Rod Symmons writes: The citizens of Bristol have a long history of letting the establishment know when they are not happy. In 1793 the question of tolls on Bristol Bridge provoked a riot that cost 11 lives. In 1831 the populace took to the streets again to protest against the fact that only 6% of the population had the vote—and a riot ensued that lasted for three days and led to a slaughter conducted by the 3rd Dragoon Guards that left up to 500 people dead.
By those standards, the Black Lives Matter protest last week was rather tame. There were no casualties and no arrests, but there were two iconic moments, both of which involved the statue of Edward Colston.
The first was the image of members of the crowd dragging the statue to the ground in scenes that were reminiscent of the fate that befell the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square in Baghdad in 2003. The second was seeing him sink to the bottom of the river to the same watery grave to which his merchant endeavours consigned 19,000 of his victims.
It has been suggested that comparisons cannot be drawn with the fall of dictatorships, but for those residents of the city whose ancestors had been on the receiving end of the business activities of the man who was commemorated on the plinth as “one of the most virtuous and wise sons” of Bristol it was just such a cathartic moment.
Would it have been better if a plaque had been added to give a bit more context to Colston’s ‘virtue’ and ‘wisdom’? Possibly. Would it have been better if the statue had been removed through a legal process? Yes, of course it would. But I have lived in Bristol for more than 20 years, and there was no progress at all on either front. Those who saw themselves as custodians of Colston’s legacy have exercised sufficient influence to ensure that the status quo has remained. The powerful Merchant Venturers, in alliance with a right wing councillor called Richard Eddy, made sure that any attempt to reinterpret the myth of Colston that had been created by his Victorian admirers was blocked.
After years of obfuscation, Bristol (and the wider UK) is now being forced to look properly at the legacy of slavery. There is a fresh urgency about looking at the plethora of streets, buildings and institutions whose names are associated with the ‘heroes’ of the slave trade—and rightly so.
I have to confess I have been on a journey with this. Some years ago the Bristol events magazine Venue (now discontinued) published an opinion piece that used a series of obscenities and profanities to lay waste all things Colston. The following month I wrote a response—not defending Colston, but pointing out the danger of hypocrisy. Carrying all the anger of a white middle-class liberal, the piece was laden with the assumption that had the writer lived in the eighteenth century he would have behaved differently. How can any of us know that? Surely the test is how we respond to the errors in our own day—such as the way we largely turn a blind eye to modern slavery (or at the least don’t devote a great deal of energy to addressing it)? I recall that I quoted the words of Jesus about specks and planks.
What changed my view was the belated realisation that while for me the transatlantic slave trade was an ancient wrong that heroes like Wilberforce and Newton had consigned to history, for many others it was a reality that could not so easily be brushed away. For friends whose ancestors were slaves, the sight of Colston standing erect at the centre of the city and commemorated in annual rituals where school children are given Colston buns and urged to recall with reverence his example of benevolence was an intolerable affront.
Some argue that to remove statues is to forget history. I beg to differ. To remove statues like that of Edward Colston is precisely the opposite – it is to remember and properly understand history and to distance ourselves from some of the actions of our forebears.
Let us take a modern parallel. At the time of his death in 2011, Sir Jimmy Savile was a national icon. His fund raising on behalf of various hospitals, and his stints working as a hospital porter, were the stuff of legends. A year later, however, the truth about his lifestyle began to come out and within a month places and organisations that were connected with Savile were renamed and a statue of him in Glasgow was removed. Respect for his victims meant that his legacy was radically reinterpreted.
People outside Bristol may not understand how toxic Colston’s brand is. His victims may seem very remote, but for many in Bristol they are their family members – or could have been. The failure to recognise the inappropriateness of honouring him in the way that Bristol has done for so many years is a mark of the fact that black lives have not sufficiently mattered to enough of us.
The question of whether the people who tore down the statue should be prosecuted is a delicate one. Yes, they committed an offence—but while what they did was illegal, was it unjust? On a more pragmatic level, if they are prosecuted that will become the story rather than Colston’s absence from his former place of veneration. My guess is that the Council, who it appears have been established to be the legal owners of the statue, will not press for a prosecution for that reason.
