Sunday, 14 September 2008

The shameful face of Irish racism

Challenging racism, affirming diversity: Archbishop Desmond Tutu with the Discovery Gospel Chorir in Saint George’s and Saint Thomas’s Church during his visit to Ireland in 2005.

Patrick Comerford

Racial Justice Sunday: Sunday 14 September 2008

Saint George and Saint Thomas Church, Cathal Brugha Street, Dublin : Romans 14: 1-12; Matthew 18: 21-35

May all we think say and do be to the honour and glory of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

If you were watching television last Monday, then like me you may have been engrossed by the RTÉ documentary, Where Was Your Family During the Famine? Three Irish people of varying degrees of fame or celebrity status – Irish Times journalist John Waters, the economist Eddie Hobbs who fronts his own television programmes, and the model Jasmine Guinness, a member of the famous brewing family – set out to find the answer to a question lost in time: what happened to their family during the famine?

This was an ambitious programme, introducing a new RTÉ television series, mixing genealogy with popular history, the Irish version of Who Do You Think You Are?, with six Irish celebrities tracing their roots.

Now, celebrity and fame and family trees, Guinness heiresses and financial and media high-flyers, may not be the sort of things you may expect to divert your attention on Racial Justice Sunday. Celebrity and media fame, and the hunt for famous ancestors, at first appear to have little to do with racial justice and challenging racism in Ireland today. But popular history programmes like last Monday’s help to dispel popular myths that help to perpetuate and endorse social injustice.

For example, Monday’s programme showed that while most of us think the Great Famine was only a disaster for the poor and landless, it actually had an impact on every type of family in Ireland in the middle of the 19th century, from the poor landless labourers to the rich butter merchants of Cork and the titled aristocrats with their landed estates. No family escaped the consequences, socially, economically and politically. Within a generation or two the population of this island had almost been halved, either through death or though immigration. And every family suffered.

Secondly, there is the myth that the famine was the beginning of the great tidal waves of Irish migration. But, in fact, there have always been immigrants to Ireland and emigrants from Ireland in every generation, in every century, and the famine also caused large-scale, widespread migration even within this island.

Alongside the migration myths is the idea that our Irish kith and kin were warmly welcomed wherever we went in the aftermath of the famine. Some aspects of this myth will be dispelled in yet another two part television documentary for RTÉ. Death or Canada tells the story of thousands of Irish emigrants who were exiled en-masse in 1847 and in a deluge almost swamped the new city of Toronto – 30,000 Irish economic refugees invaded a city of 20,000 people, then just a decade old.

And then there are all the dangerous myths about Irish identity and our supposed Celtic roots. But Blood of the Irish, an RTÉ documentary presented by Diarmuid Gavin, tracks the origins of the Irish people from east Africa, through the Mediterranean basin and on to central Europe.

Isn’t it fascinating in the Ireland of today to learn that our origins as a people are to be found in Africa, the Mediterranean basin and central Europe? And isn’t it humbling to realise that the brothers and sisters of our grandparents and great-grandparents survived because of economic migration, that they were often welcomed in the strange countries they landed in, but that they could also become a deluge that threatened to swamp and destroy modern cities?

How quickly we have forgotten our origins. How quickly we have forgotten our family stories. How quickly we have forgotten how the Irish abroad survived because they migrated. And also that we survived here because they went. Their suffering allowed us to survive, allowed the Irish economy and those who stayed behind to survive.

How would we respond today if we heard the real stories of the racist discrimination, economic exploitation and social injustice they faced wherever they went in Britain, in Australia, in North America, in many other places.

If those brothers and sisters of our grandparents and great-grandparents ever had a chance to return to the Ireland they left, would they have been welcome? And who would have been in need of forgiveness and who would have been willing to offer free, open, unconditional and non-judgmental forgiveness? Those who felt forced to leave? Those who remained behind and felt abandoned? Those who remained behind and prospered?

Those key, central themes of discrimination and forgiveness are closely inter-connected in our Lectionary readings this morning.

Yet, as a society, is Ireland today – the Ireland that is entertained on the stories of celebrities created by our recent economic prosperity – willing to speak out against discrimination, while at the same time being too willing to accept so many of our popular myths and stories that isolate and denigrate our ethic minorities and continue to marginalise and isolate them?

The Apostle Paul, in his Letter to the Romans, warns the Christians in the Church in Rome against discriminating, against discriminating against fellow Christians, and against discriminating against non-Christians, and against discrimination against people for a whole variety of other reasons too apart from religion: the food we eat, the festivals and holidays we keep, our lifestyle, and, at death, our funeral and burial customs.

We are all brothers and sisters, not because we live similar lifestyles, eat the same food, or even because we share similar belief structures and ways of worshipping God. No, we are sisters and brothers because we are all, each and every one of us, made by God: a God who welcomes us.

And we must not discriminate against others because it’s going to bring us benefits. How often I hear people arguing against discrimination because it will help introduce social calm, create a good economic environment, build social solidarity.

But for the Apostle Paul, we must be on our guard against discrimination because God does not discriminate. We should welcome all people, in all their varieties and with all their differences, because God welcomes them – the Greek word in the original text conveys the idea of welcoming and receiving, in other words, not merely tolerating the presence of, but bringing into the household people who are different, people who find us different.

