Sermon on the celebration of Jamaica’s Emancipation by Bishop Howard Gregory

This sermon was preached at St. Andrew ( Anglican) Parish Church in Kingston Jamaica by the Rt. Reverend Howard Gregory, The Anglican Diocesan Bishop of Jamaica and the Cayman island. It made such an impact on me that I requested the full text so that wider audience might benefit from this sermon which locates Jamaica in a complex historical space and challenges the nation to seek a deeper understanding of the Freedom gained at Emancipation.
Lucien W. Jones.

THE SERMON

An Independence Sermon preached in the St. Andrew Parish Church, on August 2, 2015

Let us pray.
Almighty God, you have created us, called us, chosen us to be your people. We wait now to receive your word of guidance and blessing. Grant unto us ears to hear, eyes to see, and faith to respond to your love and leadership. In the name of Christ. Amen.

Numbers 14:6-10
And Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh, who were among those who had spied out the land, tore their clothes and said to all the congregation of the Israelites, “The land that we went through as spies is an exceedingly good land. If the LORD is pleased with us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey. Only, do not rebel against the LORD; and do not fear the people of the land, for they are no more than bread for us; their protection is removed from them, and the LORD is with us; do not fear them.” But the whole congregation threatened to stone them.

We are gathered today in the midst of the nation’s celebration of two major events in our history and formation as a people, namely Emancipation and Independence. We can always recall these moments with passion or even a sense of nostalgia, but what does it mean to speak of emancipation and independence in today’s world? At the most fundamental level, these things must have something to do with our self-understanding, and which should challenge, transform and inform the vision around which we gravitate of a preferred future for our people and our nation.

The observance of Emancipation Day is intended to raise up in the consciousness of our people a historic milestone in the process of liberation from British colonial exploitation, under a system of legalized control, violence, and enforced labour, otherwise called chattel slavery. In theory, Emancipation meant the end of this legal, economic and social system which treated the enslaved as property, and the acknowledgement of each individual as a human being of equal worth and value as any other, and, therefore, deserving of social justice, rights, and respect, within the community of persons. For the enslaved, emancipation was, therefore, a deeply personal experience which spoke, not just to the external environment, but to the very core of their being.

That is at least the positive dimension to Emancipation which we have been taught and which most have appropriated. Not as well-known is the fact that the Emancipation Act itself was based on the principle that our enslaved ancestors were property and not persons, the very basis on which the former slave owners, and not the ex-slaves, received compensation, and a definition which was to prevail even after formal Emancipation was declared. So, any celebration of Emancipation must be a bitter-sweet experience.

At the same time, the experience of freedom and liberation which the former enslaved population experienced was only a step along a journey which had to move beyond the personal to embrace the social. Thus a formerly enslaved people had to discover what it now meant to be empowered and to move from being a collection of freed individuals to become a nation. That was no easy undertaking as it involved a struggle for social justice, at times taking the form of social unrest or uprising, leading eventually to enfranchisement, and the right to self-determination in Independence. At no point were these accomplishments seen as an arrival at personal of national destinations but, the expression of personal and national hopes, aspirations, and ideals, ever to be pursued.

There are many forces at work in our world today that challenge and seek to undermine notions of Emancipation and Independence of nations like ours. The global forces which perpetuated and prevailed during slavery and the era of colonial rule, are still evident in the multilateral groupings which control global affairs today, with few exceptions, whether we want to look at the G8 or G20 groupings. As the driving and definitive forces of globalization which are primarily economic and technological in nature, they have determined that we must think globally, with our eyes set on the global market place, notwithstanding the fact that the rules of engagement in this environment are not defined in ways that give nations like ours a competitive edge at any level.

In his book, We Come From Jamaica: The National Movement – 1937 – 1962, Ewart Walters captures for us something of the vision and hopes of a people on the road to Independence which coalesced in what he calls The National Movement. He argues that there was a creative phenomenon and national consciousness present in Jamaica identified as the National Movement, and which he locates between 1937 and 1962, and which embodied a commitment to national unity and identity, and was undergirded by a broad-based commitment to community building and volunteerism.

