BISHOP OF JAMAICA & THE CAYMAN ISLANDS AT THE 151st ANNUAL SYNOD
OF THE DIOCESE OF JAMAICA AND THE CAYMAN ISLANDS IN THE CATHEDRAL OF ST. JAGO DE LA VEGA, SPANISH TOWN ON APRIL 19, 2022
Theme: “God’s Church for God’s World: Breaking the Silence, Re-imagining a Fractured Nation“
Primary Text – Isaiah 62:1-5
I invite the engagement of your imagination as we enter the experience and context of a people who have gone through the demise of their once proud nation status and have been taken into exile by the invading Babylonians. Those who were deemed to have something to offer to their Babylonian captors, whether of brain or brawn, were physically removed to Babylon, whereas those who were deemed to be weak, aged, or of no particular value, were left behind in their now ravaged land. While some, taken into exile, may have prospered in some way and intermarried with the people of the hosting culture, the majority in exile and those left back home, were demoralized by their situation.
With the passage of time, generations born in exile did not know the good old days of their proud nation, as was the case for those left in the home country. However, they had heard the stories told of the glory days, and of how God had been active in their history as the agent of liberation for his people, and that God would surely act, even now, to realize his work of liberation. They waited, but God did not seem either interested in their plight or still able to do the things of which they had heard. Now, their sense of hope has been dashed and they are experiencing deterioration in their morale and finding it difficult to cultivate a sense of hope or even to entertain a dream about a positive future.
One of the things that we should know from contemporary sociological and anthropological study is that communities that are victims of such an experience, or who see themselves in this negative light, get locked in a sense of misery, not seeing anything of their potential, and so get trapped in a cycle of dependence, or turn on each other like crabs in a barrel, leading to such things as violence, drug abuse, and self-deprecation.
It should not surprise us that one of our own Senators, Senator Saphire Longmore, who is also a psychiatrist, in a contribution to the debate regarding the extension of States of Emergency, offered a reflection on some causative factors relating to the high level of crime and violence in our society. She advanced the notion that there are two pillars or tenets which define us as human beings and are expressive of our humanity, namely family and spirituality, arguing that the deficits in these two dimensions among our people contribute significantly to the manifestations of violence we are witnessing every day, and which have become a part of our identity as a nation. At one point, she concludes that “Our spirituality enables us to appreciate our inherent sense of value and worth, unfortunately, this is increasingly lacking in our Jamaican society”. So, where people’s worth and value are diminished, and their spirituality is waning or ineffective, violence is an ever-present option, as is silence and a sense of powerlessness.
Advocacy for Liberation
So, from whence shall come a voice of advocacy and liberation that can articulate the deep pain and yearning of people, and become a source of motivation? This would be the voice with the potential for breaking the silence inherent in the situation.
It is in such a context that the prophet Isaiah as it were clears his throat and begins to speak, as recorded in the first reading from Isaiah 62. There is, however, an important moment in the life of Isaiah before he speaks, and that is his acknowledgement of his humanity and the common humanity which he shares with the people of his community. It is that which allows him to see that there is something dehumanizing in the current experience of his people. You can only see the dehumanizing in life if you have a sense of your own worth as a person created and loved by God the creator. That awareness then becomes the connecting bond or thread which, in the case of Isaiah, leads to his response to the condition of his dehumanized brothers and sisters, and which becomes evident when he begins to speak – “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips”. That, my sisters and brothers, is the foundation for community, whether in the church or the world. So, he does not attack his fellow citizens with violence, as we are seeing in our national context today, or seek to gain advantage by pulling down, or seek advantage at their expense.
Instead, as a person of faith, and called of God, reflecting the dimension of spirituality of which Senator Longmore has made mention, he addresses himself to God. Without entering into the intricacies of biblical interpretation, we may recall that Isaiah had an experience in chapter 6, in which he had a vision of God in the temple, which was awesome and overpowering. But in that incident, the lips and the voice as instruments of the messenger of God are somehow touched by the divine.
Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!
And the text continues;
Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out”. Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”
If then there is one guided by the authority and imperative to speak in that context, then it certainly was Isaiah.
Isaiah breaks his silence with a lament addressed to God. It has been asserted that one characteristic of prophetic messengers of God is that they must have the capacity to empathize with human hurt and alienation – individual and social. So Isaiah is now embedded among a people who are wondering about God’s seeming absence or indifference to their situation.
