The Public Square is Morally Empty – Garnet Roper

Book Launch at The United Theological College of The West Indies
Howard Gregory, Journey to the Promised Land: Theological Reflections by Neville deSouza on Jamaica’s Journey

Lady Rheima Hall, Archbishop of the Province of the West Indies, Most Rev. Dr. Howard Gregory, Mrs. Iona deSouza, widow of the late Lord Bishop Neville deSouza, the distinguish leadership of the Anglican Communion, Dr. Oral Thomas and the members of the UTCWI community, other members of the clergy, Sisters and Brothers all, Good evening, I am deeply honoured to have been asked to give this address at the launch of this most important work.

Allow me to pay tribute to Dr. Gregory on three counts.  First I salute his appointment as the Archbishop of the Province of the West Indies and to say how proud I am to say I know him and even more so to have worked and shared fellowship with him.  Archbishop Gregory, We receive your honour on behalf of the Jamaican church, our collective redemptive presence. I wish also to pay tribute to Archbishop Gregory for this fine work, Journey to the Promised Land. I saw this work coming the moment I attended the funeral services for the late Anglican Lord Bishop of Jamaica, The Rt. Rev. Neville deSouza. Dr. Gregory’s sermon at that funeral service, included generous references to these 20 Synod charges that were delivered between 1980 and 2000.  I pay tribute to Dr. Gregory’s scholarship and diligence and his careful framing of the historical context out of which the reflections contained in this work have emerged.  Thirdly, I celebrate Archbishop Gregory’s courage which by now ought to have been legendary: I myself have paid dearly for supporting and expressing ideas that were similar to positions taken by Dr.. Gregory.  The recent statement on abortion by the Synod was carefully nuanced and crafted but still courageous enough to break ranks with the American church in these parts.  But the courage about which I am speaking is also the kindness extended to me by affording me a non-Anglican the opportunity to deliver these comments on the occasion of this book launch of Journey to the Promised Land. I am grateful to all of you but to Bishop Gregory, in particular, for taking a risk on me.

I have long admired the work of the lateLord Bishop Neville deSouza, I was flattered to know that he not only knew my name but my mother’s name and the name of my sister Paulette who worked as secretary to Bishop deSouza at the Anglican church house in Montego Bay.  I regard the late Anglican Lord Bishop as an iconic figure, independent, courageous and above the fray. To have had the happy privilege of transcribing the manuscript of these Synod Charges and now to address this book launch are together the privilege of a lifetime.

This work edited by Howard Gregory for which he has also contributed a very useful introduction; also includes a prologue written by Patrick Bryan; the Foreword is contributed by the Honorable Barbara Gloudon OJ. The Journey to the Promise Land is indeed a seminal work.  This work shows off the importance of what we do when we occupy the sacred desk.  This work represents deSouza as prophet as scholar and as prelate and pastor.  It is paradigmatic of the use that can be made of the ecclesial setting as space for moral reflection and contextual engagement.

In making my brief remarks this evening, I have framed them in response to a thesis statement by erudite Caribbean theologian, and now retired Pastor Rev Dr. Burchell Taylor, that the public square is morally empty. Taylor’s remark was a self-conscious reflection on the work of Richard John Neuhaus The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (1984).  Neuhaus’ work was a protest against the rigid separation of church and state in America that he said would result in the death of democracy. He argued that the public square ought to be occupied by competing moral visions of both the faith and non-faith or other faiths communities. Rather, the faith of persons and communities must be more compellingly related to the public arena. “The naked public square”–which results from the exclusion of popular values from the public forum–will almost certainly result in the death of democracy.  Neuhaus therefore warned of the danger of the vacuum when the Church avoids or is excluded from the public square, this will create a vacuum and will result in totalitarianism of one form or another.   

Neuhaus argues that the antidote to such a vacuum is a kind of political pluralism: a public square that is filled with a wide array of moral visions and actors. Religious ideas must be allowed in the public square, not simply out of fairness, but as undergirding moral visions that supply the ethical standards to which government is held accountable. Those committed to liberal democracy should embrace this pluralist vision.

What Burchell Taylor was arguing to which I am making reference is that we are now operating in such a vacuum.  My reflection on the work provided us today is to assert that Neville deSouza represented a voice and a presence, and in particular by the use he made of the annual Synod of the Anglican Church in Jamaica and the Province of the West Indies, ensured that no such vacuum existed.  As long as he was around the public square was not naked.  I am therefore going to call attention to the Synod charge given in 1984, the same year Neuhaus published the Naked Public Square.