It was in some ways almost a golden era in the life of the nation. People were inspired and cherished a vision of nationhood which led to the nurturing of a spirit of volunteerism and the creation of various institutions which have become a part of the national fabric and identity of the nation. It was the period in which several of our leading high schools, children’s homes and homes for the aged, were established by churches across the nation, the cultural life of the nation took shape in the development of the theatre movement and the National Dance Theatre Company, and there were outstanding men and women who contributed to the development of the social life of the nation, mainly as volunteers. These were part of a visionary movement, and an emerging nation full of hope and possibilities.

In the elaboration of this thesis Ewart Walters argues that this vision of nation-building was derailed by the development of Party Politics, which siphoned off the energy and momentum of that movement, while introducing an element of violence and conflict into what was hitherto a national consensus.

While our politics since Independence has been played out in a way that has established this nation as one of the most stable democracies in the world, it has nonetheless failed us in many aspects of governance; has led us down a path of great international indebtedness; has railroaded the pre-Independence vision; has alienated an increasing percentage of the electorate; and has contributed to the creation of an environment in which many are overcome by a sense of despair and hopelessness. Additionally, we have witnessed the emergence of a political culture in which the Party in Power and the Parliamentary Opposition are invested in literally opposing each other on almost every issue, thereby depriving the nation of the unity needed for confronting the real obstacles facing us and build the nation. In our current dealings with the IMF regime of economic hardships and constraints, and in the current wage negotiations between the government and the public sector, our politics is one which is being played out in a divisive manner, without helping us as a people to identify the real challenges and the global forces which require the garnering of our communal effort if our situation is to improve for the common good.

But, lest we despair on the state of our nation, I want to invite you to engage a perspective which suggests that there is something common to human experience present in our situation, and which has also found expression in the life of the people of faith within the biblical tradition as they pursued the path of nation building and in which there emerged voices of hope and possibility.

In the Book of Numbers 13-14 we have recorded a situation in which Israel was being given an opportunity to have a glimpse into the future prospects for the nation and to position itself for embarking on the same. Under Moses leadership and in fulfillment of the promise of God they had been delivered from bondage/slavery in Egypt and were promised a good land in which they would be able to live out their freedom. Here in Numbers 13, Moses appointed twelve leaders of the people at the direction of the Lord and sent them to spy out the land of Canaan. They were to get a preview and let the people have a report of what was ahead. The charge which Moses gives to these leaders is clear as expressed in verses 17-20:
‘Go up there into the Negeb, and go up into the hill country, 18and see what the land is like, and whether the people who live in it are strong or weak, whether they are few or many, 19and whether the land they live in is good or bad, and whether the towns that they live in are unwalled or fortified, 20and whether the land is rich or poor, and whether there are trees in it or not. Be bold, and bring some of the fruit of the land.’

The twelve arrived in the land and they began to see the positive qualities of the place in images which seem exaggerated – one cluster of grapes was so large that they had to use a pole to string it between two persons in order to carry it, and there was also an abundance of pomegranates and figs.

After spending 40 days on this secret mission they returned home with the evidence and with the report. The evidence is undeniable – the land is fruitful, it flows with milk and honey. What a tremendous opportunity to be messengers of hope, motivation and inspiration for their fellow Israelites! Instead, they proceeded with a negative and most discomfiting report, indicating the impossibility of the task ahead of them:
– The people who dwell in the land are strong;
– The towns are fortified and very strong;
– The descendants of Anak, the giant people are there;
– (The level of negativity suggests that there was probably at least one Jamaican among the twelve)

By way of contrast, one among the twelve stands up and gives a minority report, namely, Caleb. He said to them, “let us go at once and occupy it, for we are well able to occupy it and overcome it.

The other eleven responded with a retort which painted the picture even more grimly than before. The land is one which devours its inhabitants and the people are large. To us, we seemed like grasshoppers, a perspective which they even projected on to the people of the land, “and so we seemed to them”. They did not even consider themselves midgets lined up against giants, but mere creatures to be crushed under foot.

Isn’t it interesting how the voices of negativity can be numerous and strong? It is not surprising that the majority report had a devastating effect on the people, crushing their spirit. In chapter 14:1 we are told that the people raised a loud cry and wept all night. And then they complained against Moses’ leadership and declared, “would that we had died in the land of Egypt”. The solution proffered is that they should choose a new leader and go back to Egypt. Abandon the future and retreat to a supposedly secure past free of all these threats and dangers. Can you imagine them going back to Egypt to present themselves to Pharaoh?
“Here we are, we have made a great mistake in leaving. This idea of the pursuit of our liberation was a mistake, so please take us and our children back into slavery for our own welfare. Save us from ourselves. As for our God, he is no God at all. Your gods are more attractive to us”.

