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Statues: Haddon Willmer shares some reflections on a BBC Radio 4 discussion on Race and our public space

8 July 2020

The statue of the slave trader and philanthropist Edward Colston statue has been torn from its plinth and dumped in Bristol’s harbour. He joins a list of toppled US statues including Christopher Columbus and Robert E Lee – and they may soon be joined by Oriel College Oxford’s controversial monument to the Victorian colonialist Cecil Rhodes.

A new wave of anger about who we choose to memorialise has been fuelled by the killing of George Floyd, and this programme asks – if we are to better reflect our country – how should our public spaces change?

Samira Ahmed is joined to discuss solutions and the future by the the artist Hew Locke, who was born in Edinburgh and raised in Guyana before returning to the UK. He has made works directly featuring controversial statues. We hear from historian and former director of the British Museum Neil MacGregor, and philosopher Susan Neiman, author of “Learning From The Germans” a book about memorials and remembering difficult history, especially around race. And Danna Walker, an architect, and founder of the social enterprise “Built by Us” which aims to diversify construction and architecture to create a more inclusive built environment.

A statue represents what our values, our gratitude, our emulation.  To make and care for a statue spells out who we think we are and want to be.  A statue can shape our aspiration, actions and relationships. 

A statue involves us in itself, if we let it.  Most statues are ignored by most people most of the time.  Let them moulder.  When they are noticed, they raise awkward questions which are not to be ducked, questions not so much about the statue but about ‘us’.

All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…

Is a statue a standing denial of this truth?  

Is it a truth? 

I cannot put up or defend a statue thinking that I celebrate a person who is an exception to this truth.

A statue should not publicise a claim to glory that attains and shares the glory of God. 

‘All have sinned…’ means I have sinned, we have sinned, not just, you and they have sinned.  

Do not accuse, while exempting myself.  Do not point the finger at the statue and away from  ourselves.  Do not protest our relative innocence by covering statues with reminders of their crimes as though we are impeccable judges.  

Truth and fair judgment means being open to the whole history of the people we choose to celebrate and be represented by.  We live in cocoons of histories which comfort us by affirming our rightness and glorious achievements.  

If you Lord should mark iniquity, then Lord, who should stand?  (Psalm 130.3)

Take down the statues of all  who are found to have sinned: will there be any statues left? 

Let anyone who is without sin amongst you, cast the first stone (John 8.7)

What to do?  

Add in clear print on every statue, put it in indelible stone:  ‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’.

Must we leave it there?  Will not human beings waste away in depression and hopelessness, if this stands as the final verdict?  

Add further:   ‘But there is forgiveness with God, that God may be revered’  (Psalm 130.4).  

And:  ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing’,  (Luke23.34)  –  even though they should and could have known. 

Pray with them for that forgiveness.  And set about forgiving in practice.  Come into the light of the shining of God who forgives sin, the same light that exposes sin, the light we tend to shun because our deeds fall short (John 3.19-21).    

‘Our Father in heaven….Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us’  (Matthew 6.12).

What will happen to statues and statue-making and statue-celebrating if we come into the light of God?  

They will, in their feeble, pretentious, not knowing way, preach the gospel of the judgment and the redemption of God.  They will remind us of our sins, particularly the sins we rely on and benefit from, and the sin that confuses us because it mixes itself with goodness of one kind or another.  Now we will not be deceived by them, but will be open to hear the truth, in the light.  So we will know, and knowing we will be called and guided to do more than denounce sin we see in others, we will renounce it in and for ourselves.  

And we will work to live in truthfulness about ourselves – all have sinned, and at best, we are but earthen vessels (II Corinthians 4.7ff) – with hope in the grace of God in Jesus Christ, who bore the  sins of all and who now lives in glory for all.

broadcast on BBC Radio  4, 8 July. 

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