I was struck this week by St Paul’s comment recorded in the Book of Acts – in passing, stating an obvious, incontrovertible starting point – when addressing the sceptics in Athens about this new religion he was preaching. “From one ancestor [God] made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence”. Paul rightly takes as his starting point the fundamental equality and common identity of all human beings, all created by the one God, all equally God’s offspring, as he goes on to say. I’ve read that phrase many times without really noticing it, but this week, as the divisions within our society have been cruelly exposed by the different death tolls from COVID19, I had to stop and think again.
Although it may be a self-evident truth – to Paul, and to anyone not infected by that really powerful virus, racial prejudice – it’s also so very obviously not the way the world is. As a white middle class man in a professional role, my chances of dying from COVID19 are much lower than most. COVID19 disproportionately affects the old, the ill, the poor, and members of Black and Minority Ethnic communities. Among the conspiracy theories going around are ideas that all of that is deliberate – that the virus was designed to kill off people in precisely those groups, and especially people of colour. It’s not true; a virus which originally emerged in central China doesn’t know the skin colour of the people it’s infecting – as far as the virus is concerned, all humans are equally good targets.
What the coronavirus shows us – in shocking detail – is the inequality that already exists in our society. The virus isn’t targeted at anyone, but it finds it easiest to attack those whom our society values least – the old and the ill, those whose housing isn’t good, those in low-paid jobs, those who are regarded by society as less significant, less worth looking after, the ones at the back of the queue for PPE regardless of how much risk they may be exposed to. And in most of those groups people of colour are vastly over-represented: doing those jobs without which society would collapse, but which society doesn’t want to pay much to have done, suffering higher levels of poor health, living in substandard housing. Racial prejudice feeds into that spiral of inequality: BAME people are filling many less well-regarded jobs, and those jobs in turn are regarded as less important because of the BAME people doing them.
The coronavirus has shone a light on the structural inequalities in our society, had made us see the realities we mostly know are there, but invest a lot of time and energy in ignoring. We know that there is huge inequality in our country, justified sometimes by the language of austerity, but even better just kept out of sight and therefore out of mind. And now we do have to notice those doing the suddenly dangerous jobs, we applaud: which is good, and appropriate. But there should also be a reward for those who are due applause, an appropriate recognition of the service they have done for us. But that is a problem of course for our society: the debt we owe is not one that can be appropriately recognised merely by doling out applause for all, and medals to a few. The injustice that has been exposed is deeper than that – and far more expensive to put right.
We have discovered that the people whom society has treated as being expendable are really essential. Carers, cleaners, bus drivers, posties, refuse collectors – the list goes on and on – they can’t work from home, and society as a whole depends on them. The question is what we do with that knowledge.
And that’s where I return to Paul. As he introduced his preaching of the gospel to a crowd of Gentiles, he began by establishing the common humanity that he and they shared. Paul’s ministry was founded on breaking down the barriers that the Roman Empire took for granted – in Christ he says there are neither slave nor free, male nor female, Greek or Jew – he systematically disassembles all the ways in which society was kept neatly ordered. Along with ethnic and gender differences, he challenged power differentials by establishing communities of believers in which the rich did not have the authority by virtue of their money. Paul didn’t encourage Christians to rise up and fight the secular authorities – but he did teach a way of living which radically undercut the norms of the Empire.
That is what the Church should have been doing ever since. But instead for too many centuries the Church has found ways to baptise structures of injustice and oppression. The Church of England has the disadvantage of having been around a long time – there’s plenty of history of which our Church needs to repent. This time of coronavirus should help us I think understand what repentance means. It’s not just about feeling sorry – it’s about doing things differently. When confronted again by the inequalities of our society, we must look at ourselves and the ways in which we continue to reflect those inequalities in ourselves – and as Paul taught us, live differently.
The Church will come out of the coronavirus crisis poorer than we were. Will we also come out of it wiser, more aware of our calling? At every level, parish and deanery, diocese and nation (and in every nation), will we do the hard work of returning to that basic assumption that underlay Paul’s preaching and church-building – that all people equally are created, loved and called by God? And in our very different culture and time, will we use the resources we have to demonstrate that repentant return to the roots of our faith? It will be difficult – at a time of constraint, people naturally retreat to what they have known, defend what they have. But the light has shone onto the inequalities we have lived with too happily and too long.
If and insofar as we can change ourselves, we in the Church of England will also have something to say to our nation of which we are the church: and all Christians will equally have something to say to the societies in which they live. A truly radical sense of the equal dignity and worth of each individual is a political statement, because it has implications for the society in which we live. Human beings are indivisible wholes: bodies deserve to be treated with equal dignity just as much as souls do. It should be the desire and task of any society to enable all of its members to live healthy, purposeful lives, and a scandal and a sorrow when it is impossible to achieve that aim (and alongside that, to desire the same for all people worldwide). Through whatever political policies they may believe will achieve it, it is this end that we should ask and challenge our leaders to seek.
Whoever you are, whatever your background, age, ethnicity, wealth, (dis)ability, gender, sexuality – you are included in that universal love of God. You are God’s offspring. In a world and society which acts as if some people were more in God’s image than others, have the confidence to believe that God looks and sees in you God’s own image. And likewise God sees God’s image in everyone you meet, whether you can discern it or not. St Paul went into the marketplace in Athens and told those whom he met that they were made and loved by God. If you know it for yourself, will you also say the same to others? Then the good news of the love of God will truly be a power in our world, nations, our neighbourhoods, our communities.