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20 September 2013

Radical action

Radical action

Wikimedia Commons: Martin Addison


This week Selfridges department store lived up to its catchphrase: "There is always something extraordinary going on in Selfridges."

On Monday 16 September a staff member refused to serve a man because he was accompanied by his friend Tommy Robinson, the English Defence League (EDL) leader. The individual was protesting against a person he saw as embodying racism, fascism and Islamophobia. The incident has caused a stir and produced two very different reactions.

Selfridges responded by suspending the staff member for breaking company policy and treated Robinson and his friend to a slap-up steak meal. They have since confirmed that they will not take any further action against the individual member of staff, despite some calling for him to be sacked.

The other response, a second reaction, has seen many commend the individual for making a statement. Social media calls and emails of support for the staff member have flooded toward Selfridges – standing up for the right thing should not be punished, they say. As a Huffington Post blogger observed, the excuse 'I was only doing my job' can actually be a shallow cop-out. How can 'society' oppose and reject fascism and racism without this impacting the world of work? Is work somehow separate from society?

On 28 August, North America and the world marked the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's I Have a Dream speech. The speech, which epitomises the climax of the civil rights movement's struggle for equality and justice, was given during a march to confront injustice. Fifty years after that dream, the struggle continues today in fighting for what is right and confronting that which is fascist or racist.

While controversial, the actions of the Selfridges staff member can be viewed as courageous, as he took the opportunity to stand his ground.

It reminded me of the actions of Sam Sharpe (1801-1832), the Baptist deacon in Jamaica who led a sit-down strike as a demonstration of freedom and equality during the slavery era. Following this, further revolts took place, eventually leading to the emancipation of slaves in the Caribbean. It also reminded me of the boldness of Rosa Parks (1913-2005) who refused to stand up from a bus seat for a white person.

In these simple but profound actions we see people choosing to confront and not ignore prejudice and injustice. Simple, practical actions can have huge implications on our community and society if we are courageous enough to step out when it matters.

Acts of courage will look different for each of us, but surely as Christians we are called to speak for the oppressed and the marginalised? Jesus in his ministry related and associated with oppressed and less-privileged people. We can sometimes mistake Jesus for a meek and mild man, but he was in fact radical. In challenging injustice Jesus was not afraid to physically knock over the money-changers' tables in the temple (Matthew 21:12-13).

Jesus also encouraged us to seek peace and forgive our enemies. As Christians we are called to seek peace and reconciliation between divided communities and help to reconcile differences. But being people of peace and standing up against injustice are not polar opposites – the prince of peace acted decisively against injustice, and so should we. Therefore let us speak or act against injustice, in whatever shade or form we come across it.

Rev Israel Olofinjana is a Baptist minister and author of the newly published Turning the Tables on Mission: Stories of Christians from the Global South in the UK