Statues have suddenly become important to us all. They enrage Black Lives Matter. They have made the rest of us scratch our heads and think. Something big is at stake here, but what is it?
I underestimated statues. I saw them only as large and rather clumsy tributes to fashions in history.
However this thing with attacking statues just took off, and has become more than a fuss about slavery. Slavery has morphed into racism. And racism has morphed into taking down not only statues but re-writing history and cancelling freedom of speech. The new woke, with eyes that bulge uncomfortably, say freedom of speech must be cancelled since it can be a platform for hate speech; and racism is the worst hate speech there is.
The war on free speech comes in (at least) three ways at the moment. Social pressure; no one will like you if you are a called a racist. Cancel culture – you will lose your job if you are accused of being a racist. And the rewriting of history -down with the statues of racists- rub them out of history.
I don’t think I could have easily imagined Churchill’s statue being boarded up because the police felt too morally compromised to defend it from damage. But up went the boards, and although the public were told it was to protect the monument from damage, there was the sense that there was more to it than that. Churchill was being accused of racism, now a crime for which there is neither understanding, nor forgiveness. The man who stood for heroic courage, tenacious bravery and the man who saved our freedom of speech from the Nazis, suddenly becomes unspeakably bad, and has to be first defaced and ideally cancelled.
Not everyone agrees that racism is what BLM and others claim it is though. Dinesh D’Souza (a ‘brown’ American) has written a startling book called ‘the End of Racism.’ He claims that racism is much too clumsy a term to be of any use to us in unravelling the complexities of human hatred and the abuse of power. But once you throw in systemic racism (an institution suffers from it) and unconscious bias (you don’t even know you have it), there is no way on earth there can be any defence against being called a racist. It has become a very powerful tool. And, like Churchill, if you’re dead you can’t answer back. There is no freedom of speech for the dead.
This re-writing of history reminded me (as so many things do now) of George Orwell. It wasn’t statues that got him thinking, it was a show trial in Communist Russia in 1936. Just at the beginning of Stalin’s first purge a minor Bolshevik official confessed to a Russian court that he had met Trotsky’s son in Copenhagen. They had got together in the Hotel Bristol to plot against the state. His evidence was enough to get him and all the other conspirators shot.
A few days after this show trial, a Danish newspaper pointed out the uncomfortable fact that the hotel Bristol had been knocked down in 1917. The confession had been fabricated. There never had been a conspiracy. The point of the trial was to eliminate people who threatened Stalin’s grip on power. When the account of the trial was translated into English, history got re-written twice. First the false conspiracy that never was; secondly, hotel Bristol.
In the prophetic 1984, Winston’s job was the daily re-writing of history on behalf of the state. Orwell knew that the re-writing of history is one of the ways in which you get and hold on to power.
And increasingly it is beginning to look like this is in fact more about power than it is about racism and thought crime. Racism is just the route to the goal.
The Black Lives Matter movement tell us that their aim is to gain political power. They want to replace capitalism, get rid of the family, destroy orthodox understandings of sexuality, smash the patriarchy and transfer power from white (whatever that is) to black (whatever that is.)
Accusing people, dead and alive, of racism has become a most effective tool. The living have to give way or else they will lose their jobs. The dead and all the good they achieved, get rubbed out of history, which gets re-written.
Everyone is so frightened of being accused of a thought crime that there is no defence against, not only do they give in, but they even jump on this dangerous band wagon whose ambitions are no less than the cancelling of our culture as well as our freedom of conversation.
Both the BBC, who are pulling offensive comedies off iplayer and the Archbishop of Canterbury, who has promised to purge his cathedral of any offensive history are giving way, re-writing history, transferring power. Both ought to know better. The BBC should know that comedy is designed to offend. Welby should worry that BLM have started to attack statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Nothing to do with slavery; everything to do with re-writing history.
D’Souza thinks our real weakness is the idea that everything is relative. No culture no idea is better than any other. If we want to be able to have an opinion in the future, we had better decide that being free to think and being free to test what we think by speaking it and writing it, is indeed more important than offending someone who doesn’t happen to like what we say. So is it?
