The Black Lives of History Matter Too

by Catrin Harland-Davies.

We’re pleased to welcome Catrin to the Theology Everywhere editorial team. In particular, she will be looking after our new Twitter account, which you can find here.

Yesterday was Racial Justice Sunday, and it has never felt more urgent – at least to those of us with the privilege of whiteness, who have been able not to notice its very real urgency until now.

A significant question over the last few weeks has been the appropriate way to mark and commemorate our history. A lengthy controversy over a statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oriel College, Oxford, and the dramatic toppling of a statue of Edward Colston into the harbour at Bristol, have focused attention on this issue. Despite arguments that to remove such monuments is to erase the troubling parts of our history, surely it is time for us to recognise that memory and celebration are different things. To remember is not necessarily the same as to honour.

But what, then, is the place of corporate memory, and how do we react to our history? Or, to put it another way, what is our responsibility for the sins of our ancestors? There tends to be a strong reaction against the idea of inherited guilt, and for good reason. Part of God’s gracious new covenant, in Jeremiah 31, promises that: “In those days they shall no longer say: ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge.”[1] We are responsible for our own deeds, but not the actions of those who have gone before. So then, the logic goes, apologies or public acts of contrition are out of place. We should not feel guilty about the past, because it was not, by definition, ours to feel guilty about.

And yet, within both the church and wider society, corporate memory of the past, as a lived experience of the present, is deeply ingrained. We gather (in ‘normal’ times!) around bread and wine, and, in remembering, experience the presence of Christ in our midst. We celebrate key events from our Christian or denominational history, with pride, gratitude and joy. In 2007, on the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, many of us took the opportunity to congratulate ourselves on Methodism’s place in this. It spoke to us of the best of who we are – our heritage, charisms and honour. And yesterday, many clapped for the birthday of the NHS, and even those of us not born at its foundation felt pride not only in its current workers, but in the vision that created it.

Our history makes us who we are today. But if that is true of the best of our history, why would it be less true of the worst? If we are permitted – positively encouraged, even – to share in the glory of our predecessors’ achievements, why do we feel excused from sharing in the shame of their sins? A reason for the celebration and pride is to inspire us to follow in their footsteps, surely; no less, then, should we draw inspiration (of a different sort) from the pain and inhumanity that is so often a part of the historical mix – in our Church, as much as in our society. If we rejoice in the innovation and technical achievements of the industrial revolution, should we not also take time to remember that the wealth that enabled it was founded on imperial entitlement, enslavement, exploitation. And, for that matter, should we not remember that the structures of labour which fuelled it at home were also often exploitative. History is not just the stories of great men, but also of the nameless people who were trodden underfoot in the cause of such ‘greatness’.

And one more reason why we should, perhaps, feel invested in the less, as well as the more, glorious parts of our history: If our history has made us who we are, it should be no surprise that its effects are with us still. That I can go about my life, knowing that my skin colour will not be noticed and will not disadvantage me is not a coincidence. It is the product of centuries of prejudice lived out in slavery, apartheid, segregation, exclusion, marginalisation, overt and insidious racism. That I can live comfortably, in a nation that can afford health care for all, is not an accident – it is the consequence of imperialistic enrichment at the expense of nations whose resources we felt ourselves entitled to. The consequences of history are real now. We do not live in a fair society. Inherited privilege leads to inherited accountability. It is not enough not to discriminate; we need to work actively to dismantle the structures that privilege us. The guilt of our ancestors should set our teeth on edge, because we benefit from it still. It is therefore our guilt, too.

The consequences of our history are real now. The consequences of our present will be real in the future. So it is our responsibility to build a better present – one in which there is equality, generosity, a celebration of difference, but a celebration also of a shared humanity. We do this by remembering, acknowledging and owning our history, warts and all.


[1] Jeremiah 31:29-30

3 thoughts on “The Black Lives of History Matter Too”

  1. “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” LP Hartley’s “The Go-between God”. We judge the actions of our ancestors against the morality of today’s society. I am sure that much of our behaviour today will horrify future generations. Our response to our predecessors should be guided by how we wish succeeding generations to judge us.

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    1. “The Go-between”. The Go-betweenn God was by Bishop John Taylor. I take the point, but slavery was denounced in the name of Chrustianity by Bartolomeo de las Casas. The case was never answered, but economic and political expediency proved more convincing. Are some elements of morality timeless? Not everything can be put down to the prevailing ideology. Eg Victorians who protested against factory conditions.

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