Perhaps the most significant thing to show the change that has happened in Bristol since the removal of the statue was the statement issued by the Merchant Venturers on Friday. In it they acknowledge that the fact that the statue has gone ‘is right for Bristol’ and that
It was inappropriate for the Society of Merchant Venturers to get involved in the rewording of the Colston statue plaque in 2018 and we have listened to the constructive comments put to us over this past week.
The statement also says:
To build a city where racism and inequality no longer exist, we must start by acknowledging Bristol’s dark past and removing statues, portraits and names that memorialise a man who benefitted from trading in human lives.
It is hard to overestimate how important this statement is. I cannot imagine any circumstances in which the Society would have suggested the removal of the statue in the past, but now that it has gone they have unequivocally renounced his legacy.
For Christians in Bristol, the removal of Colston offers a kairos moment. Black people in Bristol suffer the greatest discrimination and have the poorest outcomes of any or the 11 Core Cities in the UK. Getting rid of a statue won’t immediately change that, but properly coming to terms with the history of the city, its role in the transatlantic slave trade and the enduring legacy of that dark chapter will be a start. And the Christian community has a chance to take a lead on this.
Over the last couple of weeks I have had a number of extended and moving conversations with friends who have told me of the extraordinary experiences of racism that they have been through and the painful memories that recent events have brought back for them. I have known some of these people for many years and never had this level of conversation. This is a kairos moment to begin to listen to one another’s stories—and to sense the grief that these stories of racism must bring to our Father’s heart.
A few years ago church leaders in Bristol had a vision for Bristol to be a City of Hope. Since the election of Marvin Rees as mayor, Christians have been at the heart of partnerships being created between local government, commerce, education and the charitable sector to work together on issues like housing, homelessness, child hunger and period poverty. This is a kairos moment for churches within the city to build on those partnerships and to be part of the coming together that will define what the next chapter of Bristol’s history will look like for all of its citizens. What will it take for the outcomes of the next generation of black Bristolians to look more like their white neighbours? What part can we play in making sure that happens?
Working collaboratively with others who share the same vision, Christians have particular perspectives to bring to the table.
First, we come in humility. I believe I was not entirely wrong in my original response in Venue. The speck and plank image still holds good. Moral outrage about the past is an easy game; what is more challenging is to allow the spotlight to fall on ourselves. How are we colluding in the sins of today? It is not enough to claim that I am not a racist, what am I doing to actively confront the racism in myself and in my society and to support and empower those who are currently disadvantaged? And how seriously do I take the campaign against modern slavery and people trafficking here and elsewhere in the world?
Secondly, we come in grace. There has been a plethora of comments on social media in recent weeks proclaiming that ‘All Lives Matter’. That truism deflects from the gospel message that for all lives to be seen to matter decisive action needs to be taken in favour of the most endangered. The parables of the lost and found in Luke 15 do not suggest that the shepherd had no concern for the 99, but at that critical moment it was the life of the one who was lost that was at the forefront of his mind. The father emphatically loved his older son, but at that point in time securing his relationship with his younger son was the task in hand. To use ‘all lives matter’ as a qualification for ‘black lives matter’ is to miss the point. It is a cry for equality, when what is needed is equity. It takes grace to realise that if you give up the box you are standing on, someone else will be able to see.
Thirdly, we come in hope. We believe not only that all of humanity is created in the image of God, equally loved and equally welcomed to salvation through the death of Christ for the whole world, we also anticipate a day which John, the author of Revelation, foresaw when he wrote:
After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb (Rev 7.9).
We are destined to spend eternity with a redeemed humanity drawn from every race and nation and this eschatological vision has been foreshadowed, inaugurated, in the miracle of Pentecost as people from the whole known world heard the might acts of God described in their own languages. A reconciled humanity is what the kingdom looks like, and we want to live as if the kingdom is near (to coin the vision statement of Bristol’s great theological college).
Finally, we come in determination. We need to guard the agenda—to keep the main thing the main thing. The individuals who actually came with the gear to remove the statue were not just motivated by support for George Floyd, they are believed to have been white, middle-class anarchists. One of the reasons for keeping them out of court is to avoid giving oxygen to a divisive agenda. Many people have pointed out that the political agenda of the Black Lives Matter organisation goes beyond the sentiment expressed in its title. By seeking to facilitate the most inclusive and gracious conversation about the city’s past, present and future we can build help to build unity.
