• Joshua Erlebach

Cover image: "Ecce Homo" by Matt From London is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The world around us is messy. Some hide, some fight, but we can’t escape. Social media is flooded with stories of people being hurt by those who wield authority. The news is currently filled with rallies, protests and calls for statues to be taken down, especially of people who had connections to the slave trade. As humans we have an innate affinity for justice; the dark deeds of people from the past make us rightly angry. 

Inside ourselves, we all feel, at times, a deep hurt when humans are treated without the dignity they deserve. Whether this is close to home or stories we hear in the news, the pain is there. The fact that we and they are human makes us feel this pain personally, part of being human is that we recognise and hate injustice. It is wrong. We know it, we feel it. 

The abuse of power and mistreatment of others is obviously not confined to the slave trade. Today and throughout history, we see figures who have done evil in so many ways. It seems as though humanity cannot escape the clutches of these atrocities. And at the heart of many of them is selfishness, be it the struggle to keep or gain power or a fight to hold onto a position in society that you have due to the colour of your skin. We, as humans, are naturally good at looking out for ourselves even sometimes to the detriment of the wellbeing of others. 

The past century has been filled with discrimination, cruelty and pointless death. Of those, there have been many motivated by racism. To name a few: apartheid, Srebrenica, the holocaust, Tulsa race riot, Sinjar massacre, Rwanda, Hereo and Namaqua genocide. These words speak of horrors endured by millions over the past few centuries and the name George Floyd reminds us that not all these horrors are behind us. 

These words pluck at the strings of our hearts and make injustice resonate throughout our souls. And yet, despite the victories and valiant attempts at fighting against these things they live on. 

It seems as though there is not only an innate human yearning for justice but an innate human tendency to cause injustice. We do not want to remember or celebrate people that caused so much pain and hurt to so many. If statues are celebrating evil of course many are and will be offended by them, and want to remove them? We want to applaud people for the good they do and have done but can we put up statues of such flawed humans. Who ought we to put on a pedestal? Who decides which people deserve this honour?

Mahatma Gandhi is a widely celebrated figure born in India in 1869.  He fought against racial injustice and campaigned (in non-violent ways) to improve the lives of lower caste people. Yet even as such a great example of someone who fought for good causes, he was not the epitome of justice we might hope for. He said “Kaffirs (a derogatory term for black Africans) are as a rule uncivilised… and live almost like animals”. 

As a result of such statements, one statue of Gandhi, which previously stood in the campus of the University of Ghana, has already been removed. Such an emblem of good does not always live up to our expectations.

In 1745 Olaudah Equiano was born in Eboe (now Nigeria), and at the tender age of 11, he was captured by slave traders, experiencing first-hand the horrors and injustices of the slave trade. By 1766 he had saved enough money to buy his freedom for 40 pounds.

Equiano later published his life story “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano” in order to influence people, particularly in England (though the book was widely read elsewhere), and uncover the truth behind the slave trade. 

He wrote letters of petition to many - even the Queen - in which he seeks no pity regarding his own sufferings but pleads for “compassion for millions of my African countrymen, who groan under the lash of tyranny…”[1].

Equiano also wrote to the many Christians who misused the Bible in order to placate their consciences due to their involvement in the slave trade: “O, ye nominal Christians! might not an African ask you, learned you this from God, who says unto you, Do unto all men as you would men should do unto you?”. He then goes on to say, “a new refinement of cruelty [slaves being separated from their families] … adds fresh horrors even to the wretchedness of slavery.”[2]

Do to others as you would have them do to you: Equiano sees the inconsistency of believing the Bible and turning a blind eye to or even contributing to the suffering of others. Such a selfless man bent on justice surely deserves to be celebrated still today.

However, even a person such as Equiano was not perfect. As a Christian, he understood that he was not good enough and says in his book “I felt that I was altogether unholy, and saw clearly what a bad use I had made of the faculties I was endowed with”[3]. Perhaps here he is recalling the time he spent working as a clerk when he had to submit to the “violent depredations on the chastity of the female slaves”[4]. Is anyone then without fault? Is the search for the perfect human in vain?

