Toppling Statues

If I had the energy I’d write this blog on one knee, but I’m feeling a bit washed-out at the moment. I’ve had some sort of virus though I’m sure it wasn’t The Virus, and I’m in the post-viral fatigue stage so forgive me as I sit to address you.

There was a very moving picture on Facebook today of clergy in front of Leicester cathedral taking the knee (and social distancing) and this is something we should all be doing in our hearts and minds: repenting our prejudices and asking for forgiveness.

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After Friday’s post I am a Racist, a reader commented that my kind of ‘prejudice’ is more to do with familiarity than outright racism. I didn’t reply to your comment, Taskerdunham, because I was considering it – and I think that, to an extent, you’re right. We all like to be in situations where we feel comfortable but this in itself is not prejudice. Men feel more comfortable in groups of men, for example. That’s fine – but then again there might be resistance to bringing a woman onto the office team, or to socialising with women. I feel more comfortable around middle-class people so I might be resistant to welcoming a working-class man into my social circle. We all like the familiar because when faced with the unfamiliar we have to ‘work harder’. So that whilst being comfortable with ‘people like us’ is not in itself racism, racism can grow from it. If we inhabit a monoculture the tendency is to assume that everyone is like us. The only way out is to see, as the Quakers have it, ‘that of God in everyone’ – or if you prefer, a common humanity in everyone.

This is the plaque erected in 2019 on the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol (presumably the old plaque had no mention of slavery, meaning that until last year he was honoured for his ‘philanthropy’ whilst his slave-trading was ignored.) This is the statue that was toppled yesterday by protestors, an act which feels like a defining moment; a moment of people saying ‘No more’. No lives were lost, nobody was hurt; apart from the damage to a slab of marble there is nothing to worry about. The problem is not that a statue was torn down and thrown in the harbour but that it was there in the first place. Here is a man who bought and sold other human beings as if they were bags of sugar and who was responsible for the deaths of at least 20,000 people, not to mention untold suffering besides.

Some changes require a dramatic, defining moment to start them off, and this feels like that defining moment. A thoroughgoing analysis of our colonial history is long overdue. Black people have suffered a long and bitter history of oppression and we have played a big part in that – but when I was growing up our colonial history was taught as something largely benevolent, a venture we undertook for the benefit of the ‘natives’. It took me decades to learn to see it differently.

Some people, including Priti Patel who you might imagine would know better, think the statue should not have been torn down. They see it as an act of wanton violence. But who is injured? A piece of marble was topped: that is all. I don’t want to see the wholesale pulling down of statues but I do want to see us undertake a radical examination of our history and particularly the way it is taught in schools.

This is going to involve some uncomfortable conversations. Churchill is currently seen as the nation’s war hero who helped us pull through when we ‘stood alone’ in 1940. I have no wish to deny his role in this: it was pivotal and crucial and his oratory was important. But we must not flinch from setting alongside this his racism and misogyny; his clear and unashamed belief in the superiority of white races and their god-given right to wield power over darker-skinned peoples. Should we therefore take down all the statues to Churchill? And why stop there? Churchill is only one figure – there are plenty of others. Even Quakers are not exempt – there were slave-owning Quakers until the Society eventually turned against the practice. How then should we go about this? To topple a statue is one thing: toppling racism is a far harder undertaking. We have sinned against our brothers and sisters; we have killed and exploited our fellow human beings and this must be acknowledged. We must seek forgiveness and a better way forward.

So take a knee. Then stand up and topple the statue of racism that lives in the heart.

Kirk out