In our national context in which crime is overwhelming us to the extent that it has been labeled the second pandemic, one Minister of National Security, in apparent exasperation and desperation, once indicated that the nation needs to turn to prayer for divine intervention, and his utterance was met by ridicule from various quarters. And yet, the prophet Isaiah does precisely what has been ridiculed in our context, that is, he turns to God, but not to simply hand over the situation to God in a state of resignation. He begins by demanding that God do something about the situation. Now, for many Christians, this kind of response amounts to blasphemy. And yet, this is expressive of the biblical faith in a living God who shares a passionate and compassionate heart-to-heart relationship and conversation with His people, even in their moments of desperation, hopelessness and defeat, and, when the last flicker of light seems about to go out, and they wonder if he has lost the power of his right hand.
A feature to note here is that Isaiah was not about pleading his personal cause with God from a position of self-interest, but that of the people of Israel. So the text begins – “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch”. For Isaiah, the only thing that can make Zion’s light shine once more is God’s action and intervention, and so he dares to hold God accountable.
In the case of Israel, their perception of reality was coloured by their experience of the exile. One of the things to recall, however, is that while the exilic experience was what was shaping the response of the people on which Isaiah was focusing, nevertheless, the exilic experience was not the same for everyone, as some had gone and settled in Babylon with some measure of prosperity, while those who were left behind were the poor and the most vulnerable, creating two different lenses from which people would view the reality of the situation. We can be in no doubt as to whose situation Isaiah was reflecting. We in our situation should be in no doubt about the existence of these vastly different and socially and economically iniquitous worlds, lenses and perspectives from which life in our nation is experienced and perceived, and which preceded the COVID-19 pandemic, but which it has served to highlight.
Fracturing Impact of Crime and Violence
So, what then is the nature of our experience and context? As we approach the 60th anniversary celebration of our independence, what gauge can we use to measure where our people see themselves/ourselves at this time? There is no question that the dominant and official paradigm for assessing and determining the progress and direction of the nation is performance in relation to economic indicators, and certainly not those that reveal the widening gulf between the affluent and the poor in the nation, and which has been the case before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. And yet, I want to suggest that there are deep systemic issues which are staring us in the face, and will potentially compromise or undo the current focus on economics as the core value of the society. So, here I want to suggest a shift from the what questions, that can be addressed with statistics and material measures, to the who questions, a qualitative measure, asking ourselves, Who are we today, and who are we becoming as a nation?
When we assemble today, we declare ourselves to be the Church in the context of a nation in which the murder rate per hundred thousand is probably the highest in the world, running at approximately 40 per hundred thousand, way beyond international measures, and being committed in ways that are seemingly more vicious by the day. Have we forgotten God’s calling of Cain to account in Genesis 4:9-10:
“Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” 10 And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!
My brothers and sisters, this land of ours is soaked in blood from one end to the other, no longer dismissible as something that happens in inner-city communities and of little concern to those beyond their boundaries, as was done in the past. At the same time, we hear some pastors offering as their Christian response the resumption of hanging as an inducement of fear and a deterrent in the minds of prospective murderers as the solution.
Often, the issue of crime and violence is addressed in terms of anger and violence as a historical legacy, and, while there is some legitimacy to this perspective, I suggest that it misses the point as to the fracturing impact it has had on people’s sense of selfhood and the consequent value which the perpetrators of violence place on their own lives and those of others. When a twenty-year-old can begin to reflect on how many of his peers are already dead while expressing the view that he does not expect to live through his twenties, what is it saying about the value of the human person and the culture of death and nihilism in which our youngsters, and indeed, many of us are caught? And let us not be distracted by the bashment funerals as they are not Christian celebration of life, death, and resurrection, but they only give legitimacy to this culture of death and nihilism.
What does it say about us when parents are encouraging their children to take weapons to school, supposedly to protect themselves while on the way to and from school, and are surprised to discover what happens when the weapons come into play in school resulting in the stabbing death of classmates, as part of the same journey? Are we shocked to see that, on consecutive days, we hear of school children being stabbed to death by members of their cohort? As a matter of fact, when last did you take up the daily newspaper or listen to the electronic media and not read of several shootings and murders having occurred the previous day or night? Or is it that you have become desensitized to this reality?
Some weeks ago,there was an article written by journalist Lloyd B. Smith entitled “Scamming and obeah: A volatile cocktail”, in which he reflected on the gruesome fatal stabbing of a 16-year-old male student in Trelawny by another, allegedly as a result of a quarrel surrounding a stolen guard ring. He reflected also on the possible connection between lotto scamming and the use of obeah to protect its perpetrators.
