Some years ago when I had an opportunity to spend time in Bristol, I recall visiting a public park known as The Centre, an attractive recreational area close to the city centre. There I came across a statue created in 1895 by the Irish sculptor John Cassidy commemorating a wealthy local philanthropist called Edward Colston (1636-1721). In recent times questions were raised about the appropriateness of honouring this man because his wealth had been acquired from the Atlantic slave trade. Matters came to a head during the Black Lives Matter protests when the statue was toppled by protesters and dumped into Bristol Harbour.
There is much debate about how to deal with legacy issues but there is a more complex dimension to consider that takes us beyond the odd statue or plaque on a building. Colston lived in the era of European colonialism when foreign lands were invaded and plundered. Huge wealth found its way back to the ruling classes of Europe , including those of Ireland. Archbishop Desmond Tutu pointed out that churches were involved with a little humour: “When the missionaries came, we had the land, and they had the bible. We were told to close our eyes and pray. When we opened our eyes, we had the bible, and they had the land.”
It is certain that even now we benefit, albeit indirectly and perhaps unknowingly, from the tainted activities of earlier generations who built or endowed many things we enjoy today. Toppling a statue makes a point but it can never undo the pain and suffering caused by Colston and others who were part of an economic system that exploited the weak and vulnerable. Nor can we.
Fr Richard Rohr, however, argues that the same system operates today only in different ways: “We are all complicit in this and benefiting from what Dorothy Day called the dirty rotten system. That’s not condemning anybody; it’s condemning everybody because we are all complicit and enjoying the fruits of domination and injustice. Where were your shirts and underwear made? What wars allow us to have cheap food and gas? Usually, the only way to be non-complicit in the system is to choose to live a very simple life.”
The Old Testament reading from the book of Amos reminds us that there is nothing new in this. Israel’s economy was booming. Money was plentiful but most of it ended up in the pockets of the few; poverty rubbed shoulders with opulence. Religion was popular, ticking all the boxes of institutional religion while church and state allowed corruption and greed to go unchallenged. As a result the poor suffered terribly. Amos warned in colourful language that there was danger ahead but he was ignored and sent packing. Assyria would prove him right.
There are extraordinary similarities between the situation Amos knew and our own time where there is so much deprivation and hardship, reaching upwards into the middle ranks for society – witness the growing numbers of young people who cannot afford to rent let alone buy houses.
The gospel reading tells the story of the Good Samaritan which takes us back to Bristol and Edward Colston where he is commemorated in the city’s cathedral with a large window bearing the words “Go and do thou likewise”, the punchline from the Good Samaritan parable. What irony.
The Samaritan, an outsider, confronted with human need in the person of a wounded stranger, responded while others passed by. He did so at some personal risk and considerable financial cost. This story emphasises our responsibility for each other irrespective of race, religion or politics because we all belong to a human family which according to the letter to the Ephesians is a divine institution: “For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father, from whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named.”
The protesters of Bristol made a gesture, but the Good Samaritan showed that making a difference is what matters.