I love the British Museum. It’s a treasure house and a marvel. It covers the entire world and even just a few minutes within its hallowed confines constitute an education. I’ve often led tour groups around different parts of it, to trace some of the history behind the Old and New Testaments. And the classical stuff…? Well, I’m in my element. That was always my first academic love.

So the Elgin Marbles? Sublime. And rightly viewed in situ. By which I mean, of course, Bloomsbury. Because they could have suffered far worse fates if left on the Acropolis. After all, the Parthenon was nearly completely destroyed when it was attacked as an Ottoman stronghold en route to expand deeper into Europe. And it went through other batterings subsequently. Thank goodness for the British, I say. Being British has nothing to do with it, quite naturally.

Beneficiaries of the past

Now, believe it or not, my purpose is not to get embroiled in the debate about returning them to Athens here. But one fact is inescapable: that the BM is one of the world’s great museums is a direct consequence of the British Empire, with its exhibits gathered (pilfered?) from across the globe by people with intent both good and ill, in part as an expression of imperial might and dominance. Imperialism is hard to square with modern sensibilities, of course; but identifying benefits and achievements done in the empire’s name needn’t deny the fundamental hubris and presumption that motivated it. Nor the atrocities and sins.

The fact that the UK, a country of nearly 70 million (and globally so 21st in size), is in the G8 group of wealthiest countries still is startling; we hover around 6th, just above or below India (depending on which site you look at), with a population that 18 times bigger. It’s a crude measurement, probably, and economists would no doubt pull it to pieces. But this is in no small part the legacy of empire.

Now I’ve been cogitating about all this because I’ve recently had my first Covid vaccine and already have a date for the follow-up. Whereas friends in other parts of the world are a long way off such things; in fact, more than one colleague lives in a country where they’ve not even started ordering vaccines. That’s very unfair. But it’s the way of the world, we say. And an accident of birth. Why should the UK be so quick and others not? An absurdly complex question. Yet it’s hard to ignore the wealth and power that are imperial residue. We might have “given people back their countries” in the ‘Winds of Change’ and all that. But we hardly let go of our soft power so readily.

And so we are — or to be more specific, I am– its beneficiaries. Of some horrendous misdeeds and injustices, some of which were hardly unique to Britain (but were more central than we care to realise) while others were specific British sins: slavery; the Opium Wars; tribalist divide & rule; the Scramble for Africa; the suppression of the Mau Mau in Kenya; the Amritsar Massacre, and the famines in India; the Irish Potato famine; Indian/Pakistan partition; etc etc. This is not a betrayal of our history or undermining national pride; it’s a question of truth and facing darkest corners. Nor is it to deny achievements or benefits such as they were.

What are we supposed to do with this? We can’t change the past; British imperialism is simply a fact. Just the twentieth was the American century and the 21st probably the Chinese century. The privileges Britain enjoys even in the present are equally a fact. We must not deny such facts, wilfully ignore some aspects nor deliberately distort others. I might not be able to help the privileges I accrued by virtue of birth, skin colour, education, or opportunity. But I can help what I do with them or use them for. And when the country promote policies which compound or sustain the unfairness that results from imperialism, shouldn’t we do something? The question of reparations for slavery, for example, is fraught and complex, but surely the principle isn’t. I’m probably woefully naive, but couldn’t a case be made for funding COVID vaccines for all our former colonies, for example?

Blinkered to be individuals?

Now. What’s the point of all this? Well, I take it as given that westerners are instinctively and unavoidably individualistic. Over the last 500 years, western mindsets have shifted philosophically and sociologically to such an extent that our primary points of reference are ourselves. Me, myself, and I. Unwittingly but inevitably the western church has followed suit. Which is why doctrinal truths tend primarily to be understood and therefore articulated in individual terms. We might give lipservice to wider relevance but we rarely explore that. In fact, we might even find ourselves asserting that to do so is an unhelpful move, actually resulting in a dilution, distortion, or even betrayal of those truths. Could that not be a factor in the hasty scorn in some corners for social action or political involvement?

Let’s take the problem of sin. I rather dislike the word. Not because I reject the phenomenon but because of the word’s cultural baggage. I sought alternatives in my Wilderness of Mirrors, with debatable success! So I suppose we must stick with it. Yet the way we’ve often considered or (been) taught it, sin is essentially an individual’s rejection of his/her Creator’s authority, which brings 1001 devastating consequences.
In terms of that classic gospel mnemonic 2 Ways to Live, it’s represented by me replacing the divine crown with my own. But as the mnemonic proceeds, it sustains the image. If someone starts to believe, with Christ’s crown displacing my own. So far so good. It’s true. But it’s simply not the whole truth. Nothing like. 

I know, I know – it’s impossible to do that in any diagram, illustration, mnemonic or summary. Which is why we need lots. But isn’t it interesting? If we place the most well-known such tools alongside one another:

  • 2 Ways to Live
  • 4 Spiritual Laws
  • The Bridge Diagram
  • Billy Graham’s 5 Steps to Peace (based on John 3:16)
  • The Wordless Book (Gold, Black, Red, White, Green)

What stands out? Every single one articulates sin’s individual reality; none has the scope for its corporate reality. Let me repeat. I know they are only tools and don’t even try to cover all bases. But this is surely indicative of our soundbite reductionist world for which corporate, or dare I say it ‘systemic’, sin is too abstract or complex or unimportant. I’ve not read it properly so may well have missed it, but a quick glance at Grudem’s new edition of his Systematic Theology has nothing on it. I don’t know of other popular level systematics that do either.