I am treating as paradigmatic the deSouza’s courage, his craft as an exegete and preacher and the use he made of the occasion to engage a public discourse.  I am further suggesting that it is the general retreat from exegesis of the text of scripture and the text of experience, as well as retreat by preachers from the courage to be prophetic instead of only maintaining an inward looking perspective that has made the public square in Jamaica today morally empty. What often pre-dominates in the church nowadays, is instead of being prophets, we have put in its place roles such as entertainers and fundraisers. This has caused the public square to be morally naked in our time.

In that regard, I would like therefore to juxtapose the 1984 Synod Charge delivered by Lord Bishop Neville deSouza over against the charge of the naked public square.  This is an example of how not to leave the pubic square naked or morally empty. In order to put this sermon in its historical context, I must remind you that the 1984 Synod took place in the year following the US invasion of Grenada and the year following the PNP election boycott also in 1983 in which for the first time since Adult Suffrage, Jamaica had a one Party Parliament.  You might say Empire and its minion were in full and absolute control.  The 1984 Synod was attended by a very illustrious company, including, The Governor General, the Chief Justice, the Mayor and custodies. During that period the first half of the decade of the 1980s when the Caribbean Basin (pan) was invented by Ronald Reagan with Edward Seaga in tow, growing winter vegetables was the cause celeb in Jamaica and farmers were being encouraged to replace traditional cash crops and to focus instead on growing these exotic crops for export.  Also, another focus of public discourse was on gambling in particular, casino gaming as the panacea for the woes of the Jamaican economy.

As Bishop deSouza indicated, the Synod committee chose as the theme of the Synod, “Thy Kingdom Come”.  His chosen text was Revelation 11.  And he focused on the words, “The kingdoms of this world have become the Kingdom of our God and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever.  His presentation of the Lord’s prayer in speaking about the Kingdom of God, was theologically, exegetically and homiletically thoroughgoing and sound.  But the particular strength of the presentation was its contextuality and its hermeneutical imagination.  He discusses each petition of the Lord’s prayer in the service of the theses that prayer is activism, that prayer is organized around the purpose of bringing God’s Kingdom and doing God’s will . Prayer according to deSouza is seeking to know God’s will and seeking the grace to do God’s will.  According to deSouza, human beings cannot by their political action bring in God’s Kingdom, but may give witness to the coming Kingdom of God in its breaking into human history through Jesus Christ.  His sermon was not hostage to the ideologies of the cold war that had been the overwhelming contextual reality of the day.  The sermon offered critique and challenge to the policy options being pursued and contemplated while raising the prospect of the ideal.  The Kingdom of God is justice and justice according to deSouza,“is that state of communal life in which society is ordered that human beings within the social reality have access to those things which are pre-requisite for human survival, human freedom from anxiety of survival and free from anxiety, human possibility of moving forward to growth in intellect, will and spirit.  In other words, what we now call human flourishing.

For deSouza, the petition “Give us this day our daily bread” required us to cooperate with God in providing daily bread not just for ourselves but for the vulnerable.  As such we have to contemplate food security as the basic objective of our agricultural policy.  He argues in this telling paragraph:

In the new concept of agriculture in the Caribbean and Latin America, in relation to the United States of America, we are called to complement the agriculture of the North.  We are to grow winter products, and we are to grow fineries like—asparagus and these types of things which the tables of the North will need.  But it is stated in the ‘Santa Fe’ Document that we cannot produce, cheap enough our basic foods like, cereals, corn, and peas, and therefore these will have to be produced in the North.  We will produce for the tables of the North and we will take the foreign exchange which we earn and buy our basic foods from the North.

How can this policy be acceptable to a people who come into the presence of God and pray, “Give us this day our daily bread?”

Using the pulpit as a space for moral discourse in which the prophet speaks at one and the same time to the congregation and to the public square, indeed to the powers that be was the paradigm being laid down for us by Bishop  deSouza.  Policy was being critiqued in the church as church.

He used the petition “forgive us our trespasses,” to speak about the class alienation in the Jamaican society. He argued that forgiveness does not merely address personal guilt but the underlying causation of man’s alienation from God and from his neighbor. Forgiveness is complete therefore when it addresses our estrangement from each other.  He argued that the church must make itself the agent of this reconciliation. The petition for forgiveness is seeking therefore to break down the class division and class distinction and class separation in the society. It is to commit ourselves to learn from each other and to respect each other and to break down the barriers that separate us from each other, including gender barriers.

I believe that deSouza’s tour de force in that sermon is when he treated with the petition “lead us not into temptation.” To begin with we must notice that Bishop deSouza anticipated the conclusion arrived at by Pope Francis recently (35 years later) when the Roman Pontiff declared that from henceforth this petition should be rendered “do not allow us to fall into temptation”.   deSouza is more modest so rather than ruling, he merely stated his preference that the petition be rendered, “Save us in our time of trial.”  He regarded the challenge of Jamaica’s economic development as one such hour of trial. He suggested that the nation was yielding to the temptation and failing in the test rather than making the right long term choices for Jamaica’s economic development.