But this should not sound strange to us because there are still many in our society who believe we should be going back to England to beg to be taken back as life was so much better and ordered under colonial rule, and our leaders have not and cannot offer the leadership we need to be a people, and we ourselves are unable to get our act together, so we reject our liberation and independence. Sounds to me like the arguments I hear advanced as to why we must reject the Caribbean Court of Justice as the final appellate court for our nation and region.

With the airing of negativity by the eleven, Caleb gains a supporter in Joshua. They tore their clothes as an expression of distress at what they were hearing from the people and said to them in Numbers 14:7-9:
‘The land that we went through as spies is an exceedingly good land. 8If the LORD is pleased with us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey. 9Only, do not rebel against the LORD; and do not fear the people of the land, for they are no more than bread for us; their protection is removed from them, and the LORD is with us; do not fear them.’
The people would have none of this. How can you come with good news and a word of hope when we are wallowing in our despair and negativity? So the text tells us, the whole congregation threatened to stone them.

What Caleb and Joshua had attempted to do was to give them another perspective from which to view their situation.
a. They interpreted the situation in terms of God’s covenant relationship with his people. God who had promised them a land and a future would be faithful to his promise. The odds and the outcomes were not to be defined on the basis of the limits of their efforts and perceived strength.
b. They defined the situation in terms of a reciprocal and mutual relationship in which Israel had a responsibility to be faithful in its service and devotion to God. But who wants to hear that kind of thing when it is so easy to project responsibility for every threat, every failure, and every wrong on leaders, God, and circumstances?
c. They foresaw the outcome of a failure of faith and nerve on the part of the people leading to the generation losing its opportunity to be a part of the promised land and consequently being condemned to wander in the wilderness for forty years. Indeed, chapter 14:22-24 indicates that Caleb is the only one who will be privileged to enter the promised land.

In this moment in our national life, there are pundits and voices aplenty offering a wide spectrum of perspectives from the very positive to the very negative, all these voices clamouring for a hearing. We know how things are played out when crucial national issues are at stake. You can always expect the government in power to say that good things await the nation, and the Parliamentary Opposition to say that the future will bring even further national challenges if there isn’t a regime change.

In the global context there is that positive and optimistic position which speaks to the benefit to humanity to be derived from globalization and the transformation of our world into a global marketplace, the accompanying improved quality of life to be derived from technological advances and improved communications technology. Yet, the reality is that with all of the promise of this better life and the capability of technology, it is clear that these are not being used for the benefit of all humanity. There is the sobering reality that although the world has long had the technology to ensure that every person on the face of the earth is fed, we have denied large populations this benefit and continue to watch millions of children, men and women die of starvation and diseases for which the cures are readily available. All this in a world in which small sections of nations are able to accumulate tremendous wealth as the gap between rich and poor widens between nations and within nations. Never before has the world seen 60million persons as displaced persons and refugees, while the buildup and investment in military equipment create more violence, destruction and death as we are witnessing today.

There is no question about the fact that we have made tremendous strides as a nation since 1962 and our very life-styles have changed accordingly. We have made an impact on the rest of the world in many spheres not commensurate with the size of our population or land mass.

Locally, we need to remind ourselves about some of the developments and changes which have taken place and which we often take for granted.
– Educational opportunities at the secondary and tertiary levels are no longer restricted to a few.
– Notwithstanding the challenges, access to quality primary health care is accessible to all;
– The housing stock has grown exponentially in quality and in numbers;
– Great strides have been made in the provision of public utilities;
– And while we sit in a church like this, let us be reminded that just a few years ago many of us could not sit where we are now sitting, and I would be of the wrong pigmentation to occupy this pulpit or the office of Bishop.

It would appear that what we need as a nation at a time like this, is not just the engagement of a spirit of celebration, which may be little more than nostalgia or merrymaking, but a serious national dialogue on what Emancipation and Independence mean for us in the light of today’s struggles and today’s global and national realities. Why would I even dare to mention the global dimension?