While disclaiming any knowledge of any criminal connection in the cited case, he does point out that, in some instances, parents are providing guard rings for their teenage boys because of the treacherous school environment as well as the perilous society in which they live. It may well be, too, that the guard ring will protect them from being obeahed or adversely affected in any way, including their academic performance. And so, with the assistance of some parents, scammers and other students have been relying on the occult for their safety, survival, and protection. So much for quality parenting and for Jamaica that boasts of being a Christian country with the most churches per square mile, as parents provide weapons for students to take to school and guard rings connected with the occult to protect them and keep them in safety.
As it relates to dynamics affecting our girls, we take note of the fact that just over a week ago the Child Protection and Family Services Agency shared with the nation that over the last five years some 1,500 of the children who have been reported missing have still not been found; and bear in mind that these are statistics that relate primarily to our girls.
Corruption, Social Division, and Alienation
As God’s Church for God’s world, we live in a context in which it appears that irregularities and corruption with no consequence for offenders have become an endemic feature of our national life. So there is the unabated culture of corruption which is creating a deepening spirit of malaise and indifference among many citizens who believe that they can have no confidence in the system of governance to change and make things better. Isn’t it amazing how every report or investigation carried out by the Auditor General or the Integrity Commission into the conduct of public officials or institutions is always received as misinformation, misguided, did not allow the subject of the investigation a fair opportunity to respond, or was just “a witch hunt”? What is increasingly evident is that the enactment and retention of the gag clause in the Integrity Commission Act, Section 53 (3), does nothing to build confidence and transparency in our people, and I suggest it is not serving the interest of the people of this nation.
Likewise, we are the Church in the context in which indiscipline is rampant and unrestrained, evident in our social interactions and most evident on the roads. This notion of a free-for-all and the disregard for all laws of the road is reminiscent of a condition manifested in the life of biblical Israel which describes life in a similar condition of lawlessness, Judges 21:25 – In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.
However, I want to suggest that what we are seeing as sheer indiscipline is a manifestation of a greater malady which is the increasing level of social division and alienation, manifesting itself in a level of mistrust among us and a clear signal of the need for cohesion as a society, reconciliation and some truth telling, and which I believe will take more than good policing or the instruments of governance to make a reality.
Yes, we are God’s Church in a context in which environmental degradation is being facilitated by a system which pits environmental interest at every point against economic returns, usually of a short to medium term nature. So whether the issue is of mining, the destruction of mangroves and wetlands, the conversion of the best arable lands on the plains of St. Catherine into housing and commercial development, these are all pursued with official sanction, while paying lip service in public discourse to climate change, climate resilience or food security. Yet, remember, as church, we are the people who affirm the 5th Mark of Mission – To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth.
We are God’s Church in a nation which declares itself to be democratic and yet is seeing an ever increasing level of disengagement of people from the electoral process and exercise of their franchise. We must ask ourselves what sort of democracy do we have when more than two-thirds of the electorate does not participate in General Elections?
As God’s Church for God’s world, we must acknowledge that we live in a context in which the church through, neglect, institutional preoccupation, misconduct and abuse among its pastors, not to mention the anti-vaccination messaging of many pastors, have left many in our nation confused, disillusioned, cynical, and more suspicious of the institutional church and religious belief and expression of any kind.
Restoring the “Shine”
Faced with these realities, it is easy to feel overwhelmed with a sense of despair and hopelessness, to opt not to listen to the news, and as one gentleman said in my presence to “live in a zone of happiness.” The end game for Isaiah was not to be a mere broadcaster of doom and gloom, despair and hopelessness, but a restorer of that factor referred to as the “shine”, the reversal of the state of God’s chosen people losing their lustre”. The occasion of the transformation and manifestation of the shine will, however, be obvious to all, including those from other lands and it is captured in the first three verses of the text:
For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,
and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,
until her vindication shines out like the dawn,
and her salvation like a burning torch.
2 The nations shall see your vindication,
and all the kings your glory;
and you shall be called by a new name
that the mouth of the Lord will give.
3 You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord,
and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.
I invite us to reflect on that statement as it relates to our reality as Jamaicans today. Notice from the reading how self-identity defines a person as it defines a people. The people of Israel on whom Isaiah focused identified themselves as “Forsaken” and “Desolate.” And I pose the question, are there not parallel terms which many Jamaicans would use to speak about the experience of life in this nation? “Marginalised”, “Abandoned”, “Neglected”, “Abused”. Or do we not see the inequities all around us? Last Thursday, as I left this Cathedral and passed by those waiting to be fed through the congregation’s feeding programme, I saw in those faces expressions of destitution and misery that should challenge the hearts of this nation, as the social and economic disparities grow, and wealth, privilege and entitlement are flaunted with a kind of vulgarity all around us.