Revd Dr Rod Symmons has lived with his family in Bristol since 1999, having previously served an extended curacy at St Aldate’s Oxford, completed a Doctor of Ministry at Fuller Seminary and been Rector of Ardingly in West Sussex. He was Vicar of Redland for 20 years and is currently Area Dean of City Deanery in Bristol, Adviser for Curacy for the Diocese of Bristol and Tutor for Part-Time Students at Trinity College.
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28 thoughts on “Why the fall of statues is a moment of opportunity”
One lesson to learn from this is to avoid the impulse to put up statues of specific individuals who, even the best of them, will always be a mix of good and not-so-good and thus a focus of dispute. We should have followed the Old Testament injunction against graven images. My personal feeling is one of dislike of all political statuary. They are, however, interesting from an archaeological and historical point of view in communicating what people thought at a certain time.
I understand the impulse of communities to commemorate the war dead, and to that end public statuary of representative soldiers etc generally commands support. But even the Cenotaph has been defiled by ignorant anarchists, to the outrage of all who see this as a national shrine.
Herodotus records Solon of Athens admonishing Croesus (then at the height of his powers) ‘Call no man happy (oblios) until he is dead’ – but even then there is no certainty. If Jimmy Savile was temporarily a secular saint (personally, even before his death I thought he was a weirdo over-promoted by the BBC for its own purposes), something similar happened with Jean Vanier, touted by Catholics and others as a saint of our times. And no doubt he did do a lot of good. But a lot of schools in Canada and elsewhere are now thinking of changing their names.
But it cuts the other way as well. Look at the disgraceful way the Church of England traduced the memory of Bishop George Bell, rushing to obliterate his name from buildings and a school – on the basis of a single uncorroborated and highly doubtful allegation, as an extensive enquiry has shown. Yet even Justin Welby opined ‘George Bell stands under a cloud.’ Where is the justice in the way George Bell’s memory was maligned?
Rod asks: “How are we colluding in the sins of today?”
Aye, there’s the rub – because many of “the sins of today” are not recognised as sins.
Is abortion a sin? Nearly every orthodox Christian teacher throughout history has understood this to be so. So why did most of the Lord Bishops in the Church of England abstain when the Lords imposed Abortion on Demand on Northern Ireland the other day? Why did none of the women bishops – most of them mothers – speak out against this? Because they think abortion is not taking a human life?
Or the promotion of drugs: how long before marijuana is being openly sold with VAT in shops in England? What Church of England figures are speaking out against this?
I fear that just as with slavery in the 17th and 18th centuries, we are told that what we ‘moralists’ say is evil isn’t evil at all – or, as London’s Bishop Sarah Mullally (an ex-midwife no less!) asserts (I paraphrase), ‘I wouldn’t do it myself but I certainly wouldn’t stop others.’ In other words, exactly where sensitive and refined Anglican conscience was on slavery in the 18th century. And we presume to judge the past! What do we think the future will say about this age in which 210,000 unborn children a year are aborted in the UK?
your comment prompts me to describe a moment of grief I encountered a week ago. I’m learning Biblical Hebrew and, prior to a test, was trying to learn verb using cards. For each verb I had put a verse where that verb is to be found with the intent of learning it in context. I then noticed that two successive cards had the same verse: Deuteronomy 12.31:
“You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way, for every abominable thing that the Lord hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods.”
I have put in italics the two verbs, and my source states that the second means ‘burn (completely)’.
It then struck me that medical waste is burned completely, and that aborted babies are treated as medical waste. This so grieves the Lord that he hates it. My heart was broken and I wept.
We then see the reason: it is for the worship of ‘their gods’. What are the ‘gods’ whose worship led to the slave trade? What are the ‘gods’ that led to the holocaust? What are the ‘gods’ which lead to the juggernaut of abortion in our society? What other atrocities do the ‘gods’ of our western society require of us?
One last point: removing a statue is child’s play compared to the 18 other remaining things (schools, streets etc) in Bristol named after Colston, including a window in Bristol Cathedral.
Two serious questions for Christian theologians:
How much time must elapse before the sins of the past are forgiven by the blood of Christ?