An account in the Diocese of Shrewsbury’s magazine, ‘the Messenger of St Anthony.’ By Simon Caldwell.
The State, freedom of conscience and civil disobedience.
The state and the Church have a history in our country. The relationship status might read “it’s complicated”. It ranges from the conversion and Christianization of the state to the deepest antipathy of the State and its persecution of the Church.
Even when Christian, the Church has had to challenge the state. Becket took on Henry 2nd and won. It cost him his life, but he won.
Thomas More took on Henry 8th. It cost him his life. While he won the moral argument he lost the legal and political one.
The narrative in this country is of course set in the far wider and more complex contest for a system of values fought in in a variety of states with a variety of aspects of the Church.
Glancing from the dynamics of Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar, through the Maccabees up to Bonhoeffer and Hitler, Solzhenitsyn and Stalin, the contest for setting the values by which human beings live, across states and cultures, defines one of the most powerful narratives in human history.
The pendulum swings from benign to malign.
In our day we are moving with some speed towards the malign. Any reading of 20C history demonstrates a three-cornered fight between two totalitarian ambitions, Marxism and Fascism, and Christianity. All three make absolutist claims on humanity that are irreconcilable. The anaemic relativism of our decaying culture in the West disguises the sharp and brutal quality of the contest.
Christians are rightly wary that the in 21st C there is no reason for thinking that the contest has been suspended. Fascism’s toll of Christians (and Jews) in Germany and Spain was horrendous but dwarfed by the toll wreaked by the Soviet Union and Marxist China.
In each period of attrition, the sign that the struggle to the death had begun was the control of Churches and worship by the authorities.
The beginning of this century has exposed the oncoming depth and intensity of a cultural revolution of values that are inimical to the faith in the west and suddenly out of nowhere, for medical rather than political reasons, the state suddenly closes the churches and prohibits worship.
There are three patterns of Christian response. The first is the highly secularized and spiritually incompetent one, which says, “places don’t matter; your private thoughts are everything, corporate worship is overrated. We are not worrying about the implications for a weakened church losing financial and philosophical traction becoming ever more bankrupt in both. There is nothing to see here, move on, don’t fuss.”
The second response, more literate historically but still underdeveloped spiritually says “yes it’s a terrible sign that that the churches have been down unilaterally. Yes, it looks authoritarian and apocalyptic, but check out the facts. It was a pandemic. It was medicine and science, not politics. Calm down. Nothing to worry about.”
The third group is more inclined to the view, “if it walks like a duck, looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it may well be a duck”. There is no value free science; everything has a political dimension; more importantly, everything has a spiritual temperature, character and metaphysical flavour or dynamic. Whether there was intentionality or not, the state took upon itself the right to close churches, prohibit worship and deny the autonomy of personal choice and informed conscience. And although this was a temporary measure (it seems) it set a precedent which should have been exposed, challenged and repudiated.”
This is not the place to argue that the science on singing, water droplets and infection is contested, as is the nature of the virus itself. But it is the place to make common cause with Lord Sumtion and vociferously claim that civil liberties require us to make a distinction between those who want to withdraw from public life in order to protect themselves in a situation that is scientifically and medically ambiguous, and those who chose to take certain risks congruent with a personal value system and the dictates of their conscience.
It is the place to say that Christians do not recognise the power or authority of the state to prohibit gathering for worship in ways that are not medically or scientifically lethal or antisocial.
It is the place for insisting that the bar that state has to cross to outlaw worship, close churches and outrage Christian conscience is considerably perhaps impossibly higher than the secular state recognises.
It is therefore a legal and moral duty for the Church to challenge the jurisprudential and ethical authority of the state to have set a precedent in the authoritarian closing of churches and prohibition of worship.
It is for this reasons that Christian Concern and a number of Church leaders (amongst whom I am the least) have issued a challenge to the government by means of judicial review to test the legality of this programme of church closure.
Further, if the legal challenge should be lost, many of us believe that Christians could argue that we had a moral and ethical duty to refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of unjust law that not only acted as a threat to civil rights and liberties that our forebears fought so hard to defend, but also struck at the heart of our religious, spiritual and moral allegiance and identity.
© Dr Gavin Ashenden.