The naming of a child or the changing of a name by adults is part of the reality of life in our society today. So, we are aware of persons changing their names to express their African heritage or some new sense of consciousness of their identity as a person. Of course, we know this is present in Biblical literature.
The idyllic images of Jamaica over decades have been the ultimate ideas of paradise – friendly people, lush green hills, beautiful white sand beaches and aqua seas, an image which has served us well in relation to our hospitality industry. Additionally, our legendary offering to the world in such outstanding persons as Marcus Garvey, Bob Marley, Usain Bolt; our Reggae artistes and the music genre which they have produced; our cuisine; and the outstanding performance of Jamaicans in almost every sphere of life, have been to our credit and brought us a name that speaks of positivity, all part of our glory days.
However, we now find that we are at a place attracting a new identity and naming as the murder capital of the world; a leader among the nations involved in scamming of the vulnerable and gullible of the world; have secured our place in the lower ranks in the rating of corruption among nations; and a nation to be listed at the bottom of the world’s list of unvaccinated people. Our reputation in terms of involvement in crime and violence is also of a negative nature in the Caribbean and in some of the metropolitan centres of the North with high concentrations of Jamaicans in the diaspora. Our Windrush generation were ambassadors for our country, but now, many of our citizens have made it necessary for us to have visas to visit certain nations as our nationals are overrepresented in their jails and in their crime statistics.
The prophet Isaiah sees the need for a renaming of his people. Naming, as we have seen, speaks to a redefinition/reimaginging of life which is usually positive, liberating and forward looking for the individual. So Israel needed a renaming to reflect this positive, liberating and forward looking vision for the nation. The name change is about personhood, it is about community as it is about the future. As in various instances, the name change in the Scripture is the initiative of God, so here in the situation being addressed by Isaiah, the name change will be of God’s initiative as indicated in verse 4:
You shall no more be termed Forsaken,
and your land shall no more be termed Desolate;
but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her,
and your land Married…
Given all the negativity which we have gained or attribute to ourselves as a people, what would the naming of ourselves look like for this 60th year of Independence? Would it be more like Forsaken or Desolate? And make no mistake about it, citing our positive economic indices (activity in the construction industry and arrivals of tourists) will not cut it, because as we have seen, even some of the exiled Israelites had experienced some success and prosperity, but it was not an inclusive representation of the nation as a whole.
Breaking the silence as expressed in out theme becomes a metaphor for a realistic assessment of one’s situation and a movement from present self-deprecation to a new name and an accompanying new definition of self which is life-affirming and visionary. Isaiah was not naïve regarding the factors which had led to the present situation, inclusive of the moral failures and errors of judgement of the leaders and the people alike, coupled, of course, with external factors such as invasion by their neighbours. The failure of the people had its genesis from within their own ranks. Now they found themselves at a place where they could not pull themselves up by their own boot straps.
What might a new name look like for post-Covid Jamaica? Is there the prospect of being renamed, “My Delight Is in Her”? What might that look like in terms of the issues and challenges raised? Let me propose that a new narrative must involve leadership at every level. We need visionary and transformative leadership that is not only focused on the pollster results, but leadership that has a vision of what could happen to take us to a different place. A leader is one who exercises authority or influence to motivate other people to follow him or her. Leadership implies movement and change. People who have no desire to go anywhere usually do not need a leader; they will be most happy with someone who functions as a guardian or custodian, or maintains them in a state of dependence.
Leaders have a vision of something that is not yet accomplished. They are heading for a destination and want to take others with them. They see things that could be and are drawn to put their energies into galvanizing others in order to make those visions realities. Likewise, the church cannot simply be a reactionary force to all that is happening in the society, but must become a part of the vision casting for the creation of an alternate future for this nation in going forward.
There is need for a new narrative which affirms the sacredness, value and worth of all life and the humanity of every citizen. Recall the observations of Senator Longmore that, “Our spirituality enables us to appreciate our inherent sense of value and worth, unfortunately, this is increasingly lacking in our Jamaican society”. This, I suggest, must be seen as a wakeup call for the Church to do what by divine commission constitutes her mission and ministry entrusted to us in this nation.
