by Rev Patricia Sheerattan-Bisnauth, Guyana Presbyterian Church
We’re living in very interesting time in our dear land of Guyana – in a time of oil boom, from rags to riches. Oil Giants are here to save us. So we send up fireworks to express our excitement and happiness. Folks are behaving as if oil is our salvation.
All around we’re hearing about wealth! Rich days are coming to Guyana, and I hope that Guyana soars in its development and has enough for everyone to live a healthy and flourishing life and also enough to share with neighbours, bearing in mind the humanitarian crisis of Venezuelans and Haitians. However, we need to bear in mind the experiences of other “oil rich countries”, in Nigeria and also in Venezuela and Trinidad.
Oil has consequences – it can take us forward in developmental goals and can also set us on a destructive path towards further corruption, rise in the already high level of crime and adverse social impact on the society. Most importantly are the severe climate change and environmental issues that will be devastating for us, if the policies, monitoring and accountability mechanisms are not adequate and effective. This new development requires our engagement and our voices. Are we ready?
All across the region we see levels of growth with some countries now categorised as high-income countries, such as little Antigua and Barbuda and many of us as middle income. Yet the reality of the people is quite different. There are still significant levels of poverty in the real economy, with many persons who do not have adequate food and nutrition, access to health care, education and other basic necessities, such as water, a scarce item in Antigua. Roads and other infrastructure are poor. Corruption is rampant.
Caribbean theologian, Rev. Dr Roderick Hewitt quoting from Jeremiah, wrote in a WCRC publication, Power to resist and Courage to Change: “Everyone is after the dishonest dollar, little people and big people alike. Prophets and priests and everyone in between, twist the word and doctor the truth. My people are broken-shattered! – And they put on band aids, saying, ‘It’s not so bad. You’ll be just fine, but things are not “just fine”! Do you suppose that they are embarrassed over this outrage? No, they have no shame. They don’t even know how to blush.’ (Jeremiah 6:13-15)”
Whether it’s at home or in the world news, we are never short of bad and troubling and devastating news about injustices and natural disasters, such as hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, typhoons, droughts and other natural disasters, which have had horrendous consequences for many people, especially for poor people in both rich and poor countries. Last year Dorian devastated the Bahamas. The consequences are the continued plundering of the earth in pursuit of wealth and prosperity and a heavy toll on the earth, intensifying the global warming crisis. Immense suffering of people, especially the vulnerable. In the midst of the devastation, the heartless Bahamas Prime Minister called for the Haitian migrants to get out of Bahamas, knowing that their homeland in such a terrible crisis that its extremely difficult for them to return. This is the world in which we live. Lack of love, compassion and human consideration.
In the last two to three decades CWM, World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC), World Council of Churches (WCC), and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) have placed significant focus on economic injustice and climate change. Churches and theologians in the academia together with church practitioners, activists and movements have been engaged in critical work to bring to light the scandalised world we live in, where violence and poverty, climate change and injustices thrive. The determined way that rich nations and corporations run the world economy for their own advantage, is a clear sign that the struggle for justice and fullness of life will be a long one. And we are sinking low. The degradation of the planet’s resources, ecosystem and habitat is facing us with more profound changes than the earth has experienced in millions of years because we have allowed ourselves to plunder the earth unchecked. We have spurned God’s sovereignty and the earth’s sacredness by treating so much of life as a commodity.
In its Legacies of Slavery mission journey, CWM stated in its report, “The Atlantic Slave Trade therefore intensified the mix of different motives – greed for material possession and consumption, combined with racism and self-aggrandizement – that began with the Crusades and continues to mark out global Capitalism.”
Our theme Rising to life with Jesus requires us to be engaged in critical reading and discernment of the systemic issues which are at the core and in the bloodstream of the economic, race and gender injustices, and climate change devastation, and the consequent burdens born by those who suffer the consequences. We need to understand the big picture and also have a strong connection with the real lives of people in our communities. And we also need to come face to face with our own responsibility and complicity.
“CWM calls on its member churches and all Christians to confess the sin of the ‘shitstem’, the idolatries of Babylon, the legacies of our complicity with empire and live a faith which is a blessing to the earth, a salve to the hurting, empowerment to those who are oppressed, welcome to those we exclude, inspiration to those who protest and courage to those who long for a new world to break in.”
“Shitstem” is a Jamaican word, coined by Peter Tosh referring to the oppressive system of empire. Peter Tosh worked closely with Malcolm X. These two brothers were regarded as outstanding revolutionaries, in their resistance against empire and challenging the system. Their hermeneutics of suspicion of empire and its prevailing system showed the engineering of a design to keep the order of domination and control of black people as victims of the oppressive system.
