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Ethnicity: -The Inclusive Church Resource – M. Jagessar et al

October 19, 2017

As a student, I attended a church where it was assumed that black people didn’t want to be on the PCC – it hadn’t occurred to anyone that shift work meant they weren’t available. I’d heard the vicar thank ‘the ladies for making the teas – they really worked like niggers…’ And people were late because they kept ‘Jamaican time.’

This book is meatier than the previous ones in the series but the theology section is light and fluffy, lacking substance.

He mentions, but does not quote, as if we all know it, John Agard’s satirical poem `Half-Caste’* , a satirical take on the notion of purity, – why?

Quotations:

The rise of Black Christian churches throughout Europe, has given lie to the myth that people of colour do not desire or are not ready to accept church leadership. However, mainstream churches have been reluctant or unwilling to engage in honest dialogue on the issues that stem from ethnic diversity and such discourse is seen at best as a challenge and at worse as an accusation of racism. This leaves little or no place to discuss racial justice and racial reconciliation at individual and institutional level. In general the debate on ethnicity and the mainstream church has centred around inclusion, on counting people in. In many cases such inclusion has been focused on people of colour joining in and trying not to be seen to be different to the majority. However, inclusion works best when everyone can most be themselves.

I’m a woman. I’m an alumna of my university. I’m a Manchester United supporter. I’m a Londoner. I’m a journalist. I’m a Take That lover. I am … not very cool. So I would find it odd going to a Church of Women, a Manchester United Supporters’ church, the Church of the Uncool, or the Church of the Latter-Day Take t That lovers, for that matter. Heaven forbid.

But I was saddened upon realising — shock horror — that it is actually possible to pick and choose your church depending on your ethnicity or your country of origin. You can find Polish churches, Chinese churches, Spanish churches, ‘black majority churches’.

I don’t remember prejudice listed among the gifts of the spirit.

But I’m not sure that when Christ called us to ‘be one’ as he does in John 17, that he intended us to worship and fellowship only with those people who- look like us, who like what we like, who speak the same language or come from the same place. `When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place,’ we hear in Acts 2. In one place.

I used the term ‘mixed parentage’ earlier instead of ‘mixed race’ having been told quite sternly by a Black tutor at University ‘Nikki we all belong to one human race’. Who can argue with that?! My sister has also reminded me of how horrid the term ‘half-caste’ was/is, as if we were not quite fully finished or fully whole. She prefers (as I do now having heard it!) to use the term ‘dual heritage’, which does appear to say more about cultural background rather than colour mixing, especially as we are all of course a ‘mix’ of our conceiving parents’ genes.

I was so pleased when Black Theology was to be part of my theological training but was disappointed to learn it was only an ‘optional’ element that year and as most students had few ethnic faces in their congregations, most questioned, as I initially did, whether it could be ‘relevant’ to their congregation. The uneasy thought process of ‘we don’t have that problem because we don’t really have any ethnic minorities’ grew when I read Struggle in Babylon by Kenneth Leech.8 If it is a problem only when we have ethnic minorities in our congregation, does this not therefore imply that they are ‘the problem’, and that the issue is ‘out there’ and therefore not relevant to us?  Racism and exclusion is rooted in accepting a status quo that ‘doesn’t affect me’.

My new email provider as opposed to using `trustworthy’ and ‘untrustworthy’ for contacts has ‘white list’ (for trustworthy) and ‘black list’ (for untrustworthy). I have felt uncomfortable hearing preaching about the ‘blackness’ of sins, and how they can be washed ‘white’ and clean. I think I have heard a speaker say there are something like thirty negative uses of ‘black’ in our language, compared to only three for ‘white’

One evening Stephen and I were at a party given by a British diplomat. At that gathering, somehow an inner circle developed which excluded me. A White British doctor, a rather quiet and shy person, also found himself excluded from the inner circle. Standing on the margin of the group we found each other and engaged in a conversation. After a while the host came to us and said to the doctor: ‘Sorry to have left you all alone here.’ I was shocked: all alone! What about me, was I invisible? The host managed to insult both of us. The doctor said, ‘I am fine here talking with Mrs Barton’ and we remained where we were. The diplomat, who could not see me, was a member of our church. I was his vicar’s wife. We regularly worshipped together. I was really surprised that this diplomat could not see me. But it is common knowledge that power affects one’s eyesight in a real sense. Powerful people sometimes cannot see the person they consider inferior. There are many biblical verses about this phenomenon of sighted people not being able to see. Jesus said, ‘Do you have eyes, and fail to see?’ (Mark 8. 18, NRSV).