If moderate-to-large slavers like Colston have to suffer the ‘damnatio memoriae’, what must be done about George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, both of whom owned large numbers of slaves? Must Washington DC and Washington State be renamed? That is a serious question but nobody faces it. Why? And why cannot humans be consistent about this?
Thanks, Rod, for an excellent and balanced article.
I was especially struck by the parallel with the lost sheep and the lost son. To concentrate on justice in racial areas at the moment does not mean that we are not unconcerned elsewhere in our society. The danger is that we (especially as white evangelicals) shy away from confronting one evil by diluting and diverting our comments and efforts into our other pet – even if correct – concerns.
Let’s concentrate on a clear Christian voice into this current move for equality and justice – it needs it.
My heart leapt when I saw pictures of this particularly odious graven image being pulled down. Sometimes, as with Boniface’s taking an axe to the pagan sacred oak, Gideon tearing down his father’s altar to Baal and Asherah pole, or Josiah burning down the high places, monuments can be an affront to God, and it is an act of prophetic rectitude to remove them.
In more recent times, such as dismantling the Berlin Wall and toppling that statue of Saddam Hussein referenced in the article the vandalism may be illegal but who cares? Black people have suffered long enough from the mealy mouthed justification of monstrosity.
Boniface’s statue in Crediton has recently been defaced by modern Pagans. I think the contemporary Green mood would be pretty hostile to him imposing his patriarchal religion on nature-loving Germans who maintained the harmony of nature by child sacrifice (as we do today in our clinics).
Wasn’t Codrington College in the Barbados named after a slave trader? Where does the drive for purity end? Maybe George Orwell has written something on this. We have, in any case, reached a point where the majority of black people in Britain are not from the West Indies but from recent emigration from West and East Africa. They were never slaves – although perhaps some of their ancestors were slave traders with westerners or Arabs on the Indian Ocean side. But we will never know because they didn’t keep records then. It must be remembered that the slave trade was long before colonialism in Africa, and in part colonialism grew out of David Livingstone’s campaign against the Arab slave trade. Professor Nigel Biggar in Oxford has made this point (which was once familiar to every educated person) and he was ferociously attacked for saying this.
Perhaps there is no end point, but a gradual review and removal as required of inappropriate ‘icons’ from the public place. Of course the question is, what is inappropriate? But I think most people would view Colston’s involvement in the business of buying and selling other human beings as pretty repulsive. One can certainly understand the revulsion by many of a man who is effectively being revered by continuing to have a statue of him.
I don’t know if anyone ‘reveres’ a historical figure simply on the basis of seeing a statue in the street; presumably you would have to find out at least something about what that person had done before you could have any view at all.
I would suggest there’s a useful educational benefit in leaving the statue of a historical figure to stimulate curiosity and therefore open the door to knowledge about the past and the lessons that it offers. But of course airbrushing the past is an essential tactic of people like the organisers of BLM who intend revolution.
As Alexander Solzhenitsyn said: “To destroy a people you must first sever their roots.” We’re seeing a frenzy of severing right now, and it’s certainly not being driven by the general public. The fruits of the long march through the institutions here in Britain (including the Church of England) are on rather obvious display are they not?
There’s a really effective way of teaching history – books.
Which is why people who had learned history took down Colston’s statue.
Public statues honour the legacies of figures who have contributed to the public good. Tearing them down and throwing them into the sea says loud and clear that our generation repudiates the sins of our forefathers in revering utter wickedness.
The reason the statue was erected in the first place was because he was revered, at least by those in power. That reverence continues to this day, at least by some. As for stimulating curiosity, i could just imagine the conversation between a parent and child on looking at the Colston statue – mummy, who was that man? Oh he was a business man who made quite a lot of his money by buying and selling black people, you know like some of your friends, and keeping them in terrible conditions so they could be slaves to white people like you and me. Oh ok. So, mummy, why is his statue still there? Silence.
Thank you for your reference to BLM. The sadness of this is the apparent unwillingness of those christians who should know better to look at the political agenda which underscores all this current unrest. It’s organisers have done their research and marketing well. All too reminiscent of the Pharisees and Sadducees of Judea 200 years ago.