They spoke of Christianity as “shitstem”, another oppressive system, a tool by the white masters to downpress black people with a “pie in sky” religion aimed at sky gazing, while the downpressers had their eyes right here on earth, on our lands and resources, plotting and grabbing, across our regions in their exploitative expeditions to build up their wealth and power. This thinking of Tosh resonates with the CWM Legacies of slavery findings about the appropriation of religion for exploitation and building Empire.
He said, “…because everyone who try a-go to church, and they were trying to teach but they weren’t teaching, they was brainwashing. Since I would never call that teaching…” Moreover, in a speech Malcolm X gave, he said, “My brothers and sisters, our white slavemasters’ Christian religion has taught us black people here in the wilderness of North America that we will sprout wings when we die and fly up into the sky where God will have for us a special place called heaven. This is white man’s Christian religion used to brainwash us black people! We have accepted it! We have embraced it! We have believed it! We have practiced it! And while we are doing all of that, for himself, this blue-eyed devil has twisted his Christianity, to keep his foot on our backs…to keep our eyes fixed on the pie in the sky and heaven in the hereafter…while he enjoys his heaven right here…on this earth…in this life.” (Haley, 205)
“We live, like Daniel, beneath systems of domination which demand our complicity and even our worship. We have named in our context reading the manifestations of Babylon in our world in Patriarchy, racism and chauvinistic nationalism, economic injustice, climate catastrophe, Neo-colonialism – Occupation, Militarisation, Religious persecution, Forced migration and nativism, 4th Industrial Revolution and AI (Artificial Intelligence), Religious complicities and complacencies. In these we see idolatrous claims and actions which God calls us to resist and redeem.” (CWM Strategy paper 2020-2029)
At the heart of the mission theology CWM articulates, is a covenant for life, for Christ’s life, Creation’s life and a call for justice to renew the earth, the economy and all life. This is not an optional extra given the nature of our faith and the signs of the times but a call of faith and a call to action.
CWM very clearly lays out in its Missio Confessionis, in its Mission Statement: “In a world overtaken by the consequences of economic injustice, climate catastrophe and violent divisive political powers, disciples of Christ must energetically give themselves to embodying and enacting the counter world of God’s giving:
- A disciple of Jesus cannot accept privilege in the Imperial system. What are some privileges of the system that we like to enjoy?
- A disciple of Jesus cannot deny the catastrophe befalling our climate and planet.
- A disciple of Jesus cannot be racist. What are some signs of racism among us?
- A disciple of Jesus cannot be sexist. What are some signs of sexist among us?
- A disciple of Jesus cannot be homophobic. What are some signs of homophobia among us?
- A disciple of Jesus cannot be casteist.
- A disciple of Jesus cannot place wealth or status or nation above living out the world changing demands of the Gospel. What does this mean and what are implications?
This we must confess and embody in a decade where deep and irrevocable change may befall all of life on earth.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian is known for his writings on Discipleship. He reflects on Discipleship as a matter of faithful obedience and obedient faithfulness: of listening, judging and acting. Such obedience is not a matter of following rigid rules, policing people’s sexuality. It is a matter of following the example of Jesus Christ – his life and ministry.
Bonhoeffer saw how discipleship can be at odds with Christianity, with religious focus on rituals and public posture, which reflect the dominant political and social culture of the society, to the extent of spewing hate and damnation against those who do not conform to the views and rules of empire. Bonhoeffer saw that the Church may stand firm or fall (not particularly referring to the church as an institution) but as disciples charged with the mission of embodying and establishing the Word being made flesh, and also already made flesh.
Bonhoeffer spoke about “cheap grace”, which he describes as a bargain-basement or garage sale or flea market goods; cheap forgiveness with justice and healing, like “say you’re sorry!” Empty forgiveness without justice. Cheap grace does not bless human beings: it degrades them by making absolutely no difference to the way they live their lives. It is a denial of God’s living Word. While the church may preach that Grace alone does everything, we tarry on in the same old way, leaving church just as we entered, except at times with a lil high but intact in our old ways. Then our action is in vain. The world remains worldly and we remain sinners. Thus, the churched Christian maintains living the same way as the world does.
But Jesus’ ministry was revolutionary. A critical reading of the Gospel with new understanding of the historical Jesus can empower us to RISE WITH JESUS. Jesus’ revolutionary journey began with his mother Mary (Luke 1.6-55) and her song of liberation. Mary is a model of a spirituality of resistance, who sang her protest song, the Magnificat – against the order of her day. She sang of the overturning or overcoming of that oppressive death dealing order:
My soul magnifies the Lord
… He has scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and has exalted the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty.