If the Apostle Paul was writing to the Church in Dublin, in Ireland, today, he would be warning us against the dangers of not welcoming the Africans, Central Europeans, people from the Mediterranean and the Indians Asians among us, because God welcomes and receives them, as well as us.

Welcoming and receiving where? Into the Kingdom of God! And if the Church is to be a symbol, a sign, an icon, a sacrament of the Kingdom of God, then we cannot just give a wet handshake to people we once saw as being different, we cannot just welcome and receive them, we have to show society how to welcome and receive them, because that’s how God builds the Kingdom of God.

And then when we turn to today’s Gospel story, I find it so relevant to the Ireland of today: the post-famine, post-Celtic Ireland, but nonetheless the Ireland that seems to have turned true values on their head. We are obsessed with celebrity, status, income, and all the trappings of prosperity. But, according to Amárach Research in the last week, while we profess to have positive attitudes to immigration, we are willing to send our immigrants back if the economy gets worse.

What this says to me is we want to hold onto all we have even if this means sending back our immigrants: not just those who worked hard on building sites, built up their own businesses, added to the variety of our city streets, supermarket shelves, music, drama and the variety of languages and lunchboxes in our schoolyards, but also those who came here because of genuine difficulties at home.

Of course there were Irish emigrants who left to build on their skills and to grow richer on foreign shores. But the famine emigrants were, by and large, economic migrants who fall into the category of immigrants that most of us would be happy to send home now in these straitened economic times.

How that Amárach Research survey makes us look like the slave who had been forgiven, who soon forgot, and who then went on to enslave others.

When some people use words like “deluge” and “swamp”, we need to be reminded about those 30,000 Irish refugees in Toronto. When we talk about sending people home, we need to remember the number of children during the famine who died alone and were buried in workhouse pits.

When we hear the story of the slave who became the slave master, just take a look at the conditions and wages of many of our immigrants who work as casual labourers, demeaned cleaners, as cheap counter staff, and ask will their conditions of modern slavery be relieved or become more pitiable with the proposals to amalgamate and run-down government agencies with a mandate to investigate, challenge and eradicate discrimination, unfair employment and injustice?

Racism is on the rise throughout Europe, most notably in Italy. But let me be forthright about my own country, let me blunt about this Ireland.

We live in a society where racism is officially sanctioned, approved and legislated for. In a society where a Nigerian priest, visiting a family member legally, is stopped at Dulin airport on Tuesday night, his passport confiscated, arrested, taken to prison, forced to stand naked in front of other prisoners, and served with a deportation order ... all because officials don’t understand the way Nigerians use, the way we as Christians should use terms like brother and cousin. The Garda National Immigration Bureau says everything that happened on Tuesday night was lawful and appropriate. We only know of this one event because the man is a priest and because this has caused a diplomatic incident.

What about the countless others we don’t hear about ... humiliated, stripped, deported, because they’re black, Roma, because they come from countries where the Irish originated ... East Africa, the Mediterranean or Central Europe? The state says it is legal and appropriate. I say I am ashamed and I ask forgiveness.

At the beginning of our Gospel reading, we are told to be prepared to forgive “seventy-seven times.” The original Greek says seventy times seven. Why? Because the number seven is supposed to be perfect, and “seventy times seven” represents infinity, what is limitless and unfathomable.

Here Jesus is directly reversing the revenge of Lamech in the Old Testament who wanted revenge seventy times seven (Genesis 4: 24). Jesus’ teaching is an obvious reversal of the law of revenge found in Genesis 4: 24, which says: “If Cain is avenged seven fold, truly Lamech seventy-seven fold.”

We are to forgive, and to forgive perfectly, limitlessly, just like God forgives. And this applies not just to forgiveness but to how we make sure people do not feel indebted to us.

The Greek word for forgiveness here means to “let go.” We are to “let go” of feelings of resentment, rage, wrath, revenge, retaliation, retribution when someone has hurt you or me.

If we start thinking people are taking our jobs, or our place in society, we need not so much to forgive them but to let them go, let them be, let them not become the victims of our feelings of resentment or our desire to control who should benefit from the diminishing financial benefits and returns available to our society.

We should let go of those feelings, not just now, but seven times seventy, for the rest of our lives. Not because in return God might reward us with the return of economic prosperity. But because that’s what the Kingdom of God is like, that is what God is like, and therefore that is what the Church should be like and what the Church should be calling society to be like.

If we do not challenge the racism and discrimination that I fear could quickly gather pace in Ireland under the present political and economic circumstances, then how can we convince others that we believe in Christ and in the Kingdom he proclaimed?

And so, may all we think say and do be to the honour and glory of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Canon Patrick Comerford, Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, is the author of Embracing Difference. This sermon was preached at a Service for Racial Justice Sunday at 11.15 a.m. on Sunday 14 September 2008, in Saint George’s and Saint Thomas’s Church, Cathal Brugha Street, Dublin. The service was followed by a meal, prepared by parishioners of the Indian Orthodox Church.