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Why is the Sam Sharpe Project important?

The Baptist Union of Great Britain and the Jamaica Baptist Union are committed to walking the ways of God’s justice. One demonstration of this joint commitment is The Sam Sharpe Project. We want you and your church to be aware of the project and join us. Sam Sharpe was hanged in Montego Bay on May 23, 1832 after initiating and leading a revolt for justice. Just before his execution he said: ‘I would rather die upon yonder gallows, than live in slavery.’ The revolt and Sharpe’s actions played a huge role in British parliamentary deliberations, and ultimately the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833. It is this legacy the Sam Sharpe Project seeks to build upon by promoting his story and exploring his relevance in today’s context. The Sam Sharpe annual lectures, an idea conceived by Rosemarie Davidson-Gotobed, a Partner of the Sam Sharpe Project, remains its key educational resource. 
 
The lectures have become an important fixture in the calendar of community events marking Black History Month. The best of them have sought to create a community event where scholars, social activists and religious leaders share their vision for a just society.

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World-renowned speaker Professor Verene Shepherd  delivered the 2019 lecture on the theme of Women in Sam Sharpe’s Army: Repression, Resistance, Reparation.


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This year’s excellent lecture again had a strong justice motif. It was presented by Professor Verene Shepherd at Imperial College London and BMS Birmingham, and explored the substantive contribution that black women made in the campaign for freedom and rights in the colonial Caribbean. It showed that anti-slavery activism is not the preserve of males, and was a strong reminder to the packed audience that patriarchy, even in the realms of scholarship, has yet to be slayed.

The Professor called for reparations for all those impacted by the horrors of colonialism. It’s no wonder that those women are now being commemorated in Jamaica. Sharpe, the Professor reminded us, went from plantation to plantation, Bible in hand, to swear the enslaved people there to rebellion and organise them into revolutionary cells. We should see reparations, she argued, as part of decolonial justice. Even as I write I am aware that reparations, a process of addressing injustices and wrongs committed, is being discussed by several Christian communities.

This should not really come as a surprise as it is consistent with the repentance envisioned by the New Testament. It is reflected for us in the story of Zaccheus and is consistent with the challenge of cheap grace Dietrich Bonhoeffer identified in his book Discipleship. Reparations is the antithesis of cheep grace. Reparations call for an enduring commitment to the ‘other’, one that emerges from the inner recesses of our hearts. Reparations are a genuine outcome of repentance, seeking to make collective recompense for collective violation perpetrated over years and sometimes even decades of systematic violence.

Because of this if reconciliation is unable to immediately happen despite reparations the relationships can still be given an opportunity to gradually move towards lasting and genuine peace in its acknowledging of the victims’ suffering through reparations. In both Sam Sharpe lectures, packed with people having travelled far and wide, the professor implored her listeners to do the right thing and do justice.

Our General Secretary Lynn Green says:

Back in 2007 Rev Karl Henlin from the Jamaica Baptist Union urged the Baptist Assembly to consider offering an apology for their role in the Transatlantic slave trade.  The subsequent meeting of our Baptist Union Council in November of that same year responded with deep listening, prayer, discernment and, moved by the Holy Spirit, Council unanimously passed a resolution offering an apology.  The Apology was formally presented to representatives of the JBU in Jamaica in the Spring of 2008.  From then on deeper relationships have been nurtured, most notably through visits to Jamaica for the JBU’s bi-centenary celebrations in 2015 and during my sabbatical in 2018.  

Various projects have also been developed since 2008.  One of the key initiatives to emerge has been the establishing of the annual Sam Sharpe Lecture in 2012 by the Jamaica Baptist Union with the Baptist Union of GB, BMS World Mission, the Heart of England Baptist Association, Regent’s park College, the Northern Baptist College and Bristol Baptist College.  In the 2017 Sam Sharpe Lecture – 'Members of one another: fleeting illusion of faithful pursuit?', Rev Karl Johnson shared his desire for deepening an authentic, integrated and non-discriminatory relationship between our two Unions.  That we were to be not just co-workers, but co-equals and this needs to be expressed in our relationships and our ministry together.  Karl went on to suggest that one practical expression of our authentic, integrated and non-discriminatory relationship would be for British Baptists to stand with Jamaican Baptists in making representations to the British Government about reparations.  Since then, Karl and I, together with others, have continued to explore the deepening of relationships between the Jamaica Baptist Union, BMS World Mission and the Baptist Union and how we might continue to make The Apology a reality in concrete ways.  One aspect of this is the issue of reparations.  

Helping us to engage with this issue, the 2019 Sam Sharpe lecture was inspiring and thought-provoking.  Professor Verene Shepherd identified and amplified the voices of many courageous women who trod so lightly on the pages of history.  In doing so she offered a compelling presentation of the tremendous cost of slavery and its far-reaching legacy.  Professor Shepherd very helpfully unpacked this legacy using the CARICOM Ten-Point Plan as a frame of reference. http://caricomreparations.org/caricom/caricoms-10-point-reparation-plan/

In the light of our journey from the Apology in 2007, this lecture not only deserves to be watched, it also needsto be heard because the rawness of this historic reality calls forth a response in the present and is a prophetic impetus for the future.

Professor Anthony Reddie, the recently appointed Director of the Oxford Centre for Religion and Culture at Regent's Park College, Oxford University has been assisting British Baptists to reflect on the biblical and theological necessity of them undertaking reparations as a means of engaging in 'Restorative Justice'. Reddie has created a PowerPoint Presentation that outlines the biblical and theological case for undertaking a process of restorative justice in order to demonstrate their commitment to expressing the righteousness of God in effecting right relationships between various members of the Body of Christ, particularly as it applies to the wider Baptist family. 

The PowerPoint presentation Professor Reddie has created is taken from his book Working Against The Grain: Reimaging Black Theology for the 21st Century. Reddie's book is seeks to provide a liberationist and prophetic understanding of Christianity  challenging the overly spiritualised interpretation of the faith that often fails to provide justice for the poor and marginalised. Working Against The Grain provides radical insights into how the Christian faith can be rethought in order to empower those who are deemed the 'Least of These' (Matthew 25: 31-46) so that they can see the good news of Jesus as one of liberation and transformation. It is in this wider context that chapter 8 of this book offers a radical and prophetic articulation for the case for effecting an ethic of reparations in order to establish justice informed relationships between different parts of the body of Christ. 

The Sam Sharpe Project has significant plans for the next three years and we will be sharing this news in the New Year.

Wale Hudson-Roberts - Justice Enabler, Baptists Together
December 2019

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The Baptist Union of Great Britain and the Jamaica Baptist Union are committed to walking the ways of God’s justice. One demonstration of this joint commitment is The Sam Sharpe Project.