Yes, books are probably the foremost way of getting to know our history but I think our inherited physical environment has something to tell us as well. Buildings, transport links and the rural landscape all have their own story which helps bring history to life. I’m not actually a big fan of statues (now he tells me!); it’s the mob violence implicit in the way they are brought down which I find dangerous.
In the case of Colston and his involvement with slavery, would it not be rather more constructive (and effective) to erect a sculpture of a black slave being beaten right there in the line of his sight? Forever more the figure would have to gaze on the reality of what he had done – for every passer by to see.
Yes, statues do honour the legacy of public figures, but only for the generation who lived at that time. Thereafter such monuments attest merely to the historical fact of that person’s notoriety in the past. Succeeding generations are not bound to share the views of their forebears. They should surely be capable of holding both thoughts in their minds at the same time: it educates them about their roots, and (hopefully) gives them food for thought about what might be imitated and what might be avoided in present times.
Yes, there’s nothing like a child for going straight to the heart of the matter. But, depending on the age of the child, I hope ‘mummy’ could be a bit more nuanced than that!
As a more general point:
I see that Macron is having none of this ‘erasing of the past’ malarkey in France. Perhaps that’s a surprise; but maybe not. The French have a rather stark experience when it comes to revolutions – the brutal reality may be more than uncomfortable but that makes it of greater important that it’s not erased from people’s memories.
I don’t disagree with you. Though I would rather the statues were taken down from their pedestals and placed somewhere in context, as Prof Olusoga has suggested.
I also sympathise with people taking the law into their own hands in the case of the Colston statue, since all the democratic attempts to have it removed had failed.
Really useful, especially your comments on ‘All Lives Matter’; of course they do but my white middle class life doesn’t require advocacy, nor is it captive to injustice. Thank you.
J. Savile’s statue was removed for the very good reasons mentioned above. It was an afront to his victims still living. Coltson and Rhodes represent the love capitalism has for money and should go. They are an afront civic morality. But what if every monument dating back to William 1 was torn down? A statute of limitation needs to be set up.
And the in the 1831 riots the mob burned down the Bishop of Bristol’s palace….
Did they have marsh mallows back then? or just sticks to toast them with? not much of a party.
Yes, it is not just about Colston’s statue.
Part of the problem may be putting statues of men [sic] on pedestals. Colston was, of course, memorialised for his philanthropy, but he could afford to be philanthropic only because he made money from the exploitation and suffering of others. It was never put up by popular choice and popular choice failed to bring it down against the power and partisanship of the Merchant Venturers.
Savile is, perhaps, a little like Colston in that his undoubted philanthropy is irrevocably tainted by his evil.
For some Mandela is still seen as a terrorist, others see him as a freedom fighter whose fight was against the evil forces of apartheid.
Gandhi may have slept with young girls, so did King David.
Some men are too evil to be memorialised. Others, like Churchill, Mandela and Gandhi have more nuanced records.
Perhaps we should ideally be an aniconic culture, like Judaism and Islam.
Stalin’s statues are toppled because they were only put up to celebrate his role in establishing an ideology that many Russians now recognise as evil. Saddam too. Savile’s was removed because we recognise he perpetrated hidden criminal acts that were criminal in his lifetime and the victims are still alive.
Colston’s wasn’t put up to celebrate slaving but his beneficence to the city. If it was, tear it down. Surely he’s honoured for that? Reverence? Really?! An exaggeration for effect. Otherwise a plaque would do.
Every figure has a dark side, Mandela, a terrorist, tear the statue down, Gandhi a ‘racist’ who slept naked with young girls, erase his memory. Does the evil obliterate any good? Or is it just dead White guys, betraying the impulse as being the belief in the apparent original White sin of Systemic Racism and erasure of Western culture? I can easily find Black intellectuals who scorn the very notion of it yet White allies treat the idea as gospel.
The rage is selective but spreading. All provoked by a sickening murder by a multicultural (yes!) group of 4 cops.
Were all democratic channels really explored ie asking the people of Bristol or just a few activists badgering the council? It looks like the rule of a revolutionary mob to me, wholly undemocratic. Where does it stop? Darwin the racist, tear him down then and criticise his theory as it gave rise to aspects if scientific racism. Tear up the US Constitution because it was drawn up by slave holders, one of whom, Pres Jefferson, prob had a coercive sexual relationship with a slave girl. If everything is tainted by association with wrongdoing there’s no end to it.
