When faced, as we were recently, with the sight of white supremacists sporting swastikas and executing Nazi salutes, we are naturally horrified. We automatically side with their opponents. Surely if these are the sort of people rallying around a statue of General Lee – then that statue should go. After all, he fought to enslave people just because of their skin colour.
What about those protecting such statues – can we dismiss them all as driven by hatred? Are they always motivated by wanting to cling on to racial segregation?
I wonder. If we look beyond men in KKK costumes – there are perhaps many others afraid that they are losing their lives. Not that they are threatened with death – but that the life stories, the identities they have grown up with are being eroded – and they no longer know who they are. After all, an accident of birth or geography may have decided which side they were on in the conflict.
I was made to think about this when the debate widened to other statues around the world – including those to the explorer Captain James Cook.
Well I grew up in what’s now called ‘Captain Cook country’. He was born just down the road, grew up on the slopes of our favourite hill, and set sail from our local seaside resort.
We had the Ladybird book of his life, went round his museums, did Captain Cook projects at school – and New Years’ day usually sees us climbing the hill (locally referred to as ‘Cap’n Cooks’) to his monument…
…where the inscription includes these words “while it shall be deemed the honour of a Christian Nation to spread civilisation and the blessings of the Christian faith among pagan and savage tribes, so long will the name of Captain Cook stand out amongst the most admired benefactors of the human race.”
Pagan and savage tribes…now, of course we look back in horror at much of our colonial past – at slavery and oppression…but Captain Cook? If I have to regard him, my childhood hero, as a villain, I feel almost as if someone is trying to take away my life. The determination that took Cook from farmboy to Naval Captain; the courage that took him across the world in a tiny ship, with no charts; the curiosity that drove his interest in the people, animals and plants of the new world; the Christian faith he hoped to share…in some small way they are part of my inheritance…my identity, too.
Jesus said, “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” We are unlikely to have to die for our faith, but I think there are other ways of seeking to save or give up our lives.
It is easy to construct lives for ourselves that are not based on Christ and his teaching – and which we find it very difficult to give up.
I’m not sure whether all, or any, of the statues should be removed. But the debate does help us look at the life stories we have constructed for ourselves – and how these can exclude or demean others.
Recognising indigenous Australians’ views on Captain Cook, and the horrors his arrival unleashed for them doesn’t mean I have to see him as evil. I’m still pretty sure that many of his motives were good; I still admire his skill and his courage.
But it might help me to lose that part of my life story that stubbornly, subconsciously still sees British explorers as leaving civilized home for the back of beyond – and forgets that the back of beyond was already civilized home to some.
As humans we tend to construct lives…identities…for ourselves based on a history where people like us are the heroes, on worldly values, on how we want others to see us. And these identities, lives, can become a stumbling block to our faith and to others.
We’ve seen what can happen when people identify themselves as a minority whose way of life is threatened by people of another race, religion or colour. Filled up as they are with hatred, they surely have lost the life Christ offers.
If we could see others as the brothers and sisters Christ ask us to serve, then we would see the way our identities can crush theirs. If we could discuss our identities in love we might find a way to construct a shared identity that would set us free from hatred. Losing our life might lead to finding life in Christ.
I hope the identities I build for myself are not quite so harmful…
…but when I project myself as competent, efficient, good at getting things done…do I disempower others, stop them feeling they could volunteer.
…when I construct myself as busy and overworked in the name of Christ…do I give the impression that I have no time to talk or pray…do I forget that I cannot hope to work for Christ if I don’t have time just to be with him.
…when I start to take my identity from the good I do for others…do I risk looking down on others because they need my help?…might I lose the ability to accept help from others?…do I forget that I’m only able to help others because of all that God has given to me?
We may not be called to be martyrs…but perhaps we are called to a more mundane, daily struggle to give up the false lives we build up for ourselves and attempt to grasp the true life Christ offers us instead.
I’m grateful to those who’ve widened the debate about our history, and the identities we build for ourselves. Whoever chose Captain James Cook as an example made me think about the life I need to lose, in order to gain the life God wants for me. Made me realise how easy it is to look for my identity in my past and where I come from, in how well I do things, or how much people need me – rather than in the service of others in Christ’s name.
And so let’s pray for wisdom to set our minds not on human, but divine things; and courage to daily lose our lives for Christ’s sake. Amen