For deSouza the issue was whether or not Jamaica was merely a market place rather than a nation.  It is also whether or not we were going to build and support the nation’s economy so that together we would benefit from it, or whether each was to build their own kingdoms.  This is the context in which he offered a critique against lottery and casino gaming as the economic option being foisted on the nation.  Using the experience of what he saw in Atlantic City (with Casinos there in that City) he raised the following questions:

How can a nation hope to build itself on the sweat, conflicts and frustrations of other peoples?  How can we hope to build an economy that is worthwhile of the Kingdom of God on that? How can we deal with the nation’s problem by merely saying, let us start the lottery again?

This work from deSouza means that the Public Square needs not remain naked or morally empty.  In order to make our entrance as church into the public square we do not need in the first place to march, or mount protest. It may come to that some day and in some circumstances, but to mount protests needs not be our first order of business.  We do not need to position ourselves as lobby groups.   deSouza spoke to the public square from the church and while speaking to the church.  he spoke on behalf of the church, not as a mere talent but as Bishop and overseer of the church.  When he spoke, he was not an entertainer or a fundraiser.  He was a theologian, he was an exegete, he was a preacher and a pastor. He spoke with the clarity, courage and distance or independence of a prophet.

It remains for us to ask ourselves whether or not there is any insight in this work as to how the church might respond to two of the most pernicious spectres of evil (our hour of trial) facing the public square at this time, in a manner that ensures that the public square is not naked or morally empty.  The spectre of violence and the spectre of public corruption have not managed to move the needle of political accountability. The society is numb to it, to both violence and corruption.  What are the take aways from this work, Journey to the Promise Land: Theological Reflections by Neville deSouza on Jamaica’s Journey.  I will say the following: first the church has to respond as the church in the church, that is our first port of call. The pulpit is a space for contextual discourse. It is not a space to conduct our internecine rivalries and indulge our ecclesial vernacular.  It is for moral discourse and it is space to reflect theologically on the matters of moment in the society.  It is a task to be taken seriously. The scholarship and discipline and diligence must be in evidence throughout.  This is an impressive work from an impressive man whose discipline lives after him.  We must live up to the record and reputation of Neville deSouza.  We have watched how preaching has been mishandled in our time and become the preserve of mascots in our time.  We need to dig deep when we preach and to prepare more vigorously for the sake of the church and the community, so that the pubic square need not be naked.

In that regard, our reading strategies by which we read the text of the bible, and by the way, the bible is our most valuable resource in this struggle. But we must also learn to read the text of human experience, the lived realities of the people, the contextual issues.  We must familiarize ourselves and remain current with the multi-disciplinary approaches to aid us in reading the text that is our context. 

Secondly, at the same time, this calls for self-consciousness and deliberateness as we approach the public square: I call for the assertion of a vigorous and rigorous independence by the church.  The church ought to be independent of the agendas of others in the public square.  Sponsorship has distorted the witness of the church in the public square.  Far too often when the church speaks in the public square unlike the legacy that is in this work, the hand is the hand of Esau, but the voice is the voice of Jacob. Those who sponsor the church or those from whom the church is seeking patronage are the ones determining the agenda sections of the church are pursuing.  Political endorsement is a double-edged sword, there is a sting in the tail.  There was recently in the newspaper the proud announcement by some of the coming into their own and getting invitation to spaces occupied by the movers and shakers because of certain endorsements. You must know the difference between when people are seeking to partner with you and when their goal is manipulation or to use you.  You must know when people only want to use.  Partnerships are useful, there will be from time to time the coincidence of objectives and in those times we must learn how to work with others. But above all we must preserve the integrity of what we are and for what we stand.

Allow me to end with some of the closing words from Bishop  deSouza’s 1984 sermon, Thy Kingdom Come, he said:

The Kingdom is God’s, because only God can create a kingdom because everything else that seeks to set up a kingdom, every person who seeks to set up a kingdom is not of God because they have no power apart from God’s. 

Human beings only have authority, that which God has given them, a power of attorney, to use authority on His behalf, but they are accountable, and, therefore, no human being has power because all power belongs to God, and God is glorified not only when we sing his praises but when we do his will. … the glory of men resides in the glory of God and the fulfillment of God’s purpose.   

I implore and encourage you to buy this book and read this book.  It will remind you of what was but more how what was and what is have remained the same.  You will see how insightful and forward-looking Neville deSouza was.  What it has reminded me of is how the church can place itself in a position to provide a moral voice in the public square indeed to hold the public square morally accountable. Perhaps Neville can inspire us to do it again. Amen.

Rev. Dr. Garnett Roper
President, Jamaica Theological Seminary

June 18, 2019