Graham Green,

public statues and the politics of mercy

If one of the most powerful Catholic voices in the last century was Graham Green, it was because he articulated two human  needs; the  possibility of redemption and the longing social as well as personal transformation.

He walked arm in arm with the utopian ambitions of Communism on one side of him, and the redemptive power of the Catholic faith on the other. 

Not everyone found his political longing for optimism and his spiritual vision of unquenchable redemption easy companions. 

The balance between human flaws, that mysterious alchemy of weakness and sin on the one hand, and the belief that the deeper the sin the greater not only the need, but also the greater the  capacity for redemption on the other, was a difficult stretch for some.

On the publication of the Power and the Glory in 1953, the  then Archbishop of Westminster summoned Green and read him a letter.” According to Green himself 

“The Archbishop of Westminster read me a letter from the Holy Office condemning my novel because it was “paradoxical” and “dealt with extraordinary circumstances.”

But he reported that when he met Pope Paul 6th in 1965, he assured Greene, “some aspects of your books are certain to offend some Catholics, but you should pay no attention to that.“

What offended people was, of course, the radical forgiveness that lay at the heart of the faith and its capacity to transform everyone and everything it touched. Christians often find that in the struggle between a natural desire for justice and forgiveness, it is easier to identify with justice.

At the other end of the compassion-justice  pendulum lies the moral calculations of the identity politics and the influence of BLM. They embody a new cultural initiative for what they intend to be social justice.

Statues and monuments have functioned as the lightening conductors for an intensified  puritanical political justice. The political agenda for social change has taken the form of a ruthless cancel culture. 

Whereas Graham Green longed for an alliance between Catholicism and Communism during his life, and many Catholics were attracted to the hope that the politics of the far left might carry the earth closer to heaven, it proved otherwise in the twentieth century. Not only was the totalitarian power of the Left exercised with consummate brutality, but it did not repay the compliment by allowing any recognition of the Church and the needs of the soul. Politics outlawed metaphysics. 

If one of Green’s contributions was to elevate mercy over justice, the recent mobbing of statues shows us how the ethics of the progressives demand justice at the expense of mercy.

And perhaps that, rather than the fate of statues and monuments is the issue that ought to catch our attention.  

The most recent imposition of But in Jesus College Cambridge the revolution is being engineered by visionary academics. 

The most striking thing about their ethical calculations are the absence or vacuum  mercy. The exact details of Tobias Rustat’s life are interesting to the historian but irrelevant to the social justice warrior. He was  young  vicar’s son from Barrow who came to London to learn to be an apprentice barber-surgeon. He became a bodyguard to the Duke of Buckingham, helped Charles 2nd escape after the battle of Worcester, and got made after the restoration as a courtier. 

He had a weakness for buying books for Cambridge libraries and protecting orphans. Pepys called him “”He is a very simple, ignorant, but honest and loyal creature.”

He did however, invest in the Royal Africa Company and slavery. Critics argue over whether he knew what he was helping to finance and whether he was ‘in’ too early to make profit and so taint his money.

But at the heart of the movement to get rid of his memorial in Jesus College chapel (a thank you for the books) are two problematic calculations. 

The first is whether or not human beings can judge one another with any effective moral insight? How do we weigh Rustat’s care for orphans and books against his toxic investments? 

The progressive ethic takes the opposite view of Green’s daring Catholic Christian trust in redemption; any deviation from the strictest anti-slavery ethic, any association with any deviation, and damnation inexorably follows, or at least the secular equivalent, cancellation.

The second is whether or not money can  be tainted?

Michel Quiost, the French priest and poet, offered this response to the question:

“Lord, see this bank note – ! It frightens me.

You know its secrets, you know its history.

How heavy it is!

It scares me, for it cannot speak.

It will never tell all it hides in its creases.

It will never reveal all the struggles and efforts it represents, all the disillusionment and slighted dignity.

It is stained with sweat and blood,

It is laden with all the weight of the human toil which makes its worth.


It fills me with awe, it frightens me.

For it has death on its conscience . . .

All the poor fellows who killed themselves for it,

To possess it for a few hours,

To have through it a little pleasure, a little joy, a little life.

(Lk 12:33-34)

Through how many hands has it passed, Lord?

And what has it done in the course of its long, silent journeys?

It has offered white roses to the radiant fiancée.

It has paid for the baptismal party, and fed the rosy-cheeked baby.

It has provided bread for the family table.

Because of it there was laughing among the young and joy among its elders. It has paid for the saving visit of the doctor,

It has brought the book that taught the youngster.

It has clothed the young girl.

But it has sent the letter breaking the engagement,

It has paid for the death of the baby in its mother’s womb,

It has brought the liquor that made the drunkard,

It has produced the movie unfit for children, and has recorded the indecent song. It has bought for a few hours the body of a woman,

It has paid for the weapons of the crime and for the wood of the coffin.

O Lord, I offer you this bill with its joyous mysteries, its sorrowful mysteries.

I thank you for the life and joy it has given.

I ask forgiveness for the harm it has done.”