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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