Thought for the Week – We can stand up now

Sermon preached at St James’s Piccadilly 20 August 2023 at the dedication of the commemorative plaque to Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, by the Rt Revd Dr Rosemarie Mallett.

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Matthew 15.21-28

Good morning church.

What a day of celebration this is for the church and for the memory of Quobna (Tuesday born) Ottobah Cugoano, who was baptised with the name John Stuart on this day 250 years ago. But as we celebrate what must have been at the time, a rather unusual baptism, we must also reflect on his pre-story, of being trafficked and enslaved, and the circumstances then and now for people like Cugoano, who face discrimination, ostracism or oppression because they were/are deemed to be ‘different’ to the ‘norm’.

After migrating to this country as a child I faced racism for the first time. Growing older I become aware of some of the reasons why people like me encountered racism, but Burning Spear’s penetrating song, “Slavery Days”, challenged me to dig deeper and find out more. And with that knowledge, it is quite hard to imagine the baptism of a young black man at the font in this church, at a time when Britain was still very much enjoined in the Transatlantic Slave Trade – trading black Africans and reaping vast profits from that trade through the plantation economy in the Caribbean and the Americas and from their investments in the Royal African Company and the East India Company. Indeed, it has been argued that Britain’s modern industrial economy, financial and banking systems, 2 great cities and social and educational institutions arose not just from the innovations and capabilities of British industrialists, investors, and philanthropists but actually on the backs of African slaves and workers on those plantations abroad.

Those who were central to the making of modern wealth and power justified the trade in enslaved Africans by establishing a hierarchy of races which asserted that the “brutishness of ‘negroes’ and their large number” made it necessary, to enact laws for the government and treatment of them overseas which were very different from the laws of England, the understanding of the difference perhaps expressed in the popular tune of the day, Rule Britannia. Those laws, enacted to rule the enslaved Africans, were repealed by the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, which took effect on August 1st, 1834, a day commemorated and celebrated as Emancipation Day in the Caribbean.

For Cugoano, his baptism would have been his moment of spiritual emancipation, as he was freed from death to sin and filled with the promise of a new life in Christ, But what courage it must have taken for this young black man, formerly trapped, traded and enslaved, to be standing at the font, many years before that Abolition Act was passed, surrounded, I presume, by people who looked not at all like him?

Through his baptism, he and they were joined together as one for he, like they, had put on Christ. By his baptism, Cugoano, now enfranchised into the Christian community, should have been acknowledged and recognised as equal in the eyes of all fellow Christians.

At his baptism, Cugoano was also christened with a new name, John Stuart, perhaps named after the prime minister of the day. In the culture that he had been torn from, your given name spoke volumes of who you were before you even could speak. So in the name he chose/was given did those around him see something of potential in this young man, the name a blessing bestowed, or did they think he was reaching high beyond his station? Of course, we know that Cugoana was reaching much higher than earthly ambition, for through baptism he was reaching far beyond the slave status forced upon him because of his ethnic identity and skin colour, reaching to God who created all people in his image. Indeed, he would spend his life arguing against the categorization of people by race and fighting for the abolition of slavery throughout the world.

In his book, Humbly Submitted to the Inhabitants of Great Britain, he challenged the British people as to how a Christian nation could enslave others and appeal to the values of justice, liberty and equality found in the bible.

This former enslaved man called on them to repent and to change their ways in the practice of their faith. He took as his foundation the Christ who did see the other, the discriminated, the oppressed, and who came to liberate, heal and bless all. Maybe he had heard the story of the Christ who blessed a nameless Canaanite girlchild because of her mother’s persistence and faithfulness.

In our gospel reading today the woman has no given name, just a gender-ethnic-geographic locator which identified her lower status contextually. In the story, like Cugoano, she too is reaching beyond her earthly status, appealing not to the Jewish rabbi but to the God-in-Christ to free her daughter from the mental torture she was trapped in.

Our nameless woman was certainly not a slave, free to come and go as she pleased, and it seemed to speak to whom she pleased. And yet she too was bound up in a system which demarcated hierarchy and status by ethnicity, creed and gender. She was a Canaanite, a ‘pagan’, ritually unclean. And yet, surrounded by those who were not like her, this mother whose love for her daughter knew no bounds, reached out beyond societal strictures and courageously approached Jesus.

The response, when she did receive one, was at best caustic, at worst contemptuous. This bold woman found herself rejected, othered, because of her cultural status.

This passage confounds many. Why this reaction from Jesus? Even the disciples seemed surprised. Maybe like Nathaniel, he saw her long before she came to him, and his response was to test her, to see how she would respond. I can tell you it didn’t feel like that to her, but she didn’t lose heart. She was not broken, with bowed head, lowered eyes and soulful cries”. She looks this Jewish male teacher straight in the eye and persists in arguing her case with wit and determination, any fears replaced with hope. As she said, ‘even the dogs could eat’, she highlighted that there was a space created for everyone to receive from God and for all people to have the right to stand before the throne of God. Her response was a challenge to the contextual cultural ecosystem of patriarchy, and ethnocentrism and she calls this man Jesus to account for the mercy and the healing she knew he had power over.

Was his salvific mission being called into question as he was asked if his healing, his mercy, and his blessings could only reach a particular group of people or was he being reminded that his purpose, authority and power was to save the whole world? Jesus tells the woman that by her faith her daughter has been made well, freed of her illness.

Cugoano and the Canaanite woman were both foreigners, outsiders in their his and her-stories, and both cried out before God for recognition, acceptance and liberation. They both had an innate sense of the goodness and love of God, were nourished by his word, guided by his spirit and through God-in-Christ saw freedom, promise and hope. Cugoano, in his argument for the abolition of slavery, insists that everybody has agency and power and can act from within their own experiences and in their own way to make a difference in the world, to disrupt the status quo. This was the agency that the Canaanite woman drew upon, the ability to speak and to ask.

Through their speech and actions, both Cugoano and the Canaanite woman moved beyond social expectations of them, maintaining their dignity as they disdained the racist ideology and ethnocentric theology of their days. Despite societal restrictions of gender, ethnicity, colour, and creed, they used the agency they had, their words, to ask different questions of the world around them, challenging injustice.

We would do well to not only listen to them but to use our agency at this moment to speak up for all those whom we believe struggle in this generation with any form of disenfranchisement, and call out injustice wherever it manifests.

My friends, for too many people slavery days are still here and too many people continue to face discrimination, ostracism or oppression. How do our minds dwell on Christ and be not conformed to the world as it is, so that in our speaking and our actions we too can disturb our listeners, and not only disturb but spur agency, action and change?

When, as Lorna Goodison pens in her Emancipation poem The Last to be Set Free, will those we speak up for be able to say,

“We can stand up now. Our day of Jubilee a come”.