Last week, protesters in Bristol hauled down a public statue, a 19th century memorial to Edward Colston, a 17th century slave-trader from the city who, as well as bequeathing his wealth to city charities, was responsible for transporting about 80 00 men, women and children from Africa to the Americas. That act has triggered a week of protests, including calls for similar acts of cleansing.
Predictably, the shrill and judgemental public arguments have started. For one side, the act was right – an appropriate response to the brutal ending of yet another black person’s life by intrinsically-racist white forces of law. For the other it represented the undemocratic rule of the mob, an impermissible unleashing of violence.
But I wonder whether such a bipolar axis of right and wrong, is the most appropriate, or helpful measure of the action that, in the end, brought Coulson’s statue to rest at the bottom of the river Severn? Is it right to keep the ethics of an act, that clearly points beyond itself to so much more, at a personal distance in this way?
Allow a very short digression. I remember one of my first ‘grown up’ science books I was J.E. Gordon’s classic ‘The New Science of Strong Materials’. It struck me with the sort of delicious shock that science is so good at. For as soon as we know the strength of the tiny bonds between atoms in a metal or compound, we can calculate the strength of a large piece, say a strut, made of those atoms by simply multiplying up the number of bonds. The shock comes in the actual measured breaking strength – it is always thousands of times smaller.
What did we forget? A material’s strength depends not on its ideal perfection, but on the presence of its hidden flaws, its misalignments, its pressure points – literally its weakest links. Cracks, when they occur,
start there, and focus the external stress so that it shatters and divides. I don’t think that by now I‘ll be needing to ask anyone to ‘keep up at the back’ with the metaphor. Fracture is sometimes the only way finding out where the flaws are. This is true of societies as well as materials. We can argue for ever about whether a destruction was a good or bad thing, but sometimes the most significant implication is what it shows us.
St. Luke in his gospel recounts a sudden material failure: a tower that fell on eighteen people, killing them. The people around Jesus wanted to know if blame should be laid on the shoulders of those who suffered. But Jesus refused to respond to that axis of judgement. Shockingly, he urged everyone to ‘repent’ – to turn around and change the way that they lived, loved and thought – rather than to judge: ‘for unless you also repent,’ he said, ‘you too will perish.’ We might take that to heart. Black lives have to matter to us, in a way that is reflected in deed and word. But characteristically, Jesus saw even deeper than that – for it also involves the identification of structural material flaws in us, those that, unless they are annealed away, can result in cracks that rend not only me and you, but the communities in which we live.
Remarkably, this very material analogy is contained and continued in the Biblical tradition explicitly. To take one of many examples (the one that Handel and his librettist chose for Messiah):
But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord.
Malachi 3:2-3 (ESV)
Removing the fault-lines that tear us apart is a necessary though painful aspect of a relationship with the Living One who is our Hope and Healer.