To relegate the solution to the challenge of crime and violence as a concern for the Police, while we await a reduction in the statistics, the arresting of gangsters, and the interruption in the flow of guns into the country will not address the underlying problem. Until we start asking ourselves what is it that is leading to the kind of death-embracing orientation that leads young men to a life of crime and with no sense of living beyond their 20s, we are merely tinkering with the problem. Likewise, we must also ask what is shaping their minds and causing them to resort to the viciousness with which human life is taken –having killed, why bother to mutilate? What is wrong? But, you know, I rather suspect that some perpetrators have harrowing experiences to share about their childhood, family, and life experience.
We must wake up to addressing the social inequities and the widening gap that is evident all around us in our society. We must give people a voice and a sense of belonging (inclusiveness). People feel so abused when interacting with many of our institutions private and public. Rather than taking polls regarding economic and political issues, how about instruments for determining people’s sense of being valued, affirmed and belonging to this nation?
In the case of Israel the new naming will be sealed with a covenant using the image of a marriage. God is the powerful and deeply loving partner who wills the wholeness, maturity, and freedom of his people, individually, and collectively speaks to this married relationship:
You shall no more be termed Forsaken,[a]
and your land shall no more be termed Desolate;[b]
but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her,[c]
and your land Married;[d]
In the end, the passage sees God turning to his people, not reluctantly or because of coercion, but with joy and delight as a bridegroom for his bride. The initiative which is of grace comes from God.
Church Challenged to Break the Silence
How then may we, who declare ourselves to be God’s Church, relate to our contemporary context and be instruments for breaking the silence? Because breaking the silence is not a clarion call to increase the volume of our preaching and worship services with improved microphone systems blasting the neighbourhood because God knows, we have enough of that already. Neither is it about the bishop preaching more sermons or issuing more statements. For us to break the silence in our national context we need to be identified as God’s church more closely with our people so that we can listen, walk together, and bear a common story to the nation, a story that may be of the nature of lament or of advocacy or of speaking truth to power. We need not think of this as a singular movement but something to engage along with the ecumenical partners and NGOs.
Isaiah captures the depths of the prevailing experience of his people, but he also invites them to a place of reimagining their situation, and in so doing, lets them know that they are not alone and abandoned by giving voice to their experience and offering encouragement, hope and comfort. And, here we see the obvious parallels to the prevailing situation facing our church and the challenges inherent in our situation to break the silence.
Perhaps, the most powerful metaphor for silence is death; and here are we at Easter. The reading from St. Mark 16:1-8 takes us to that place of silence by the grave of Jesus, the crucified one. It is to this place that Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome make their way in what was apparently still an hour of silence in the early morning to fulfill the traditional rituals of anointing the body of a loved one who had been hastily interred. Beyond anything which they could imagine the divine Lord breaks through the silence announcing the end to their lament and the in-breaking of a new future of hope, possibility and victory, as announced by the angel. Like Isaiah, they have a new naming of their situation to announce, but just perhaps, overwhelmed by the experience, they keep the announcement to themselves. Could that possibly capture the response of today’s church? We keep the experience to ourselves.
The new future which the angel announced by the tomb of the risen Jesus cuts across nationalistic definition in contrast to that envisaged by Isaiah, but is possible because of Christ’s victory over death, and the promise that God will guard and uphold us in that new life.
The new future is also captured for us in the second lesson which was read from Revelation 21:1-7. There is in that passage a picture of a new future possibility when the former times of fractured experiences of life will be transcended by life that is transformed and healed. As the renaming of Israel announced by Isaiah will be the gracious act of God, so will be the case in the new heaven and earth. The old world, with all its troubles and tumults, will have passed away. All effects of former trouble shall be done away. For the people who have known tears, affliction, calamities, no signs, no remembrance of former sorrows shall remain.
In his book, Interrupting Silence: God’s Command to Speak Out, Walter Brueggemann, makes the observation that “silence is a strategy for the maintenance of the status quo, with its unbearable distribution of power and wealth”. He continues, “the church has a huge stake in breaking the silence, because the God of the Bible characteristically appears at the margins of established power arrangements, whether theological or socioeconomic and political”. To do this we must determine where as church we locate ourselves in relation to the various inequalities which the pandemic has exposed in terms of the conditions under which people live, work, and the quality of life they experience as human beings of value and worth.
We must break our silence and begin to engage the broader issues which are contributing to injustices, inequality and the dehumanizing of human life if this fractured nation of ours is to experience healing and reconciliation and move toward a collective path of re-imagining our nation toward a more wholesome and inclusive future.