Nigel Biggar is the Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at the University of Oxford, where he directs the McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics, and Public Life and the “Ethics and Empire” project. His latest book, Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning is forthcoming from William Collins.
Not all identities are equal. Some are worth holding on to; others are best jettisoned. None deserves uncritical respect.
In the run-up to the referendum on Scottish independence in September 2014 I lost several nights sleep. As an Anglo-Scot, born north of the border that separates England from Scotland and educated south of it, I had never considered myself simply ‘English’ or ‘Scottish’, but always ‘British’. So when, at the eleventh hour, the polls began to suggest that the vote to leave the United Kingdom might triumph, I suffered an existential crisis. I faced the prospect of losing my identity, and it distressed me very deeply.
But that bears thinking about. After all, the pain of Nigel Biggar having to call himself ‘English’ is barely visible in the wide ocean of human suffering. And besides, the depth of felt attachment to an identity cannot be a measure of its worth. The mere fact that I felt viscerally British could not mean that my national identity was worth holding on to.
Perhaps it really was not. Perhaps the Scottish separatists were correct, and Britishness is essentially imperialist and oppressive and to be repented of. Perhaps the Scots had indeed suffered an unfair deal in the UK and would be richer and happier outside it. So perhaps I really ought to let go of my British identity with good grace.
As it happens, I decided upon reflection that none of these things are true. I concluded that Scottish independence is a dogmatic solution in search of an actual problem (basically to say that the thinking process is backward), that the UK remains very good for lots of things, and that it is well worth identifying with. But the main point is this: I had considered my British identity to be accountable. It was not enough that I should feel it deeply. It was still liable to suffer interrogation and justify itself.
And that is true of any identity. None possesses the authority to command unthinking allegiance or compliance.
And that is true of any identity. None possesses the authority to command unthinking allegiance or compliance. Even identities we are born into we choose either to retain or to jettison. Not everyone born British chooses to continue identifying himself as British. Not everyone born as the descendant of slaves chooses out of all the other features of her long past to identify herself strongly with that one. We choose to identify ourselves with things we consider worthy of our personal investment. And the judgement upon which our choice is based might be mistaken. What we suppose is worthy of our investment might not in fact be so. In that case, our identification—out identity—is unjustified and we should abandon it.
For that same reason iconoclasm—the destruction of ‘icons’ or images—can be justified. Some statues deserve to fall, because they not only represent but celebrate something unworthy of our identification and admiration. Obvious, uncontroversial examples would be statues of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, or Pol Pot.
What, then, of Cecil Rhodes? Since late 2015 student activists have been lobbying for a statue of Rhodes that overlooks Oxford’s High Street to be taken down. This is because he was ‘South Africa’s Hitler’ and a ‘white supremacist’, perpetrated genocide, and incarnates the colonialist mentality that generates the racism that still pervades British institutions. His statue represents things that no one should want to identify with and offend the ideal of social justice that the activists do identify with. So Rhodes must fall; his image must topple.
Of course, the cost of identifying oneself with anything human is that one has to acknowledge sin as well as heroism, vice as well as virtue.
Yet I oppose his falling because my identity is also involved. When I call myself British, I am identifying myself with certain admirable features of Britain, its past as well as its present, and saying that this is the kind of country that deserves my personal investment. Among the features I find to admire are the 150 years of imperial endeavour to suppress the slave trade and the institution of slavery worldwide from 1807, and the twelve months from May 1940 to June 1941 when the British Empire was the only military power (apart from Greece) on the field of battle against European fascism. Of course, the cost of identifying oneself with anything human is that one has to acknowledge sin as well as heroism, vice as well as virtue. So in addition to pride, I also feel shame when I reflect on the 150 years of slave-trading that the British engaged in from around 1650, and on the racial contempt that colonial Britons sometimes displayed toward their African and Asian fellow human beings. The honest, Christian patriot must suffer both pride and shame.
My reasons for opposing the dismantling of Rhodes’ statue are threefold. First, I want Britain to continue helping to promote and defend humane and liberal causes worldwide in the future, as I believe she has done in the past. Second, if Britain’s colonial past was the litany of racism and atrocity that the Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) movement says it was, then, arguably, Britain should repent of its global role rather than perpetuate it. But third, the story that the RMF activists tell about Rhodes is just not true.
Rhodes was certainly a convinced imperialist and a buccaneering entrepreneur with a morally mixed record. But he was not South Africa’s Hitler. Far from being racist, he showed consistent sympathy for individual black Africans throughout his life. Nor did he attempt genocide against the Ndebele in the 1896—as might be suggested by the fact that the Ndebele tended his grave for decades. And he had nothing whatsoever to do with General Kitchener’s ‘concentration camps’ during the Boer War of 1899-1902, which themselves had nothing morally in common with Auschwitz.
Moreover, Rhodes did support a franchise in the Cape Colony that gave black Africans the vote on the same terms as whites. He gave financial backing to a newspaper, Izwi Labuntu, which was the voice-piece of one of several black African political associations that were the forerunners of the ANC. And he established his famous scholarship scheme, which was explicitly colour-blind and whose first black beneficiary was selected within five years of his death.
