The second in our series of Letters from Lockdown, written each week for our e-newsletter, is from John Hall, Churchwarden of St Mary’s, Garsington. This letter was originally published on Friday, 12th June 2020.
In the past two weeks we have been exposed to powerful images of memorial. ‘Black lives matter’ written on the old railway bridge at Horspath after the death of George Floyd, about which Emily wrote so movingly last week. We have seen the statue of Edward Colston, slave trader and later philanthropist to the city of Bristol, dumped in the docks. And close to home again, controversy rages in Oxford High Street about the statue of Cecil Rhodes high up on the facade of Oriel College. Should it stay or should it remain?
The debate about how to memorialise past oppression and slavery, and whether to retain controversial past memorials, is not an impersonal or remote concern. Like many of my generation, before WWII relatives I knew well were involved in colonial and imperial government or trade. Two were involved in the military and police control of the indigenous peoples of those countries, one uncle as an officer in a British army regiment stationed in India, and another uncle as a policeman in Southern Rhodesia. A cousin of my mother’s was managing the exploitation of their resources for the benefit of Britain, as a tea-planter in Ceylon.
On their return to Britain, both of my uncles were ordained and became country vicars. As a child I stayed with them, with one for a number of idyllic summer holidays. I remember both them and my aunts – and their rambling country vicarages! – with affection. Neither spoke to me about their earlier lives in India and Africa and what they later thought about that earlier part of their lives. I never asked them.
So the debate about memorials to the supposedly once good and great has prompted me to think about my own family. Should I revise how I think about my uncles? While I can ask questions about what they did, I cannot talk to them, and I do not know what they thought about their actions. By the standards of their time and social background, they were doing a respected job. We cannot change the past, but we can try to understand it better. We can then ask how that understanding influences what we can do here in the present.
During the anti-slavery campaign in the late eighteenth century, Josiah Wedgwood designed what we would now call a ‘logo’ for the Anti-Slavery Society’s campaign. It showed an African man in chains, kneeling in supplication under the slogan ‘Am I not a man and a brother?’ A central message of the Christian gospel is that we are sisters and brothers to each other. If we are brothers and sisters to each other we do not exploit them. We do not try to control them. We see the lives of all others as of equal value to our own; all lives matter.
People we know and love may have controlled or exploited others. Maybe we have hurt others. We may have been hurt by others. How can we bring reconciliation with those who have hurt us or others we know? As we ask for forgiveness, do we forgive others?
How do we remember those close to us who may have done damaging things in their lives? How honest should memorials be? Maybe events at Bristol Docks, and in our High Street, are not so far from us.