Event Name Sermon given at Matins on the Third Sunday before Lent 2017
Start Date 12th Feb 2017 10:00am

The Reverend David Stanton, Canon in Residence
My sermons at Matins this month are based upon recently released films. Last week I spoke about the eagerly awaited film ‘Silence’ by Martin Scorsese, that came out last month. It’s all about Jesuit missionaries in 17th century Japan and the sermon is now available on the Abbey website.

This morning I shall be reflecting on another recent and much anticipated film entitled ‘United Kingdom’, which was released last November. The film is based on a little known romance that really did take place between Botswanan King Seretse Khama, who’s played by David Oyelowo, and his British wife, Ruth Williams Khama who’s played by Rosamund Pike.

It’s a film that may popularly be described as a British period piece set in the 1940s. It’s all about an inter-racial union that takes place in the face of fierce opposition; not only from their two families, but also by the British government and indeed both the tribal elders of Botswana and the apartheid government of South Africa.

It concentrates on the couple’s journey as they move to Bechuanaland, modern-day Botswana, in the face of severe and prolonged racism. For long periods in the film, Seretse tries to convince his people and the British government that he should be king and that his marriage to a white woman is a personal and separate matter.

But while it covers a lot of ground, mixed-race marriages, the decline of the British Empire, how to look fabulous in a tea dress or three-piece suit when it’s almost 40 degrees in the shade, it’s fundamentally about the ways in which private attitudes shape a nation’s collective heart and soul, and as such, raises many current and pertinent topics.

After a year-long courtship, the couple marry in 1948, which makes Ruth the Queen of Bechuanaland-in-waiting. But this also precipitates a major diplomatic fallout. 1948 was the year in which South Africa, which borders Bechuanaland to the south, was being severely influenced by apartheid.

But there was also uncertainty back in Bechuanaland itself, where the idea of a white woman as the nation’s symbolic mother-figure was an extremely uncomfortable proposition. As the film shows, this marriage caused shockwaves throughout both Africa and the UK, with a lot of political pressure heaped on the pair to have their marriage annulled.

Indeed the marriage caused much heartache and pain amongst the couple's friends and families, with Ruth’s father disowning her and Seretse’s Uncle, as regent on the Bechaunaland throne, doing all he could to break up their union. Undeterred, the couple had to tie the knot in a registry office because they didn’t have the express permission of the British Government to get married in a church.

Although it’s not seen in the film, Ruth was also fired from her job because of the engagement, and Seretse’s uncle also threatened to fight him to the death if he brought Ruth to his native home.

Here the director uses a quintessentially British story, a romantic melodrama that breaches class boundaries, to interrogate ideas of racism and British identity. With historical hindsight, we see that during those Imperial days, racial bias was pretty much ingrained within the culture itself.

Indeed we’ve now come to openly see that racism has actually always been both an instrument of discrimination and a tool of exploitation. But the film also reveals this to be a cultural phenomenon, susceptible to cultural solutions, such as inter-racial marriage and the promotion of ethnic identities. Yet further than that, we see here that racism is also conditioned by economic situations, and reflected in our culture: sometimes, religion, art, and the media.

The psalm we heard sung this morning (10) speaks to us about the cry of the righteous, about the ways of the ungodly. We may sometimes feel that it’s only the righteous who suffer while the wicked seem somehow to get away with all.

In this psalm, the psalmist makes the very important first step, of turning to God.
Occasionally Christians are tempted to turn away because they believe they see some benefits that the righteous don’t have. But here the psalmist describes the works of the ungodly and then reveals how these works are condemned by God.
Yet more than that, he’s challenging us all to carefully examine ourselves, to be sure that such things are not replicated in our own lives.

Bringing this film and psalm together helps us to reflect not just on racism, on colonial shortcomings and the shortcomings of wider society, but it also forces us to look at ourselves and our own private attitudes, remembering that private attitudes really do shape a nations collective heart.

The core of the prejudice that underpins this film may be found in two specific concepts: ignorance and fear. If we’re honest, most prejudicial attitudes towards others are usually based on partial evidence. The vast majority tend to prejudge others on the basis of limited knowledge, especially if they are different from us. And in this sense we’re probably all prejudiced, to a greater or lesser extent.

A few years ago I spent three months travelling around South America, principally in Uruguay, Argentina and Mexico. It brought home the fact that, on the whole, British people have little first-hand experience of life in such communities.
But the other factor is fear, and this goes much deeper than ignorance, for its strikes at the root of prejudice, the issue of privilege and power. What makes racial prejudice so sinister isn’t just the act of prejudging someone, but the fact that it’s often a very rational attitude, disguised to defend privilege.

In so many cases, racial prejudice is the refusal to change one's attitude even after being presented with clear evidence to the contrary. This is largely due to the fear of losing power of privilege, especially when there are emotional, cultural, social and economic issues at stake.

It was Trevor Phillips, former chair of the Commission for Racial Equality and the Equality and Human Rights Commission, who said: “Integration doesn’t happen by accident you have to work at it. If we want to avoid a slow descent into mutual bigotry, we need to drop the dogma, stop singing kumbaya to each other, weigh the evidence without sentiment, recognise the reality, and work out a programme both symbolic and practical to change the reality.”

This is the message that comes through clearly within this film, but more importantly, our Christian faith is absolutely clear and unequivocal on the matter: racism is a sin and quite contrary to the imperatives of the Gospel. Biblically, it is against all that we perceive of the unmotivated, spontaneous and undiscriminating love of God who in Jesus Christ gave himself for us all.

© 2018 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

Website design - Design by Structure