However, none of this seems to matter to the student activists calling for his downfall, or even to the professional academics who support them. Since I published my view of Rhodes, substantiated by evidence and argument, in the March 2016 issue of Standpoint, no one has offered any critical response at all.[i] Notwithstanding that, when the Rhodes Must Fall campaign revived four years later in the wake of the Black Lives Matter agitation, the same false allegations revived with it, entirely unchastened. Thus, according to the Guardian newspaper, an Oxford doctoral student (and former editor of the Oxford University Commonwealth Law Journal) was still callings Rhodes as a “genocidaire” in June 2020.[ii]
What matters is not fidelity to the truth, but the exploitation of political advantage. The statue of Rhodes has been demonised into a totem of the colonialist mentality that allegedly feeds the ‘white supremacism’ infecting our institutions. Among these are universities, where racist prejudice is said manifest itself in the unequal representation of Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people among students and professors. Yet, empirically, the claim that the admission of students is racially biased doesn’t survive contact with reality. On recent, 2019 figures, the BAME population of England and Wales aged 19-26 is 18.3 per cent, but the non-white undergraduate student intake in UK universities is 26.2 per cent, and even at stereotypically elitist and hide-bound Oxford 22.1 per cent.[iii] Moreover, 9.7 per cent of BAME academic staff are professors, only 1.4 percentage points lower than their white peers. Within BAME groups, the professorial proportion of black staff was just under five per cent, but for their Chinese colleagues over sixteen per cent—much higher than for whites.[iv] These figures simply do not support the claim of structural racial bias in British universities.
I am a deliberate, self-conscious Briton, identifying with my country for good or ill. But I have other identities, too. I am not just British, but also Scottish. (Way, way back my family was Norman.) I lived in North America for seven years, my wife is a US citizen, and my family-in-law is American. I could have decided to make my life on the far side of the Atlantic but chose not to, because I felt strongly European. So, I have regional, historic, familial, and cultural identities, as well as a national one.
I also have a Christian one. Evidently, I do not think that this requires me to jettison all my other identities.[v] But it does mean that all my other identities are subordinate and accountable to my Christian one. On the one hand, the New Testament certainly and dramatically downgrades what we might call ‘natural’ identities. So we read of Jesus saying that only those who hate their mothers and fathers can be his disciples (Matthew 10.37; Luke 14.26), that those who would follow him must “let the dead bury the dead” (Matthew 8.22; Luke 9.60), and that his ‘family’ now consists of those who have joined him in his cause (Matthew 12.46-50; Mark 3.31-35; Luke 8.19-21). Jesus also distanced genuine religious faith from the rites and authority of the Temple in Jerusalem, recognised that it was not the monopoly of his own people, and acknowledged its presence in Samaritans and Gentiles (Matt. 8.5, 27.54; Mark 15.39; Luke 7.3, 23.47). After Jesus’ death, St Paul further loosened the connection between faith on the one hand, and blood and land on the other. He developed an understanding of religious faith that is not oriented toward the particular location of Jerusalem, which transcends ethnicity, and which has no proper interest in the restoration of a Jewish nation-state. Out of such an understanding emerged the trans-national religious community known as the ‘Church’.
On the other hand, the New Testament also tells us that Jesus criticized the Pharisees for proposing a piece of casuistry that effectively permitted children to neglect the proper care of their elderly parents (Mark 7.9-13). Further, notwithstanding his affirmation and commendation of Gentiles (Matthew 8.5-13; 15.21-18), he maintained his identity as a Jew (Matthew 15.24, 26; John 4.22). So, there is good reason not to take his ‘hard sayings’ at face-value, and to read them as hyperboles intended to relativize rather than repudiate natural attachments. Similarly, notwithstanding his mission to the Gentiles, St. Paul was assiduous in maintaining his identity as a Jew—“a Hebrew of the Hebrews” (Phil. 3.5)—and famously asserted his identity as a Roman when he appealed to Caesar’s arbitration (Acts 25.10-11).
A Christian’s primary identification with Jesus Christ means that Jesus becomes the criterion that judges all other identities.
A Christian’s primary identification with Jesus Christ means that Jesus becomes the criterion that judges all other identities. On the one hand, insofar as those identities domineer over others; insofar as they inflate the self by humiliating others; insofar as they fail to look with the eyes of compassion upon human frailty; insofar as they wallow in the simple righteousness of their own people or cause; and insofar as they refuse to open their ears to uncomfortable truths—those identities must either suffer correction or be abandoned altogether.
On the other hand, insofar as our non-Christian cultural, social, and political identities express our attachment to moral values such as justice and compassion, and to stories and heroes and statues that incarnate those values; insofar as they are aware of the limitations and sinfulness of every human community, including one’s own; and insofar as they recognise that foreign communities with which other people identify may have their finger on the pulse of values that one’s own group overlooks—those identities are compatible with our identity in Christ and may be worn alongside it.
That applies as much to Christians who would have Rhodes and his like fall, as to those who would keep him standing. It applies to iconoclasts and iconophiles, equally.
[i] Nigel Biggar, “Rhodes, Race, and the Abuse of History”, Standpoint, March 2016: https://standpointmag.co.uk/features-march-2016-nigel-biggar-rhodes-race-history-rhodes-must-fall/
[ii] Aamna Mohdin, “Protesters rally in Oxford for removal of Cecil Rhodes statue”, The Guardian, 9 June 2020: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/09/protesters-rally-in-oxford-for-removal-of-cecil-rhodes-statue
[iii] University of Oxford, Annual Admissions Statistical Report, May 2020, “6. Ethnicity”, p. 22: https://www.ox.ac.uk/sites/files/oxford/Annual%20Admissions%20Statistical%20Report%202020.pdf
[iv] Advance HE, Equality in Higher Education: Staff Statistical Report 2019, pp. 128-30, paragraphs 3.1-3.2, 3.3, 3.20: https://s3.eu-west-2.amazonaws.com/assets.creode.advancehe-document-manager/documents/advance-he/
[v] For a fuller discussion, see Nigel Biggar, Between Kin and Cosmopolis: An Ethic of the Nation (Cambridge/ Grand Rapids: James Clarke/ Wipf & Stock, 2014), Chapter 1.
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