I came upon an essay which speaks to the reality of the situation as a small and developing nation. The essay is entitled On Sovereignty and Other Political Delusions and is written by Joan Cocks, Winner of the 2015 David Easton Prize, awarded by the American Political Science Association (APSA). This is what she has to say:
Global forces are eroding the ability of states to exert sovereign control over their populations, territories, and borders. Yet when dominated subjects across the world dream of freedom, they continue to conceive of it in sovereign terms. Sovereign freedom haunts the imagination of oppressed ethnic minorities, popular masses ruled by foreign powers or homegrown tyrants, indigenous peoples, and individuals chafing under customary or governmental restrictions.

Locally, the murder statistics, crime and violence have taken centre stage, as there is a level of viciousness, barbarity, and inhumanity which we have never seen before, which is threatening to imprison us behind our grills, gated communities, and fear, and there seems to be no clear solution at hand.

The entire nation is caught up in the economic hardships and constraints required for meeting the conditionalities for accessing the IMF extended fund facility, and in order to rescue us from the debt crisis in which recurrent governments have plunged this nation. The current industrial relations climate is still explosive, as public sector workers engage in the current wage negotiations with the government, a situation being complicated by our politics, which is being played out in a most divisive manner, without helping us as a people to identify the real scope of our national predicament, the advances which have been made so far, and the garnering of our communal effort if our situation is to improve for the common good.

Last year in an unprecedented statement by the three leaders of the nation, the Governor General, the Prime Minister, and the leader of the Parliamentary Opposition, issued on February 28, 2014, they called for a moral re-awakening of our nation, though I am cognizant of the fact that many have not read it or paid attention to the significance which it holds for us. Among other things they had this to say:
“Today, the leadership of this nation calls on all Jamaicans to come together and make a concerted effort to take back our island from the grip of crime and the shroud of negativity.
“We ask that each and every Jamaican reflect on where we are as a people and how far we have fallen from the values and traditions which our forefathers held as sacred.”

Perhaps more telling than all of this is the research of recent months conducted among our young people which indicated that approximately half of our young people would willingly give up their citizenship for life in another country. Our youth are usually the most optimistic, hopeful, and idealistic in our society, and when they are expressing this position, which I suggest is about far more than economic opportunities, we adults and those responsible for governance had better take notice.

In face of these and other realities, what does your view of the promised land of an emancipated and independent people look like? Perhaps, the temptation is to align yourself with the kind of negativity expressed by the eleven leaders of Israel to the vision of the promised land:
– The forces before us are too formidable;
– Better we had not come this far;
– Let us return from whence we came, that is, recapture the good old days when Jamaica was a wonderful place to live, even under colonial rule;
– Let us raise a great cry;
– Let us complain against our leadership and protest against God for not doing what he should have done. (As the cynics and the skeptics express it, “if God is a good God, he would have and must correct the bad things?”)
Let me suggest that the minority position which Caleb represented, though the least attractive, may indeed be the most relevant and potent for us.
1. Engage the moment and the challenges within the framework of God’s relationship to it as creator and liberator.
The last available national census data indicate that there is a growing sector of our population who claim no relationship with any religious institution, though it does not mean that they have no appreciation of matters religious or spiritual. Of greater concern is the growing section of our population influenced by secularism and atheism which place all of life within the ambit of human ability, control and vision. God is an optional extra.

For Caleb and his lone supporter, Joshua, they interpreted the situation/moment in terms of God’s covenant relationship with his people. The God who had promised them a land and a future would be faithful to his promise. The odds and the outcomes were not to be defined on the basis of the limits of their efforts and perceived strength in face of the challenges before them.
From a Christian perspective, this movement from Emancipation through Independence is understood within the ambit of the providential care of God who has enabled our liberation, and the attainment of a measure of freedom, identity, and dignity through a series of historical steps leading into a democratic process which blossomed into Independence in 1962.
Further, Emancipation from a Christian perspective begins with an understanding of God and his relationship with humankind. Our status as human beings of inestimable worth and value begins with our creation by God as good and as equals. But in human history there has been a constant struggle and conflict between individuals, families, and communities to change that balance and equation and to create power relations of dominance and control and the practice of social injustices in their relationship with one another.