Over the years I have noticed that White people are often in a state of cognitive dissonance, in a place of anxiety caused by the incongruity between what they have been indoctrinated to believe and what they actually see and hear. The incident at the party in the house of the diplomat is a case in point.

In such parties, except for the servants, I used to be the only person of colour, invited as a White vicar’s wife.

In India British Christianity taught us to believe that White people were superior to us and that Jesus was White. The myth of White Jesus continues to be perpetuated through many things such as stained-glass windows, biblical films, theological book covers, Christmas and other religious cards.

when I was distributing communion, a man refused to take the chalice from me, shouted and stormed out of the church.

It is a great pity that most theological colleges are not teaching theology from ethnic and colour perspectives in a systematic way.

The birth of the Christian community (the people of the way) at Pentecost affirms ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversity. The Holy Spirit descends in the tongues of the different nations, enabling friends and followers of Jesus to speak in a variety of languages. The new religious movement would not make ethnic homogeneity the price of admission. Instead it deploys a common message to increasingly distant and variegated people.

God assumed human form in Christ to heal and save all humankind. But this universal reach of the incarnation must be seen for its particularity. It happened in a specific country, among a specific people and at a specific moment. The incarnate Christ assumed the totality of human nature while at the same time becoming an individual person belonging to a distinct ethnic group — Jewish. He assumed ethnicity. In so doing, Christ has blessed the distinct and particular identity of each human being and, by extension, of each nation. In this way the incarnation embraces human nature in its universality while affirming the different expressions of that one nature in all their variety and specificity.

Ethnicity does play a role in the heritage of Jesus, a Galilean Jew, with a remarkable list of the hybrid mix in his bloodline that punctures insistence on the nonsense of purity!

*  Excuse me
standing on one leg
I’m half-caste.

Explain yuself
wha yu mean
when yu say half-caste
yu mean when Picasso
mix red an green
is a half-caste canvas?
explain yuself
wha yu mean
when yu say half-caste
yu mean when light an shadow
mix in de sky
is a half-caste weather?
well in dat case
england weather
nearly always half-caste
in fact some o dem cloud
half-caste till dem overcast
so spiteful dem don’t want de sun pass
ah rass?
explain yuself
wha yu mean
when yu say half-caste
yu mean tchaikovsky
sit down at dah piano
an mix a black key
wid a white key
is a half-caste symphony?

Explain yuself
wha yu mean
Ah listening to yu wid de keen
half of mih ear
Ah looking at yu wid de keen
half of mih eye
an when I’m introduced to yu
I’m sure you’ll understand
why I offer yu half-a-hand
an when I sleep at night
I close half-a-eye
consequently when I dream
I dream half-a-dream
an when moon begin to glow
I half-caste human being
cast half-a-shadow
but yu must come back tomorrow
wid de whole of yu eye
an de whole of yu ear
an de whole of yu mind.

an I will tell yu
de other half
of my story.

This is a poem about asserting your identity against others who would ‘bring you down’.   John Agard was born in Guyana in 1949, with a Caribbean father and a Portuguese mother (he is of mixed race).   In 1977, he moved to Britain, where he became angry with people who referred to him as ‘half-caste’.   Realising that most people who say this do so without thinking about what it really means, he tells off people who use this term without thinking.

The poem starts by sarcastically ‘apologising’ for being half-caste – ‘Excuse me standing on one leg I’m half-caste’.   He is not really apologising.  

 The next section of the poem argues that mixing colours in art, weather and symphonies does not make a half-thing

He writes: ‘I half-caste human being cast half-a-shadow’ – here, ‘half-a-shadow’ has a sinister vampire-like tone, and the author seems to be pointing out that by using the word half-caste, people are saying that he is not really human, but inferring that there is something sub-human, even evil about him.

 He finishes by saying: ‘but yu must come back tomorrow wid … de whole of yu mind’ – here he is pointing out that it is us who have been thinking with only half-a-brain when we thoughtlessly use the word ‘half-caste’.   In this way, he challenges the readers to change their thinking, and come up with a better word.

 He uses short lines (e.g. ‘Excuse me’) and almost no punctuation (he uses ‘/’ instead of a full stop) to convey the direct and confrontational nature of the message.   It makes the poem go quickly so it feels like someone ‘kicking off’ at you.
He repeats key phrases such as ‘Explain yuself’ (four times) and ‘haaaalf-caste’ to hammer home his message.

 

The poem does not rhyme, but the words do have a Caribbean rhythm which is reinforced by the repetition of phrases like: ‘Wha yu mean’ and: ‘de whole of’; this reminds you of Caribbean limbo dancing and sense of rhythm.

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