Slavery, the Slave Trade and Flannery O’Connor

I know I said I wouldn’t write about slavery or the slave trade because I’m aware of its complexities, but this morning two events conspired to set me thinking. The first was the reminder that on this day in 1834 the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 came into force, abolishing slavery throughout most of the British Empire over a period of six years. The second was reading that Loyola University in the USA is thinking of re-naming one of its dormitories currently named after Flannery O’Connor.

Slavery and the Black Lives Matter campaign have become intertwined, and I’m not sure it is to the advantage of either. For instance, one of the things I find most difficult about the current debate is the narrowness of its perspective and its almost total focus on Black Slavery in the modern era as the source of racism. No one in their right mind could defend any form of slavery nowadays, nor could anyone deny that there has been an enormous amount of suffering and injustice flowing from slavery that continues to the present; but I’m not sure that the history of Black Slavery explains racism. Ask any Jew, ask any older Irishman, anyone whose skin colour differs from that of the majority of those around them, whether they have encountered the kind of prejudice we could label racist, and the answer will probably be ‘yes’. When I was growing up, being a Catholic wasn’t de bon ton either, unless one belonged to a certain social class. My father refused to join a golf club which excluded Catholics and Jews and I daresay there were other little prejudices he encountered that he didn’t bother to mention.

We cannot ignore the fact that slavery still exists today, here in the UK and other parts of the world, wherever human beings are trafficked, exploited, or denied their essential dignity and freedom. I know I am not alone in thinking that we should be working to end modern slavery, as well as rooting out the prejudice we call ‘racist’, but I think it helps to know a little history when considering the memorials we have inherited from the past. I found quite a useful timeline for the abolition of slavery and serfdom on Wikipedia that some of you may be interested to read. Where I could test it, e.g. on the medieval Church’s attempts to end slavery and the slave trade, it proved accurate. It just isn’t possible to divide the world into ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’, especially not those who lived before us and were subject to different ideas and experiences. Which brings me to Flannery O’Connor.

In the rush to topple statues and distance institutions from any taint of association with slavery, we seem to have become a little confused. Cecil Rhodes, as far as I am concerned, was deeply unpleasant and the statue at Oriel is not one of the nation’s finest, so I don’t much care what happens to it, but the Rhodes Scholarships are another matter. I think we have to find a way of living with our past, not trying to do away with it or glorifying it but learning from it. Difficult, but not beyond the wit of men and women to resolve. But now, Flannery O’Connor a racist? She who identified the sufferings of what were then called negroes* with the sufferings of Christ, a racist? I can’t think of anything I’ve read of hers that would justify such a claim, which makes me wonder what the real motivation for the name-change is. She was a witty, spunky woman, with a strong Catholic faith, as well as as superb writer. Is the fact that she lived in the South to be counted against her or taken as evidence of views I certainly did not know she held (enlighten me, please, if you know more than I do).

The problem for me is that when we become a little silly about serious matters, when we overstate the case for a necessary change in attitude or practice, we can weaken our argument. Neither racism nor slavery has any place in civilized society, but perhaps we need to think more deeply about how to counter them. This is one of those areas where the religious and social intersect most clearly. We cannot be indifferent, but we should not be foolish, either.

* not a term we would use today but commonly used by both black and white citizens of the USA at the time she wrote.

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Collective Obsessions and Seeking to Understand

Despite what I said in my previous post, or perhaps because of it, I have been trying to articulate and therefore understand my feelings of unease about some of the matters currently affecting us all, for example COVID-19, the protests following the death of George Floyd, the public arguments about transgenderism and so on. Perhaps you can help me?

I am not talking about having a particular stance, nor am I asking for your opinions on these matters as such. We all have our own views, and this is probably not the best place to debate those I have mentioned. My question has more to do with the dynamics of debate, the way we go from one subject to another and how we are to understand our collective obsessions and the way they affect us.

A little while ago everyone was talking about COVID-19 and giving the world the benefit of their opinion on the nature of the virus and its origins, the effectiveness of lockdown measures and, in the UK at least, the competence or otherwise of the Government’s response to the crisis. As someone said, overnight we all became epidemological experts, and if we had celebrity status, we expected our adoring public to hang on our suitably woke words and whacky medical recommendations.

Next came the brutal death of George Floyd, which ignited a series of riots and protests that is still going on. The way he was treated was wrong, unambiguously wrong, no matter that some want to argue that he had a criminal record as though that somehow ‘justified’ what was done to him. Some of what has followed, however, — further deaths, looting, statue toppling and so on — strikes me as being troubling, though not all equally serious. Death and injury will always be more serious than daubing a wall with graffiti or tumbling a bad statue into a river. Politicians and others have rushed to issue suitably contrite statements and take actions which, to an outsider, look to be panic-driven rather than a considered response to a complex and many-faceted situation.

