Difficult histories: Christian memory and historic injustice

Jan 8, 2021 by

by John Coffey, Jubilee Centre:


Recent years have witnessed heated debate over how Western nations remember their pasts. A generation of historical research on racial slavery and imperial expansion is now informing public memory. The turn to ‘difficult histories’ has provoked a reaction and calls for the reassertion of ‘patriotic history’. This paper surveys the controversy and asks how Christians should respond. It argues that Christian memory should be shaped by the difficult history we find in Scripture.

History wars

In the summer of 2020, with nations in lockdown during a global pandemic, crowds gathered across the Western world to declare that Black Lives Matter. Sparked by the death of George Floyd, an African American man killed by Minneapolis police, these protests linked the vulnerability of black lives to a long and bitter history of racial injustice. A year previous, The New York Times had launched its ‘1619 Project’, marking the anniversary of the first ship carrying enslaved Africans to land in British North America. The project claimed that this (rather than 1776) was ‘the country’s true birth date, the moment that its defining contradictions first came into the world’.[2] Historic icons were exposed to a new wave of iconoclasm. In the American South, statues of Confederate leaders were removed from their pedestals. America’s slaveholding Founding Fathers – Washington, Jefferson and Madison – came under renewed scrutiny. A statue of the evangelist George Whitefield was removed by the University of Pennsylvania because he had campaigned to legalise slavery in the colony of Georgia. In the English city of Bristol, crowds toppled a statue of slave-trading merchant Edward Colston, hurling it into the harbour. In London, the British Museum removed a statue of its founder, Hans Sloane, from its plinth, displaying it in a new exhibit that documented his profiteering from slavery. In Edinburgh, the University renamed David Hume Tower as a way of disavowing the philosopher’s racist statements about African inferiority. In Oxford, the fellows of Oriel College agreed to remove a statue of the imperialist Cecil Rhodes.

This provoked a remarkable phenomenon: ‘statue wars’.[3] President Trump, true to character, saw no need to apologise for the sins of the past. Speaking at Mt Rushmore, he situated himself beneath the monumental figures of former Presidents: the slaveholders Washington and Jefferson, the segregationist Theodore Roosevelt, and the complicated emancipator, Abraham Lincoln. Criticising the 1619 Project, he set up the ‘1776 Commission’ designed to promote ‘patriotic education’. In Britain, a campaign was established to ‘Save our Statues’.[4] When the National Trust released a report documenting links between its properties and Britain’s slave economy, it was accused of ‘instigating a witch-hunt into the lives of past property owners’ and succumbing to a ‘woke agenda’.[5]

Read here


See also: When I recognised raceby Rayshawn Graves, United We Pray:


Please right-click links to open in a new window.

Related Posts


Share This