It’s life, Captain, but not as we know it
That was a question I was asked a couple of times while on a visit to St Louis last week. It’s not an easy question to answer. There are so many similarities between our two nations: we speak the same language (mostly), watch the same movies, wear the same jeans. Yet there are differences and those differences can be significant.
There are the obvious differences in the way we do things: different systems of government, driving on the different sides of the road, differences in climate. (In St Louis the bitter winters and hot, humid summers mean that either heating or air conditioning is required for all but a few weeks of the year. A friend I stayed with had utility bills about three times as high mine.) But I’d boil the really big, cultural, differences down to these: guns, healthcare, religiosity and race relations.
I’ve posted before about guns and healthcare before – about how American gun culture is baffling to most Brits, as is the NHS to many Americans. And about how both guns and the NHS might be idols on different sides of the pond.
Religiosity is an interesting one. There’s no question that church attendance is sliding in the States but it is still at a far higher level than is the case in the UK; along with a greater respect for and understanding of ‘churchy’ things. When questioned by Homeland Security as to the reason for my visit I can reply, “I’m a pastor and I’m visiting some churches here,” and reliably assume that I will be understood. In the UK I rarely use the term ‘pastor’ because so many people are entirely unfamiliar with the concept. The son of a friend has just started at Liberty University. In the UK a ‘Christian’ university with 15,000 students and an endowment of over $1 billion would be unimaginable (even though many of our greatest educational establishments have explicitly religious foundations); but such things happen in the US.
And so to race relations. In the UK we have our issues but mercifully not with the intensity and complexity that is the case in the US. Talking with some African-Americans during my visit it was apparent that race really is an issue – not an imagined issue – in the US; and the complexity of how to respond to this was apparent. St Louis is a town with a particularly bitter history of race relations, discrimination and crime. It’s a complicated story. Clearly the African-American community is often disadvantaged; equally clearly there are cases where acquired victimhood status is used in a destructive way. How to resolve these issues is terrifyingly complex. Pretty much any observation or comment is likely to pour petrol/gas on one or other bonfire. It is easy to see why the Rev. Jasper Williams Jr. saying at Aretha Franklin’s funeral, “Black lives must not matter until black people start respecting black lives and stop killing ourselves,” was so controversial. Was he bravely putting his finger on the truth? Or abusing his platform? Or self-blaming when he should have critiqued systemic racism? Probably.
This Sunday I’m speaking from the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. It’s a story that reminds us that from the very earliest days of the church the gospel went to Africa – it went to Africa before it went to Europe! As a gentile and a eunuch the Ethiopian treasurer seemed to be doubly excluded from God’s people and presence yet because of the grace of God in Jesus Christ the promise of Isaiah 56:3-5 was embodied in him:
Let no foreigner who is bound to the Lord say,
‘The Lord will surely exclude me from his people.’
And let no eunuch complain,
‘I am only a dry tree.’
For this is what the Lord says:
‘To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose what pleases me
and hold fast to my covenant –
to them I will give within my temple and its walls
a memorial and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that will endure for ever.
Race relations in the US are complex. The complexity can seem intractable. Yet surely in the church, because of the gospel that has come to all us gentiles, there can be genuine reconciliation. Whatever our differences, the gospel is greater.