Trapped within the systemic

Does this matter? Well, I think it matters greatly because, weirdly, we humans tend not to grasp the significance of our experiences (whether they be emotions, suffering, our own misdeeds or relationships etc) until we land on words for them. When they are offered to us–just as in my darkest days of depression when a friend suggested William Styron’s superb Darkness Visible–we feel the palpable relief at the AHA-moment. And for a subject as dark as corporate sin, it is similar, even if the Aha-moment is in some way self-incriminating.

Here is one articulation I read this week. I have adapted it a little from the original but it’s still not quite there yet. Heading in the right direction, though.

  • Privilege + Individual Sin leads to Preserving its Exclusivity and so tends towards Oppression of those lacking that privilege
  • Oppression + People leads to an Oppressive Culture
  • Oppressive Culture + Time leads to Systemic Sin

This makes it incredibly complex, not least because sometimes, the very habits or processes that get introduced for good get twisted into compounding the sin. Think of it as a lattice or network of exponentially-increasing complexity. Which is why the good intentions and integrity of an individual within the network might be powerless to change the overall web, even if she or he can make a difference to those within their own orbit.

Please don't read into the fact that many of the people are uncrowned! I just got bored copy and pasting! Take it as read that everyone has their own!

So here are 3 reasons for facing corporate and systemic sin to get us started. I’m sure you can think of more.

  • We are confronted by sin’s inescapable complexity. If I only grasp human weakness in terms of me and God, I might possibly think it is something I can deal with by myself (with enough willpower, or the motivation of punishments and rewards, or shame of exposure etc). As if it is enough simply to get right with God. Once I see that it is much bigger than this, that it is often as much a question of omission within networks as it is commission, then I realise how impossible that is. I really do need God here. I really do need grace. The challenges are simply too great.
    • Consider life in the Roman Empire, for example. In the Book of Revelation, a frequent metaphor for Rome is Babylon, because of all that the city represented, particularly in the 1st Century as it systematically persecuted monotheists like Jews and Christians. Its systems and networks were intricate, vast and overwhelming. So what on earth were you supposed to do when John’s vision cries out on Rev 18:4 “Come out of her, my people, so you will not share in her sins!” But how!? Should they all emigrate to the furthest reaches of Asia Minor or the Teutonic Forests? Or should they try to preserve a degree of integrity within? Just as believers did under communism in Eastern Europe. Total purity was a fantasy; the system was overpowering; and complicity impossible to avoid (even for people at the bottom). Is it so different in a capitalist system where ethics are ultimately trumped by $s or ££s or ¥¥s? The real world? Sure. Does that mean we do nothing about it? You have to decide…
  • We are confronted by our reality as simultaneously perpetrators AND victims. I affect others profoundly by my omissions and commissions; and am affected profoundly by others’ omissions and commissions. I leave scars and I have scars. We are all in this together. And when somebody mistreats or abuses somebody, it is highly likely that this is a byproduct of the mistreatment or abuses of others somewhere back in the lattice. Now, there is clearly a tension here. Factors and explanations sit uncomfortably alongside responsibility and culpability. We can’t avoid the latter. Abusers are responsible for their abuse. But the labyrinthine web of traditions, habits, and cultures all have a part to play to harm and damage even the abusers. (Could this perhaps be part of the secret to that seemingly utopian gospel call to love our enemies? I wonder…)
    • This is why it is never enough to resort to the ‘few bad apples’ excuse when things go wrong. We must analyse the cultures that enabled and blinded. Are there elements of the ‘systemic’ that can be shifted or altered (in full knowledge that a perfect culture is impossible) to make a difference? Or in extremis, is revolution and total destruction the only way? My gut feeling is history repeatedly proves that even the most diehard revolutionaries end up ruing the day of revolution once they witness the chaos that ensues.
    • This is why it is invariably simplistic (and thus irresponsible) to channel all bile or twitter shame onto a particular demographic, or class, or gender, or sexuality type, or race, or whatever else. I’m not saying aspects of particular culture and history have crafted tendencies and systemic problems (so there is undoubtedly a problem with how white people treat black people; how men treat women; how straight treated gay people). Some power imbalances have survived generation after generation; and perennial victims deserve to be heard. This does not necessarily mean that if they gain power and privilege they will automatically do better.
    • But difficulty and complexity must never be allowed to excuse the failing to do anything about it.
  • We are confronted by our even deeper need for grace. None of us is innocent; none of us is immune. Please don’t misunderstand: this is not to flatten everything as if blame (for perpetrating, enabling or ignoring abuse, for example) must be equally shared and never focused. For in cases of systemic failure, there will be a spectrum of culpability. But it is only, I think, when confronted by the systemic that we truly say, “this is beyond the wit of man” to sort out… It takes one who can both instigate unimpeachable justice and offer beauty-restoring mercy. It takes one who went to a cross.
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