God doesn’t airbrush history and nor should we

Universities are “killing free speech” so say a group of university academics. They argue students are failing to act like students by banning anything that may cause offence – including speakers and inanimate objects – from university campuses. The Telegraph report that in their letter, they claim “A whole generation of students is being denied the ‘intellectual challenge of debating conflicting views’ because self-censorship is turning campuses into over-sanitised ‘safe spaces'”.

The furore has been sparked again by a campaign to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes from an Oxford University College. Rhodes, after whom Rhodesia was named, was a prominent colonialist and imperialist who subscribed to what are now deemed racist views about the “superiority” of the Anglo-Saxon race and is considered to be the father of Apartheid in South Africa. An alumni of Oriel College, Rhodes was a generous benefactor to his alma mater leading to the creation of a scholarship. The student at the centre of the campaign, Ntokozo Qwabe, was himself a beneficiary of the scholarship setup in Rhodes name.

There is no denying that Rhodes views are unpalatable to modern ears. The question is not whether we ought to endorse his views, it is whether the fact that he existed, his impact in history and his ongoing legacy ought to be airbrushed, if not entirely censored, from public view. Irrespective of his impact upon Oriel College in particular, and his ongoing legacy there, the college appear to have sided with the campaign and plan to remove the statue to Rhodes. They have felt the need to clarify “the College does not share Cecil Rhodes’s values or condone his racist views or actions” and “are starting the process of consultation with Oxford City Council this week in advance of submitting a formal application for consent to remove the Rhodes plaque”.

The problem with this sort of thing is that it denies the reality of history. Removing a statue and plaque to Rhodes does not change the fact that he held the views he held and did the things he did. Nor does it reflect the, questionable or otherwise, impact Rhodes had upon the history of Oriel, Oxford, Britain and Southern Africa. It is merely virtue signalling by the college, a desperate attempt to prove that they do not share the values and views of Cecil Rhodes (as if anybody actually doubted it).

Nor are Oriel so principled that they are choosing to give the Rhodes legacy away or demolishing the buildings and scholarships which his money created. It seems they are happy to take the moral high ground and remove the statue without allowing their principles to affect their bank balance. Very worthy. It has also been noted that the young man who began the campaign was not so principled he refused to take the Rhodes scholarship despite vociferously campaigning to expunge him from the institution’s history. It is a case of having one’s cake and eating it. We can either seek to airbrush people and their impact on real world events, accepting that such actions mean we cannot benefit from what legacy they may have left behind, or we can accept that history is not always glorious and its people often flawed. We can choose to remember and learn the lessons from history – accepting the good and rejecting the bad – or we can airbrush it and remove anything and anyone who does not accord with the modern zeitgeist from all known textbooks.

The way to deal with people in history with whom we disagree is not to pretend they didn’t exist or to remove all trace of them from view. The answer is to disown the bad and accept the good, recognising we are all a complex mix of relativised goodness and culturally determined badness. I suspect there are very few, if any, who hold to mainstream cultural opinion on every issue of concern under the sun. Why ought we to expect people from history past to be any different?

Can we really expect people from the past to be prescient, knowing what 21st Century mores will be, and insist they abide by them over and against the cultural views of their own day? What do we do if mainstream opinion changes on the issue at hand, having already expunged from history those who didn’t subscribe to the previously held orthodoxy? Should we expect 22nd and 23rd Century people to do the same to us? And, if we are to be consistent, are we now to sift the annuls of history for all other colonial sympathisers, racists, homophobes, sexists and the rest (which is basically everyone from UK history) and remove all trace of them, no matter what other good they may have done?

Surely a better response to Rhodes is to allow some good to come out of what we believe to be his grave ill? If we decry colonialism, imperialism and implicit racism then let us remember what he did and why it was a problem. Surely that is the duty of all scholars, not simply to presume some guy we don’t know much about because he has been systemically exorcised from public view is an awful person because that’s what we’ve been told to think. And if we see his views as a problem, is it not better to study and reason why? This way we are able to turn an ill-gotten legacy for good – such as providing scholarships to the very people whom were colonised – rather than facing the clear hypocrisy of virtue signalling by removing a plaque related to the legacy all whilst clearly continuing to benefit from it. Is it no longer possible to view people as a complex mix of good and bad or must we now only view people as entirely evil or completely good by our own relative standards?

I am minded to think of what the bible would look like if God decided to airbrush the characters. I strongly suspect we would end up with something akin to the Quranic texts which insist that all the prophets of Allah are impeccable. Ironically, they are not viewed so through relativised 21st Century eyes and 21st Century Brits are similarly appraised by 7th Century Islam. The bible, by contrast, views its own characters and prophets (bar one) as entirely flawed and sinful just as much as it points to 21st Century Britain and says the same. God does not only point to modern life and label us sinners, he point throughout history, and even to those through whom he revealed himself, and says “no one is good except God alone”.

God did not airbrush history. He revealed himself to real people who were really flawed and eminently sinful. The characters throughout scripture are notably dodgy with almost none of them escaping some major sin and critical comment. Nor does God pretend his people are all that. A quick glance through the books of Judges, the Samuels and the Kings does little to paint them in a great light. And the New Testament church is no different, see Paul’s letters to the church in Corinth or Jesus comments to the seven churches in Revelation.

Could God have painted his people in a wonderful light? Of course He could. In fact, look at Chronicles and compare it to Kings, it’s basically the same with the bad bits edited out. There are solid theological reasons for doing so, which I won’t rehearse here, but it is to say that God could have merely included Chronicles and excluded Kings and done the equivalent throughout his people’s history. But he didn’t. He put Saul’s failings in public view, chose to allow David’s adultery to be documented and let Solomon – the one to whom he granted great wisdom – do some wildly unwise things. He documented the descent of his people into the most appalling sin in Judges and he had no problem including some of the heinous things those consecrated to the priesthood got up to. God was not blind to the failings of his people, judges, kings and church.

Why did God not airbrush such things? Because his dealings with his people in times of both spiritual health and adulterous idolatry primarily reveal something about God’s character. Yet God dealt with real people at real points in history too. The failings of his people – even of those generally designated as good – tell us something about the human condition and move towards God’s approach to dealing with our issues. It means we must assess the biblical characters much as we must assess others in history. We must determine which are the examples to be followed and those that ought to be avoided. The biblical characters share something in common with other people from more modern history who share something in common with us: we are all eminently peccable.

To understand the past – whether scriptural or more modern – we must not airbrush history. To change, or ignore, the facts of the matter is to fail to learn the lessons from the past and be doomed to repeat them. To understand the past is to know what happened, assess the impact of events and people and draw the appropriate lessons from it. It is also poor methodology to impose modern values upon those who lived in different places and times. To airbrush the past according to such values would be to leave none of the past left to study and would be detrimental to those of us who want to learn its lessons. God refused to airbrush history, we shouldn’t seek to do so either.