On the one hand we might say “no-one is perfect”, but if we are not careful, we run into difficulty here: who am I, an imperfect person, to pass judgement on another person? Whichever moral yardstick I choose, there is a more precise one (or perhaps just a metric one) which finds me falling short. There is a danger we go round in circles, pointing out each other's faults without necessarily making any tangible progress. This dichotomy is a cause for serious concern, if we cannot solve our own problems as a species then who will?

There appears to be an unwritten rule that we, as a society, will understand today how to live and conduct our business in a morally better way than yesterday. It is easy to point the finger at the faults and failings of the last century or even last year but there is a danger we are blind to our current wrongdoings leaving us inconsistent and hypocritical. Perhaps this sounds too harsh? 

We certainly have come a long way since the slave trade. Thanks to people like Equiano, William Wilberforce, Hannah More and Mary Prince the world is a fairer and more equal place than 200 years ago. These achievements are great and the people who effected them should be praised. But we need only flick through the news on our phone to see that all is not as it should be today. 

Many of us hope that we are good enough… good enough by whose standard? By our standard? What will our children and grandchildren criticise us for? And the worst part is that they may be right. That’s the bit that hurts. When accusations come too close and burst our own personal bubbles it hurts. 

When we are accused of racism, sexism, homophobia, selfishness there is always a little voice in our heads saying “but”. ‘But’ I’m only a product of the society in which I live. ‘But’ you don’t understand the context. ‘But’ it wasn’t my fault. 

We shift the blame because we hate to be at the wrong end of a pointing, accusing finger. We hope all the evil in the world is ‘out there’. The idea that it may be uncomfortably close to home is one which we avoid. The reality that perhaps we are not good enough is vastly unpopular.

This again brings us back to the question: who deserves a statue? Many amazing people have worked tirelessly for fantastic causes in selfless ways, but we continue to see that no one is perfect. Requiring perfection, none of them is good enough. 

If we rigorously removed every statue of a person who was not good enough the plinths of Parliament Square would be bare, the niches in the colleges of Oxford (and even Cambridge) would be empty and up and down the country stone heads would litter harbours. No statue would be left standing, except one statue.

In 1999 the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square housed a work by Mark Wallinger called “Ecce Homo”. This was a life-sized figure of Jesus naked but for a loincloth, hands bound behind his back, and a circle of barbed wire adorning his head. It depicts him awaiting judgement from the ruling authorities.

Wallinger said it seemed to make sense to create this statue with the millennium on the horizon (in 1998). He thought at the time people were “too squeamish” to ask “2000 years since what”. But just over 2000 years since his birth Jesus still affects nearly everyone on the planet in some way. 

Jesus: a man who never wrote a book, never travelled far from his hometown, never held political office. A man who, like a small statue dwarfed by a huge plinth, seems insignificant yet arguably had the most impact on the world of any human to live before or since. The Bible says this man is perfect.

Jesus wasn’t just good enough, he was only ever completely good. He was perfect and the claim of the Bible is that he is the only one who can solve the problems humanity face[5]. Despite the commendable things humans have achieved and can achieve we cannot rid the world wholly of injustice. Not only because there are problems ‘out there’ but also because we all have mess, wrong thoughts and imperfect motives in our own hearts.

Jesus made another shocking assertion: he claimed that he wasn’t just a man, with all the usual mess that comes along with being human. If he was no different from us he couldn’t solve our problems - he claimed that he was God[6]. 

This second claim is necessary if we are to believe Jesus’s promise. His promise that he can offer a perfect world. A completely just world. A world where there is no suffering, no selfishness and no hurting. This is the world which we all long for. Amidst all the crying and pain we see and experience, this is the world we were designed for.

The book of John in the Bible tells more fully of Jesus’s life and what he did. In the present Jesus shapes and transforms the lives of those who follow him, as they seek to be like him. This is why Christians today try to follow the example that he sets. 

Ultimately this points us forward in time to the perfect world that is promised for those who follow Jesus. The only way to make this new world a reality, the Bible tells us, is for Jesus to die and rise again. John shows us that if we put only one person on a pedestal it should be Jesus.

[1] - The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano ch.12

[2] - The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano ch.2

[3] - The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano ch.10

[4] - The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano ch.5

[5] - John 14:6

[6] - John 10:30

One Last Statue

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