Thought for the Week – Revolution part 3: Beyond Commemoration?

Deborah Colvin discusses the Season of Creation, focusing on themes of justice, ecological activism, and the legacy of Quobna Ottobah Cugoano in the context of the church’s role in addressing issues of power, corruption, and environmental crisis.

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Church Window Mask

The rallying cry for this Season of Creation 2023 is ‘Let Justice roll down like a river, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream’, God’s howl of outrage and fury at the Israelites as channelled by Amos – and if you track back a few verses you can also hear the Lord screaming ‘I hate, I despise your feasts! I cannot stand the stench of your solemn assemblies’.

Our own ‘Thought for the Week’ has also hosted some direct challenges this month. Beatrice shares a harrowing personal story of Indonesian pastors confronting deforestation. Diane reminds us that justice is for ALL creatures and points to the courage-unto-death of some English revolutionaries. Penelope insists we look our unjust and ecocidal economic system squarely in the eye. I feel really grateful for and strengthened by these voices from the pews, our ‘priesthood of all believers’, contributing to a justice-centred communal theology for St James’s.

I am also so grateful for the spirit of Quobna Ottobah Cugoano which is clearly abroad during this season of commemoration of his baptism 250 years ago. I continue to revisit his extraordinary book calling for the abolition of ‘slavery and commerce of the human species’ with ever-deepening respect for his radicalising, polemical anger; his insistence that an evil, dehumanising system must fall; and that the ‘powers and principalities’ that maintain it must be confronted. He is clear that ‘in a Christian government, politics is corrupted both by the rich and influential people who go into it, and by the lobbying of others who want to retain their economic advantage. The corruption of politics continues without redress or consequence.’

A group of SJP activists recently joined Christian Climate Action on a pilgrimage of learning and prayer round the parish. Our theme was ‘Shining a light on ecocidal capitalism and praying for change’. We visited the headquarters of several institutions that drive fossil fuel extraction globally, including those who provide the equity and greenwashing façade that enable this exploitative industry to continue. We know there must be no more fossil fuels produced if the next human generation is to have a liveable future, and yet, as some of us were shocked to learn, many who drive this industry from our own parish continue to exploit current reserves and lobby hard for the right to seek new ones, with the backing of government. Without redress or consequence. I think if Quobna was here his rebuke would resound to the top of Regent St and the ends of Pall Mall.

Some pilgrims pointed out their concern for the people who work in these institutions – they are just people, like all of us, they don’t want to destroy the world. And what about the abuse of power, corruption and racism of the church? Walter Wink addresses some of this with his analysis of the institutions that grow up around people. He says they are ‘like fallen angels, created good but warped into patterns of domination and control. These are the powers and principalities which shape so much of human existence…. they have a life of their own, beyond the individuals constituting them’. Far from absolving people of responsibility though, this analysis demands that individuals and collectives, inside and outside of institutions, take responsibility for transforming, or if necessary, dismantling structures of domination and control.

How will we at St James’s nurture the spirit of Cugoano – personally, collectively, institutionally – in our time of ecological cataclysm and mass extinction? How will we use commemoration as a springboard into the work his courage and vision demands in our time? In her Thought for the Week, Natasha Beckles has this call-out for us ‘As a church, my hope is that you can draw strength, courage and even strategy by remembering him, so that this season of marking his faith and work will have an impact on how you now foster, finance and call forth justice work and leadership from within your congregation.’

To ‘foster’ speaks of enabling, care and protection to me. Quobna’s voice was fostered in a church with slave owners in the pews. How will we foster each other’s voices in a church literally surrounded by extreme wealth and unimaginable power, the drivers of ecocidal capitalism? Finance obviously wields extraordinary influence in our neoliberal times, including unrivalled power to corrupt. Money carries its history and the power structures it creates with it. What happens if we look at our financing through a Quobna lens, with his acute awareness that ‘men of activity and affluence, by whatever way they are possessed of riches or have acquired a greatness of such property, they are always preferred to take the lead in matters of government…. always endeavour to push themselves on to get power and interest in their favour’?  And to ‘call forth’ requires education and therefore empowerment of this worshipping community to build a future together that is on fire with justice-seeking.

Conversation is called for! In this church it is sometimes said that ‘there is no conversation that can’t be had’. Sometimes we ask ourselves what future generations, looking back on us, will ask with horror ‘what were they thinking of?!’ You can see in the newsletter that there’s space for this conversation, animated by the spirit of Cugoano, on 22nd October after the service.

Finally, I don’t know if Annie Dillard knows about Cugoano, but she seems to be a kindred spirit:

‘On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.’

Come along on 22nd October. Bring your crash helmet.

Deborah Colvin