Proclaiming the Truth in the Age of Empire

 18th Century British Soldiers.

18th Century British Soldiers.

During the 18th and 19th Century, countries used their colonial presence and military power to expand their spheres of influence across the globe, and none more so than the British. The British Empire was the largest Empire the world has ever seen, spanning, as you all know, one quarter of the world’s land. The main reason for this was the desire of these nations to have political control directly or indirectly of where raw materials were being produced, namely, cotton, copper, and iron. As a British children’s book of the time for learning your ABC’s put it:

“A is the Army, that dies for the Queen; It’s the very best Army that ever was seen. B stands for Battle, by which England’s name, has for ever been covered with glory and fame. C is for Colonies. Rightly we boast, that of all the great nations, Great Britain has most”...

European imperialism involved a lot of fighting and a lot of dying. As Mao Zedong famously said, "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun". It was through violent action and brutal oppression that Europe dominated the globe. Being the 21st Century liberal that I am, I am inclined to think of Empire in quite negative terms, viewing it simply as the subjugation of various people groups by a few privileged nations. In reality though, it is incredibly difficult to judge the actions and beliefs of 18th and 19th Century people by the standards of today. There are countries you can point to around the world which appear on the whole to have benefited from their colonialist past. India is often given as a good example of this. Though, of course, that’s a somewhat controversial thing to say, as we don’t have an example of an India without a colonialist past to compare it to. It’s difficult to judge these nations, these Empires, because connecting back to what I was saying last week, they are operating from a completely different script. The norms, the ‘narrative’, through which they saw the world is completely alien to us. It’s so alien to us, from our perspective, from our vantage point, that their attitudes can often come across as stupid, barbaric, or vulgar. Take for example our second reading, which Tessa read: Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The White Man’s Burden’. By today’s standards this poem is plainly racist. It views the indigenous occupants of colonies to be, as the poem puts it, ‘half devil and half child.’ By colonising these countries, Kipling believed, we were bringing order to chaos, civilization to the uncivilized. He believed (and this was a very normal view to have in the 18th and 19th Century), that white men had a moral duty to bring economic, cultural, and social progress to the backwards people of the world. In other words, colonialism was viewed as a positive thing, and if a few people had to die in order to set up colonies, or a few people had to die to maintain order in colonies, it all ultimately served a greater good: to Christianise, and civilize the non-European portions of the world. So, from our vantage point these attitudes are obviously repugnant. But I think it’s too simple, too easy, to just dismiss those who held such views, call them ‘jingo imperialist’, and for that to be that. I believe the fact that they confidently believed they were doing right has something to teach us.

 Cecil Rhodes statue at Oriel College. 

Cecil Rhodes statue at Oriel College. 

There has been a growing trend over the last decade or so, a growing desire, to rectify historical wrongs. For example, a couple of months ago, the government posthumously pardoned Alan Turing for breaking the same-sex relationship laws of the time. And last year, there was a big campaign to have the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College, Oxford, be removed, because Cecil Rhodes was himself a ‘jingo imperialist’, believing that the English were a ‘master race’. To quote him directly, he said, ‘I contend that we are the first race in the world, and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race’.  Or, in the United States, there has been a growing call to compensate the descendants of the Native Americans whose land was ‘stolen’ during the 17th Century. Or, within our own movement, back in October, Cliff Reed wrote an article to the Inquirer about Robert Hibbert - the 19th Century owner of lucrative Jamaican plantations, the man who made his wealth through owning slaves. Wealth which was used to set up the ‘Hibbert Trust’, a Unitarian charity which gives grants to Unitarians training for ministry. In response to that article Stephen Lingwood (the Unitarian minister of Bolton), stated that if the ‘Hibbert Trust’s’ money was created by slave labour, then surely the wealth of ‘Hibbert Trust’ belonged to them, or the descendents of them, rather than the ‘Hibbert Trust’. We are obviously faced with countless examples of great historical injustice, and the further down that rabbit hole we go, the more we will find. In December, Alan Ruston wrote an article to ‘The Inquirer’ which outlined Unitarians’ broader slave owning connections. He noted that as much as one-fifth of Victorian England’s wealth was probably derived from the slave economy. Unitarians’ wealth probably in particular, as our movement had strong connections to the textile industry; textiles made with that same cotton that for the most part came from the American deep south, and their slave labour. So, what should our response to this problem be? I think for a start, we must recognise the problem. As the saying goes, ‘Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it’. It goes without saying that we absolutely must not whitewash our history. If it transpires that our movement has a particularly bad track record, and was built upon suffering and oppression, we must own that fact. We must allow the transgressions of our ancestors to spur us on in our pursuit of bringing about a more just, loving, and peaceable world.

 Scene from Martin Scorsese's 'Silence' 

Scene from Martin Scorsese's 'Silence' 

However, the notion of making direct amends for the sins of our ancestors, whether European, British, or Unitarian, to my mind seems misguided. Money is not clean. All money somewhere along the line, if we trace it back, has been through the mill of this world. It’s been used as a tool of exploitation, manipulation, corruption; it’s been used to fund violence; it’s been used to tie people up in red tape; it’s been used to manipulate the credulous. I wonder then if the question is not so much where the money came from, but rather how we should be using it now. How can we use it for good, for better, more noble ends? And that is the really difficult question. Remember Kipling, and the noble task of the white man, going out to civilize the uncivilized, for some perceived greater good - they believed they were doing right. And this Empire mentality was not unlike the missionary mentality, converting the world to the true faith, which in Victorian times meant effectively civilizing the world one person at a time. It amounted to the bottom up approach rather than the top down. But they believed they were acting for the good of humanity, and as such they were willing to use violence and coercion towards that end. I wonder if today we can know what right is? How can we know? The world is showing up to us in a particular way. Who is to say if tomorrow our children’s children will not look upon us, likewise, as destructive and foolish. I think that is quite difficult for us to say. And the fact that it is difficult I think should make us wary about believing too strongly that we are acting in the best possible way. A bit of self-doubt is not always a bad thing. I think it’s almost always a good idea to be a bit cynical if someone is completely convinced, without a shred of doubt, what the best course of action forward is.

Last month, a few of us went to see the new Martin Scorsese movie ‘Silence’. (Click Here: for my review of Silence). Again, this film is another good example of individuals viewing the world through a lens, completely different to ours. They were 17th Century, Portuguese, Roman Catholic Christians, who believed without a shadow of a doubt that they must spread the Christian message into Japan, otherwise the souls of the Japanese were damned. At one point in the movie, a disillusioned Christian missionary explains how the supposed converts to the faith were not really converts at all, because their perception of God was so unlike theirs, that it could not be said that they were Christians. One narrative breaks down in the face of another. Our narrative today looks infinitely more just, fair and noble than yesterday’s, but tomorrow, tomorrow we might all be fools. My take-away this morning is that I think we should view this predicament as quite amusing. We must act from a place of authenticity in what we perceive as the most loving way possible, while recognising we may be totally wrong. We must not take ourselves too seriously. I think that may come quite close to the meaning of life. Be authentic. Love another, be loved by another. Learn along the way, and recognise how silly it all is…

Amen.