-Wilkin, Chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons, who will soon be the Bishop of Dover.


Why do this to address where we see power at work? Aware of my whiteness and what that might mean, or not mean, about ministry and identity, here is what Ben Lindsay says:


‘History tells us that until the majority culture engages with minority culture issues, structural injustices will remain (this happened with slavery and the civil rights movement in America)… silence will be interpreted as apathy or collusion. Sitting on the fence when it comes to racism or racial inequality is not an option – action is required.’ It will not help to be silent. 


‘Woe to us that dwell in the tents of Kedar. While we are in this tent we groan under our burden.’ In the Song of Songs, the bride compares herself to the beauty of the tents of Kedar, which are associated with blackness. While these spaces of blackness are associated with that which is negative, burdensome, undermined, or rejected, we *all* groan under a burden. If one person is not free, then none of us are free. If we really are truly all the Body of Christ, we must listen. We must respond sacrificially.


Reni Eddo-Lodge, who has written persuasively about racism in Britain, puts it this way: ‘If you’re disgusted by [the racism] you see, and if you feel the fire coursing through your veins, then it’s up to you. You don’t have to be the leader of a global movement or a household name, It can be as small scale as chipping away at the warped power relations in your workplace…if you’re white, your race will almost certainly positively impact your life’s trajectory in some way. And you probably won’t even notice it.’ When we become alive to what power we do possess, we are obligated to address inequalities and imbalances as best we can, not by denying who we are, no matter who we are, but by taking responsibility for where we stand, and what that means. By lifting one another up as children of God. St Paul’s words tonight ring true: ‘Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread…Do not seek your own advantage, but that of others.’


Where does this leave us with Joseph and his brothers? Joseph is profoundly wronged, does not seek power, and when he has power given to him, he uses it to teach, feed, and seek solutions. The brothers, even in their hunger assuming a superior position and still concealing the wrong they’ve done, remain strangely dominant, even though they are starving and anxious about their weakness.


St Augustine, a black northern African bishop, reminds us about hope. Think of Joseph, and think of those who are oppressed and yet do not lose their dignity in the face of inhumane treatment: ‘Hope has two beautiful daughters: their names are anger and courage. Anger that things are the way they are, and courage to see that they do not remain as they are.’ Joseph’s actions come into fresh focus. He has not lost hope. He can see potential even in the teeth of his brothers’ continued disrespect. 


Toni Morrison, a black feminist author whose voice questions and critiques systems of power, reminds us of this core truth in her novel Beloved, which is about how a woman navigates her relationships after a lifetime of slavery. She says: ‘You your own best thing.’ She is learning, slowly, to love herself. Self-rejection and self-denial helps no-one. Self-awareness, and laying down our self-interestedness so that the true authority of Jesus shapes us into one Body – that can be helpful. This self-awareness may help many to repent, and to say ‘I’m sorry’. And beyond that first step, to ask: ‘what can we learn from each other?’


How different the story of Joseph and his brothers could be if instead of declaring in their fear ‘we are honest men’, perpetuating the lie, the brothers could have dared to be real. Brought to the brink of life and death, still they refuse to give up their own frail power. Because they are afraid.


Ysenda Maxtone Graham wrote caustically in the Spectator a few days ago that The Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin, via the method of ‘dangly earrings’ and ‘hugs’ at politically tense moments in Parliament ‘specialises in haranguing her audiences about not being diverse enough.’ In the article, this view is laced with scornful scepticism, claiming that Hudson-Wilkin might force this agenda onto the diocese, the Church, the people of Kent. The word ‘agenda’ is wielded pejoratively. The verb ‘haranguing’ is toxic. The Speaker of the House soon responded that ‘Scribblers scribble’ and noted how cherished she is in Parliament and the Church.


Diversity is urgent in the Church and beyond. Inclusion is vital. Resisting racism in all its forms is a live and necessary struggle. Diversity is a fact. Inclusion is an act. If we’re not even ready for diversity in the white-majority Church, active inclusion is, tragically, even more rare. Thanks be to God for Hudson-Wilkin and others who speak out from within our Church to encourage first steps towards diversity. She is to be the Church of England’s first bishop who is a black woman. This article is the tip of a sexist, racist iceberg and she has endured much prejudice of many intersecting kinds across many years of ministry. There will be more to come. It’s not just that it would be the right thing to do to stand in solidarity. It’s the necessary thing to do, if we are to walk with Jesus, be inspired by Joseph, live accountably so that the ongoing imbalances of power can be addressed, questioned, and overturned. 


Ben Lindsay writes: ‘Jesus was a carpenter. Most carpenters I know repair broken things or create new things. Jesus did both…It is this combination of repairing past hurts and building new relationships that we believe, through Jesus, God has done and is doing with us.’


Through Christ, we can rebuild, and build each other up in Love. But as Audre Lorde reminds us, ‘the master’s tools will not dismantle the master’s house.’ We can build something new, for the glory of the Kingdom. Amen.


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