This powerful message tells of the defiant Mary, pregnant with Jesus, the Messiah. This young woman, who proclaims God’s outrage over the humiliation of the poor and who sings of the historical reversal that her pregnancy embodies – the reversal that it is to be – from the womb of one whom the rich and the powerful have made “lowly” – that the son of God will be born.
Mary’s song is passionate with a profound message about collapsing thrones and humbled lords of this world, about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind. Mary’s words resonate with the tones of the women prophets of the Old Testament that came to life in Mary’s mouth as she sang and with prophetic authority, she sings this hymn of liberating praise and hope on behalf of all those in the world who are downtrodden. Pregnant with new life, she cries out for the transformation of the old order. However, the Magnificat was banned by the Guatemalan government in the 1980s.
Indeed we are called to Rise with Jesus, son of Mary and son of God; Rising to a radical spirituality, which is rooted in the life and ministry of Jesus.
Who was this man Jesus? Jesus was introduced by John as “the Word made Flesh, dwelling among us, full of grace and truth? Jesus’ ministry was on largely on the streets. According to Rev. Dr. Collin Cowan in his 2020 New Year’s Message said: “Our stories depict him [Jesus] as a holy wanderer, a vagabond stranger who journeyed from place to place to announce the nearness of the kingdom. He was taken along the path of a refugee to Egypt, wandered the sheep trails of Galilee, led the way of the pilgrim to Jerusalem, staggered the way of the cross to Golgotha and then stepped into the dew of Easter morning risen and alive and leading all of us into the way of new life. He was always moving, and always moving people on. The Romans thought their empire was the way, but the followers of Jesus found another Way, the Way of community, marked by peace and goodwill for all.”
Jesus was a revolutionary leader who defied the culture, political system and a pietistic and uncompassionate religion, which was harsh on women, castigating them to the periphery of life. He confronted persons in positions of power who were possessed with, and employed “a spirit of lordless domination” over women, the poor, the marginalised and castaways. By his life and witness he resisted the shitstem of his day, demonstrating in his life and work that surely another way is possible.
Jesus lived a radical spirituality, a spirituality of resistance and undertook a radical mission because he knew that the crisis of his time needed a radical answer. He answered a radical call from God (Luke 4.18). Today we see the crisis of our times demanding a radical response, a response of radical change that goes to the roots of social sin and institutionalized violence.
Jesus said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full”. (John 10.10) Jesus shares the power of God as the power of love. We are to abide in Jesus, nourished by the Spirit, and, in turn, become sources of life and nourishment for others.
Rising with Jesus Christ is seen and felt through good works, prophetic witness, making a positive difference for justice and righteousness. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is portrayed as a prophet and great leader of spiritual life who was sent to call God’s people to repentance, liberation, justice and healing. Luke tells the story of Zacchaeus’ encounter with Jesus (Luke 19.1-10). Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector and a rich man, who accumulated his wealth by collaborating with the enemy, the Roman Empire. He bought the privilege to collect taxes and his success depended on how ruthless he was in collecting them from his fellow human beings. Zacchaeus was rich, but he was an outcast. The story tells about Jesus bringing salvation to Zacchaeus and his household, AFTER Zacchaeus recognised his sin and repented and repaired his broken relationship with his community. He said, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay four times the amount”. (Luke 19.8)
Missiologies of life are a continuation of the mission of Jesus in announcing God’s reign (Luke 4.18) and proclaiming the Gospel to all peoples. Jesus resisted empire and domination of every kind. He overturned the master’s table, comforted those who were powerless, broken, impoverished and marginalised. The mission of Jesus is our mission. Our calling is to discern ways to be partners with God.
Rising with the resurrected Jesus Christ who is known in the body of Christ – a believing community of faith, which demonstrates an integral bond between faith, justice and action. This calls forth the church from its comfort and routine in our houses of worship and rituals, to be engaged with our community and neighbours in the struggle for life and freedom in Jesus Christ. Our theme, requires us to be conversant with the issues of injustices, including race, gender, homophobia, xenophobia – to take to the streets as Jesus did, in a greater connection with people, especially those who are suffering and in deep pain.
Rising with Jesus is to embrace a Spirituality of Resistance, which feeds us with energy for life in all its fullness calls for a commitment to resist all forces, powers and systems which reduce, deny and destroy life. A Spirituality of Resistance transcends the individual and the closed horizon of the material conditions of life and reveals to us a deepening sense of the God who demonstrated to us through Jesus, amazing love, compassion and care for all living things, a care we too, are called to exercise and sustain. Spirituality of Resistance is life-giving and empowering, enabling us to be fully human – living at peace with each other and with the Earth.