But I also want to use the opportunity to urge us as members of this Judeo-Christian tradition not to be complacent regarding the place of our faith profession within the life of the wider society. Some of you would have seen some recent headlines in one of our Sunday newspapers entitled, ‘Dump the noisemakers’ – Former Barbados PM says civil society, church has no place in social partnership talks”. It is a rather revealing comment from one who has exercised political leadership within our Region concerning the place and contribution of the church and the Christian faith to matters of social and national concern.

Somehow, there is the underlying assumption present that there is a sphere of engagement of life in society which has no accommodation for the religious perspective, because whatever the church would bring to bear on national issues represents little more than noise making. Apart from the fact that the Judeo-Christian tradition affirms that there is no sphere of human life as individual or community which is outside of the purview of divine providence, the espoused position gives legitimacy to only certain institutions. Here I must point out also that there are echoes of the position articulated by this former political leader in the Parliament of Jamaica, as there have been tabled questions regarding the status of NGO’s in Jamaica, in an attempt to limit their influence in ways not applicable to political parties and their affiliates. There seems to be a feeling in some quarters that the only people who have a legitimate voice in national affairs are those who have faced the electorate. Perhaps we need to remind ourselves of the results of the Don Anderson poll published on Wednesday September 22, 2010.
According to Anderson, a whopping 91 per cent of respondents pointed to parents and guardians when they were asked who are the people that are most trusted?
Teachers followed with a heavy 81 per cent, parsons and religious persons were next with 68 per cent, while media personalities and business persons recorded trust scores in excess of 46 per cent each.
According to Anderson, the persons in whom respondents placed the least trust were lawyers at 39 per cent; the police, 28 per cent; community dons, eight per cent; and politicians seven per cent.
All I would add at this point is a word to all Christians in this nation, “Affirm your faith in God and its implications for personal and social living, and do not allow any power base or individual to silence you”.

2. They defined the situation in terms of a reciprocal and mutual relationship in which Israel had a responsibility to be loyal/faithful in its service and devotion to God.

Every Jamaican can recite a litany of the things that are wrong with our nation today but, we who have invoked the name of God, and in our most gratuitous moments declared this nation a Christian nation, must ask ourselves, how have we come to this place? Given the dynamic nature of life in human society and the church as an institution, how have we utilized opportunities for pausing to reflect critically under the guidance of leadership, to look at where we are and what is our vision for the future? In so doing, we affirm that we are not just guided by cruel fate, but must take responsibility for the moral, social, spiritual, and economic tone of our church and society.

It comes as no surprise that just during the past week Senior Superintendent Bigga Ford was pleading with citizens in one community to stop sheltering the criminals who are wreaking havoc on their community. Much of our prevailing ills have been staring us in the face for decades but, we often opt for denial and self-deception and only act as individuals and as a nation when external circumstances and forces dictate the course of action we must take. Failure to act responsibly and with maturity has its consequences.
We who would invoke the name of God and God’s promise, must be prepared to demonstrate our loyalty and faithfulness by pursuing a life of righteousness, justice, and peace as found in God before we can invoke his promise.

3. They foresaw the outcome of a failure of faith and nerve on the part of the people leading to the generation losing its opportunity to be a part of the promised land and consequently being condemned to wander in the wilderness for forty years.

The reality confronting this nation is that, if our current generation of leaders, and we ourselves who have a voice and influence do not act for the good of this nation, the emancipated and independent Jamaica of which we speak and envision may bypass us and only become a reality for subsequent generations of courageous and responsible offsprings who are willing to act.

Many of us think of life as one continuous movement of upward growth. But, perhaps life is not like that. Perhaps life involves movements of discontinuity when we can pull ourselves together, reflect and be renewed and re-committed for forward movement. If you look at your own journey with God, you may probably see that there were real moments of trial and wanderings in the wilderness of life through which you emerged a stronger and more committed person.

This was what Israel needed to do, to renew its faith in God and its commitment before moving forward. In fact, their failure in this regard led to a situation in which a whole generation never saw the promised land as they were blinded by their own infatuation with negativity. Perhaps the seeming aimless wandering and absence of a common vision for our nation at this time is not about being lost but, about the existence of an opportunity for us to focus, reflect, renew, and re-commit as we seek to build this nation as the place of choice to live, work, raise families, and do business, under God.
AMEN.

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