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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Protester at Westminster Abbey



I wasn't quite sure how to feel earlier this afternoon. I was watching the service at Westminster Abbey to mark the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery, and being thoroughly moved by the whole thing (well, most of it anyway, sans a particularly strange piece of music that I described elsewhere as sounding a little like something from Porgy and Bess but without the style).

At the confession, one of the invited guests began to protest about the whole affair, about the presence of black descendants of Africn slaves at the service being "a disgrace to our ancestors", and so forth, and making a general nuisance of himself, while at the same time ruining what was for many people a time of great healing and progression.

Now I never quite know how to feel about these things. I am of mixed race, with both white European and black West Indian ancestry. While I was singing one day the fabulous Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing, a friend heard me and said to me that he felt ashamed of what his ancestors had done to my ancestors. I pointed out that I was ashamed of what my ancestors had done to my ancestors, and that I was in no position to feel bitterness about this.

I lived in the Caribbean from the age of 8 years until I was 15. We were taught in great detail about the slave trade in our history lessons at school. Every day on our way to school, we saw the plantations where the slaves would have worked. We played on the remains of the buildings that they would have been whipped into building. We heard the tales of elderly people who remembered in their young days hearing the tales of elderly people who had experienced the atrocities of slavery themselves, and who were left to fend for themselves when the slave trade came to an end and they no longer had a master who felt any obligation to provide for them. Some of the more benevolent masters didn't see their former slaves go hungry, but in time they all went home to England. What purpose was there to stay now that their businesses had ceased to exist?

While I was living there, I was "white", and had abuse hurled at me because of that. When I moved back to the UK, suddenly I was "black", and the only racist abuse I have had was on one occasion where a lady at my bus stop told me to go back to Iraq, which managed to successfully elicit laughter more than any sense of intimidation.

My only real experience of racism, therefore, has been from black people towards people of lighter complexion (whether white or not), and so perhaps I'm being a little judgmental about our friend who felt the need to express himself the way he did at the Abbey today. I don't know. I do feel that the time has now come, though, where we need to let go of this bitterness and focus on our unity and our salvation. We are only hurting ourselves by harbouring these ill feelings which are contrary to the Christian Way and stunt our theosis.

Slavery is still happening. Would working towards putting an end to this not be a better focus of our efforts than protesting in church services?

I cannot imagine how difficult it must have been for the virgers and others at the cathedral. In deliberately and persistently disrupting a church service this man was committing a criminal act and should properly have been escorted out of the Abbey with force if necessary, especially because of the Presence of Her Majesty. However, that would have perhaps caused more damage than anything else given the sensitivity of the occasion and the nature of his protest. "White virger throws black man out of Abbey at Abolition service" is perhaps not the sort of headline that the Abbey was looking for. They were seen to be trying to calm him down and reason with him, and he was seen to be rejecting their efforts and heard to be threatening violence. Only then was he escorted outside. I think that they handled it extremely well, given the circumstances, and the service went on.

7 comments:

Jack the Lass said...

Thanks for writing this Michael. I heard the news just now (didn't see the service) and have mixed views really. Last week on the Moral Maze they debated slavery, and they had a really strident young activist insist that the problems of black youths today are directly traceable to the transatlantic slave trade. Her arguments were calmly discussed and debated, in fact I was rather embarrassed on her behalf as she sounded so ridiculous and was struggling to even begin to justify her assertions, but I do want to think about the issues that cause people to feel so strongly and have such a huge sense of personal identification with what happened and look at what I can do, in my life, to bring healing. I'm not convinced that disrupting a church service will help though (particularly as the Archbishop of Canterbury is one of the few leaders who *has* apologised for the church's past involvement, unlike government leaders for example).

I don't even know where I'm going with this comment - it's all just so sad. The slave trade, the injustice, the sense of not being listened to, the voices of the reasonable being drowned by slogans. I think your comment about focusing on fighting slavery where it occurs today is the key, ultimately, to the healing.

Aristibule said...

Yikes! You should have come with us - we had a far less eventful time (in fact, I was the only disruption - with a single *cough* near the end ... well, and maybe a few people noticed me weeping.)

Ian said...

As Jack the Lass wrote, it is so sad. Thank you for your reflections.

Eric John said...

I think you have an excellent point, Michael, that our focus should be the salvation of our souls. Apologies and other attempts to rectify past wrongs do not address this one thing needful. It's a bit chiliistic (sp?) to think that evils committed centuries ago can be put to right. Evil will be working until the last day, when it will be ceased by God's action and not our collective will. Better to cease doing evil ourselves and seek the good of our neighbor.

Michael Astley said...

Thanks, all, forn your responses.

I know what you mean, Jack the Lass, about knowing what to think or how to respond, especially when confronted by somebody who is so immersed in the politics of it all that (s)he cannot see beyond that to what is more important, or even realise just how silly (s)he sounds at times. I think that there is some truth in the point that the lady you heard was making but there is so, so much else.

If people are gracious enough to apologise for something that they have not done if it means that it will help heal the wounds, then God bless them. That shows true humility and love for others at the expense of self. However, I don't think that naybody is in a position to demand that of anybody. There are much more pressing issues in the here and now, and beyond that, much more important things on which we ought to be focussing, which is a point on which you picked up, Eric John. We do need to focus on our slavation. Preoccupation with who hasn't apologised to whom and who may or may not be sincere is no way to go about it.

God, help us!

Anonymous said...

All beautiful comments, Thanks!

[but why do they kill the heffalumps to make those melodious horns...they could have used ram's horns, they sound almost as nice and those are from domestic aminals....]

Margi said...

Well said! None of us alive today have been slaves or have owned slaves (at least not in your world and mine). I wish folk would let it go. Last year I read ‘White Liberals and Black Rednecks’ by Thomas Sowell, a black professor at Stanford, and he points out that as the life expectancy of a European in the interior of Africa in the 19th century was a few weeks, so most Africans were sold by other Africans and that more slaves died on forced marches across the Sahara to Arab markets than on the hideous ships across the Atlantic. There are so many more facets to this than are usually publicised, including that the people who still have slaves nowadays are so conspicuously absent from the discussions, ie, the Arabs most notably the Saudis. I used to work in the middle-east, including Saudi and Dubai, and more than one person told me they had seen African child slaves in Arab households. We need to concentrate more on ALL the slaves today rather than on those who have died and passed into the hands of God. I also wish we could let go of the race thing a bit. In Christ we are neither Jew nor Greek and that has to include race as well as ideology. My best friend at nursing school was a Jamaican girl who married a Scotsman, their son, my godson, is a darling little guy of nine with caramel skin (to be literal) who has started worrying about whether he is black or white. He asked me the other day if he could be black and Scottish. When I was nine I dealt with being Russian or English but at least I didn’t have a political movement on my back the way he does.

PS - I'm glad you didn't go back to Iraq ;-)