Archive for the ‘Livingstone’ Tag


Posted 11/6/07

With all the fuss that accompanied the 200-year anniversary of the abolition of slavery this year, you could sense the sense of Christian relief at being able to pay tribute to a true Christian hero. William Wilberforce was someone the church could truly tie its flag to – principled, determined and morally upright whilst achieving great and important things. No wonder ‘Amazing Grace’ was a film enthusiastically endorsed. Other Christian heroes along the way have often failed to fulfil our desires for them so apparently entirely. Many who have brought the church to its current state of theological comprehension have, whilst doing so, become associated with behaviour or beliefs that lend ammunition to those seeking to criticise. If we celebrate Martin Luther for his great works in freeing the church from Rome, we will surely be told how his prejudice towards the Jews led him to advocate their murder (“we are at fault in not slaying them”). If we hold up the Puritans as impressive in their advocacy of biblical living, we will be reminded that Cromwell, the most famous of them all, slaughtered the Irish at Drogheda and sentenced their children to slavery in the Caribbean. Even John Calvin, whose name is so beloved to modern evangelicals, was apparently willing to endorse extreme forms of torture against those who failed to agree with him – encompassing even beheading and burning.

So should be feel ashamed of our heritage? I don’t see why. Rather than hush up and abridge our history as God’s people, I would instead recognise and celebrate the fact that God uses flawed and sinful people in order to fulfil His good works. Were it not so, what hope would any of us have of being useful? Biblical precedent certainly backs this up. Are we to discount the role played by David on account of Bathsheba? Should Peter’s denial of Christ be airbrushed from the record??

Most intriguing to me within this consideration is the case of the British Empire. My mother – a history student before me – has always regarded the behaviour of our predecessors before us to be a source of some shame. I can see why. Travel among our former colonies and you will find everywhere the scars left by the arrogant land theft and racist attitudes of Britons past. In India, the ‘jewel in our crown’, we let millions die in preventable famine during the 1870s, massacred thousands at Amritsar in 1919 and saw millions more perish in the chaos left by our hasty departure and messy sub-division of the region into modern India and Pakistan. In South Africa, we fought first the Zulus and then the Boers, leaving the former second-class citizens and employing concentration camps to keep the latter subdued. In the West Indies we wiped out the Carib natives and populated the island with stolen slaves. In Australia they deal still with the problems we caused by our homicidal attitude to the Aboriginals. I could go on for pages.

And yet… in most of the places we went, Christianity remains where it was previously unknown – in numerous powerful and important churches throughout Africa, or in the hugely influential church of North America. Thousands upon millions have been saved on account of the missionary work performed by those travelling abroad under the flag of colonialism, men such as David Livingstone. Even those travelling more with commerce and conquest in mind often did so with God’s perceived purpose in mind. Edward Pine, a military surgeon serving in the China War of 1842 before sailing with his regiment to Australia, has been deemed by the historian Lawrence James typical of his colonising countrymen in the nature of his faith. Pine wrote the following by way of explaining what he sought to maintain:

‘A piety which refers every event to the providence of God; every action to his will; a love which counts no service hard, and a penitence which esteems no judgement severe; a gratitude which offers praise even in adversity; a holy trust unbroken by protracted suffering, and a hope triumphant over death.’

Taken by any standards, such an outlook is worthy of admiration. Does this mean we should embrace and celebrate the Empire that caused such suffering in God’s name? Not in my opinion – but neither should we imagine that God was unwilling or unable to use it to further His plan, nor that the people involved were deliberate sinners. Similarly we can take comfort from the fact that however flawed the actions or understanding of our generation, God will use us for his glory. It is a fact worth bearing in mind for those (and I am certainly one of them!) prone to scorning those ‘Bible Belt’ American Christians who endorse aggressive neo-con Capitalism – surely the colonialism of our time. They may have something to answer for in terms of their contribution to the history of the Third World or environment, but that is not to say we can judge their relationship with God, nor the work He may do through them. And in the meantime, until Christ comes again, we will continue to see God’s hand working through human history.