Tear down everything it seems to me is the purpose and the result. Revolution under the guise of righting some wrongs. Year 0. Now where have we heard that before? Pandora’s box has been opened up with the police kneeling to those who claim moral superiority through victimhood and their allies who may use violence to get their way. It’s not just about Colston’s statue.
Oops, I replied above.
An excellent and thoughtful article, thank you Rod. I agree with the vast majority of this but I do think there is an important perspective missing. Outside of the middle class intellectual mileiu of Stoke Bishop (where Trinity College is located (built by slave trader Robert Cann)), and away from affluent Redland where Rod ministered for many years (many fine Georgian house no doubt built on the back of slavery), up in the poorer white working class areas of Bristol, and up here in rural Nottinghamshire where I now live, there is a different view of these events. It is read by many here as another assault on “British culture”, provoking the same sort of reflexes as delivered Brexit and the toppling of Labour’s red wall. People who feel forgotten and that their cultural heritage is being constantly eroded by foreign forces. I do not agree with them but I am beginning to understand their perspective. I think they would broadly have supported Colston’s democratic removal but the anarchic rage and subsequent moral panic has sadly pushed back by years the liberal cause of stamping out rascism and bigotry in these areas.
One final thought, if Colston was such an important emblem of our institutional racism, why did Bristol’s mayor Marvin Rees nor his rival Tory mayoral candidate (& Trinity College former ordinand) not put this at the top of their reform programmes? If it is because the role lacks the power to bring such things about, then the spotlight should now be shone on those who do hold it (and who no doubt live in the fine houses of Clifton, Stoke Bishop and Redland).
The present focus on colour equality, though vital, should not distract us from the deeper currents of inequality which Scripture calls us to address.
Yes for you Mandela’s violence weighs less in the scales, you’re willing to forgive him his faults, but it’s still something right thinking people should see as nothing to celebrate, rather to abhor, with a statue. Well, of course, his violence isn’t what is being celebrated, but his other deeds. Not sure I’d defend King David’s actions, one of his wives could’ve warmed the bed instead, but I think a statue would still be in order due to his other deeds! David didn’t seek to project an aura of spiritual authority, saint-like, as Gandhi did, so there us something of the Savile hypocrisy about it. Unlike Savile Colston wasn’t doing anything illegal then. A man of his time. Slavery was ubiquitous throughout history till then. How many donations to charities from the rich are tainted by association?
We could be having the same discussion re Churchill’s imperialism and racism. Who gets to decide what’s too evil? I’m still unsure what truly democratic process was undertaken previously, just representations to the suspect Venturers who of course are party with a ‘right wing’ councillor (read bigot) not just people who can recognise the good without swallowing the evil. But let the people decide what they’re happy with, not the mob or PC authorities. I can’t see why anyone would defend mobs taking the law into their own hands. What happens when they start burning the Bible and calling for a ban for its perceived stance on slavery or homophobia etc? The Q is the trajectory and I think it’s dangerously short-sighted not to see where it’s going.
Where is the line to be drawn in history from the freedom of the present.
Do we look a the the beliefs of the founders of the Guardian newspaper, of Mohammed in relation to slavery?
Do we look at the present day funding of Universities?
Of Arsenal Football club? Highlighted by Metzil Ozil’s “race”?
And why would n’t those responsible for at the minimum crime of criminal damage be prosecuted, (possible a high ranking offence of riot) when someone is sentenced to two weeks imprisonment for urinating in a public place, reputedly after drinking 14 pints of beer.
Why not look into the deep political agenda of BLM which extends far beyond skin colour, race, with all its social entanglements at the heart of it politics and without any or little public accountability?
The ManchesterGuardian was established in 1821 to serve the Liberal interest in the wake of the Peterloo Massacre.
In the words of its greatest owner ‘comment is free, but facts are sacred’.
Who did it support in the American Civil War?
Is this correct, in relation to the Guardian newspaper?
“Its founder made a fortune in the cotton trade, supported the Confederacy in the Civil War and attacked Lincoln for freeing the slaves. Should the Guardian be cancelled too?”
From the blog of David Robertson.