At the same time, some comments of J.K. Rowling have added further fuel to a fire that has been raging for some time over transgenderism. I hope my transgender friends will allow me to say that casting accusations of transphobia at people doesn’t really meet the case. One can believe that biological sex cannot be changed without disliking or having a prejudice against those who have had gender reassignment or identify as being a different sex from the one they were assumed to be at birth. It is always going to be difficult to talk about deeply held beliefs without causing hurt, but should the fact that it is difficult mean we simply dismiss views we ourselves don’t hold by condemning the person who holds them? If I may use an analogy. My being a Catholic is central to my existence, but that has never stopped my being friends with those who don’t share my beliefs or are even hostile to them.

My problem with what I have called collective obsessions is this. First, we tend to deal with them sequentially. One minute we are flooded with comment on COVID-19; the next it is racism; then transgenderism. But when the shouting dies down, what have we done to effect any change? My second is more personal: how do these matters affect us at a deeper level of consciousness and our Weltanschauung?

We may have clapped and cheered the NHS for ten weeks, but what have we done to limit the spread of COVID-19 or help those whose lives have been most affected by it? There is an emotional response to the work being done by healthcare professionals, but can we go beyond that? We may have denounced racism and slavery, but how aware are we of the slavery that exists in Britain today or that brutalises the lives of people living in other countries? Only this morning I read on the BBC news web site of a little girl of 7 who had been working as a maid in Pakistan and was tortured to death by her ’employers’ (see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-53008093). If I say that worries me more than any statue, am I to be immediately condemned for not being alert to the discrimination and injustice suffered as a result of present-day racism in this country or the role of historical remembrance in perpetuating racist attitudes? Are they mutually exclusive? And with regard to transgenderism, what effort have we personally made to understand? If one does not condemn a particular view, is one complicit with it? Or is one simply saying, I don’t know enough, haven’t thought enough, to express an opinion — and do I need to have an opinion on everything, anyway?

I suspect my questions don’t really have answers, and I must be prepared for comment from those who don’t want to engage with the questions but merely want a platform to express their views. So be it. I must go on asking, however, because otherwise I know that I shall not be trying to listen to the Holy Spirit who speaks to us in many and various ways, not least through events and the perplexity we experience in the face of them. Our collective obsessions may be fleeting, but they can have a huge effect on our lives and the lives of other people. Ultimately, they matter. We must take them seriously.

Audio Version

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How to Cope with Life’s Injustices

Where do we start? I’ve been very quiet recently, not for any sinister reason but because I felt I must either say a great deal about some subjects or keep very quiet. On the subject of racism, for example, I can say very little. I don’t understand it and never have. It simply baffles me that skin colour could ever be used as a marker of supposed inferiority/superiority. On the subject of slavery and the slave trade, however, I would have to say a great deal because the subject is historically much more complex than many who see it solely in terms of Black Slavery from the sixteenth century onwards seem to realise — and the tragedy is that it still continues today. I prefer to leave these questions to others, so it is probably just as well that I have been busy with many of those things that keep a monastery going but which are neither romantic nor particularly interesting to outsiders.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that one fails to register what is going on in the world outside the cloister or the injustices that are perpetrated. There are the big injustices: the corruption that bedevils political decision-making, often without our being fully aware of it; the economic exploitation that enriches some but impoverishes others; the suppression of freedoms and the manipulation of opinion that makes us all doubt whom we can really trust or what we can believe. Then there are the smaller injustices, those we experience personally and acutely: the failure to recognize our goodwill; the attack on our good name or the belittling of our attempts to be kind or generous; even the breakdown of relationships or our own health can come into this category. It isn’t always easy to respond with courage or the kind of bright-eyed determination we are taught to admire. Sometimes we just want to go into a corner, curl up in a heap and howl.

Cue the entrance of St Barnabas, whose feast-day this is. We might think he would have something of a chip on his shoulder for being the perpetual ‘second fiddle,’ first to Paul, then to John Mark. Even today his liturgical commemoration is ranked not as a full feast (festum) but as a memorial (memoria). In Acts 11.24 he is described as ‘a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith’. I think that explains why we can derive so much encouragement from Barnabas. He is not one of those on whom the spotlight naturally falls. He’s more of a peace-maker than an agitator or protestor. He introduced Paul to the apostles after his conversion and accompanied him on some of his missionary journeys, which speaks volumes about his tact and patience. He defended gentile converts against the Judaizers, and when the break with Paul finally came, Barnabas seems to have gone on quietly preaching and teaching, happy to leave the first place to his more brilliant colleague. We might say that Barnabas’s life is an essay in living creatively with injustice, not condoning it nor grumbling about it but generously accepting it and not letting it get in the way of what really mattered.

Thinking about St Barnabas makes me question how I cope with the small injustices I encounter in my own life. It is an uncomfortable question but one I feel the need to address before I can properly think about some of the larger ones mentioned above. Sometimes we try to avoid dealing with our own shortcomings by concentrating on those of others or society in general. We forget that, like Barnabas, we have to work at becoming good ourselves before we can hope to encourage others to become good in their turn. The trouble is, we’ll never see the good in ourselves but we must hope that others will. That, surely, is the way to change the world — but it will never be easy.

Audio Version

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