Patrick Hopkinson writes:
How much should we focus on the differences between us? How much should the past interfere with the present? How should the present judge the past?
These questions and others have been going through my mind since the tragic death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on 25th May. The subsequent protests and demonstrations have driven home not only the impact of discrimination and inequality on the present but also their baleful influence from the past. The effects of slavery and of the slave trade have been thrust into our consciousness and are set to change our institutions and our public memorials.
I find that some passages in the Bible make uncomfortable reading at all times, but recent events make this especially so with today’s readings. In Genesis we find the story of Hagar, a slave and concubine of Abraham, and their son, Ishmael. Sent into the wilderness so that Ishmael would not share the inheritance that would come to Abraham and Sarah’s son Isaac, things seem pretty bleak for them. The Gospel reading also uses slavery as a metaphor and refers to a future in which families will be set against each other: “and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household”. It is as if the story of Hagar and Ishmael will repeat itself and discord, division and difference will separate us.
But within these stories there are also examples of compassion and of love. Abraham does not want Hagar and Ishmael to go but God assures him that they will be safe and then provides for them in the wilderness. Jesus tells us that God knows of and cares for even the plight of sparrows and that God has counted the hairs on our heads (a task made rather easy with some of us, I think) and that we should put nothing before our relationship with God.
What else can we take from today’s readings to help us in the present?
We are told not to be afraid when facing hardship and challenge. God is with us in our compassion, bravery and action. We do not have to be enslaved to sin. We know the evil of treating people as commodities, of putting financial benefit before humanity and of believing that the powerful are free to abuse the powerless. We should oppose this now whilst remembering the great work carried out to end the slave trade and to abolish slavery, including the action to enforce it.
We should also remember that the problems of the past do not always go away and that we have to be ever vigilant. Quietly, slavery has returned and even though it has taken new forms, still blights the lives, hopes and futures of many people throughout the world, including in our country. It is estimated that world-wide some 40 million people are trapped in forced or bonded labour or in forced marriages. This may even include people in our own village held in domestic service.
In Christ we find unity and togetherness and our differences disappear. Let us use this certainty to focus not on the past but on a future in which no one is held in slavery.