In our current context, we see and experience the devastation of people’s lives in gender-based violence, with murder or suicide being all too common here in Guyana, adolescent depression and risky behaviour, suffering of the elderly, lack of care for the environment, denigration and violence against LGBT persons, racism, and xenophobia. We see the degradation of our sense of being human. And yet, there is no shortage of religion or churches in our midst, which are in every city, district and village. There is no shortage of religious jargon being thrown around. But brothers and sisters wake up and read the signs of the times. There is an impoverishment in our region, in our churches of a Spirituality of the Risen Jesus Christ. Many of us are still living in grave-like situations, locked down and immersed in empire and its system and norms within our societies, co-opted in its greed and vulgar display of power and death dealing ways.
We are under-resourced and in some cases lethargic because we are yet to accept the invitation to Rise with Jesus. We embrace a fast food spirituality with our happy hour worship services – which feels good, but Pastors need to be moved and to move our congregations to a Spirituality of Resistance, to Rise with Jesus, instead of offering cheap grace. Indeed, we are called with urgency to Rise with Jesus, to be so moved as he was and to move and to act for justice and transformation.
People are in dire need of transformation within their personal lives – dealing with violence, family crisis, finance crisis, depression, stress, and lack of purpose in life. Our people are thirsty for the Word of God, the Word made flesh in Jesus. We are leaders who are called to shepherd them in meeting him and drinking of him, the cup of salvation and eating of his broken body, with such amazing love for you and me. We have a Calling to enable our community to Rise with Jesus from death to a flourishing life, full of hope and energy.
Spirituality of Resistance is a way of being, a lifestyle, that the Gospel calls discipleship. It is to draw from the wellspring of Jesus’ life and ministry. It is liberating, with basis in a theology of Liberation, which considers the significance of Jesus’ humanity. Spirituality of Resistance enables the recapturing of essential dimensions of Christian life and discipleship – the following of Jesus by the impulse of the Spirit. It calls for the CWM member churches to move to a greater connection with other churches, towards an inclusive ecumenism which is able to mobilise a robust following of Jesus with his own sense of history and praxis, becoming the model and basis of our discipleship and Gospel style of life in today’s world.
Spiritual renewal is important in our empowerment – to enable us to struggle, celebrate and feel for others in the midst of everything we face in the world today. Caribbean people need to seek ways for spiritual connections with traditions and cultural heritage which value life, community and the cosmos – within the Caribbean and also with other regions.
The South African concept of ubuntu is an interesting model of being community. Ubuntu defines a person in terms of his or her relationships with others and is the capacity to express compassion, reciprocity, dignity, harmony and humanity in the interest of building and maintaining community with justice and mutual caring. It speaks to our interconnectedness, our common humanity and the responsibility to each other that flow from our deeply-felt connection. Ubuntu is consciousness of our natural desire to affirm our fellow human beings and to work and act towards each other with the communal good in the forefront of our minds. Because ubuntu embraces and requires justice, it can inspire and create firmly a foundation for our common humanity.
Nelson Mandela explains ubuntu, “A traveller through our country would stop at a village, and he didn’t have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food, entertain him.” Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.”
I close with a story of a group of women debating the question of when precisely ‘daylight’ commenced. One woman said: “It is when one can see the difference between a sheep and a goat at a distance.” Another suggested: “It is when you can see the difference between a fig tree and an olive tree at a distance.” And so it went on. When they eventually asked the grandmother for her view, she said: “When one person looks into the face of another and says: This is my sister or this is my brother then the night is over and the day has begun.”
The day has begun. The breaking of day, however, also means the beginning of work at a time when many of us may prefer to sleep in. Friends, we cannot afford to sleep in, while war is being fought in our names and where life is at stake. To make sense of our world, we need to connect with people from the underside of history – those who struggle for food, freedom, dignity and the life of community against every system of death and destruction and those who struggle for the emancipation of the mind and for spiritual renewal.
The ecumenical movement is constantly seeking daylight – where people and churches work constantly work towards the recognition of each other as sisters and brothers, as members of the one body, one community, called to be the Church in the world today, To Rise with Jesus.
Rev Patricia Sheerattan-Bisnauth was the first woman in the Guyana Presbyterian Church to study theology and was ordained to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament in January 1984. She has served as Parish and Synod Moderator, and Vice Chairperson of the Guyana Council of Churches.
Rev Pat is a feminist theologian with particular interest in gender justice, economic justice and climate change. She has served for 11 years as Programme Executive for Justice and Partnership with the World Communion of Reformed Churches (Geneva). She has degrees in Theology and Ministry (United Theological College of the West Indies, Jamaica), Social Work (University of Guyana) and Religion and Society (Princeton Theological Seminary, USA). She has published more than twenty articles and has edited seven books and developed two gender manuals.
Rev Pat is currently the CEO of the Caribbean Family Planning Affiliation. She has a daughter, Krysta Sadhana Bisnauth.
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