When justice means just doing the right thing
Updated: Feb 3
¡Hola! Well, here we are again in Los Cristianos, on the southern tip of Tenerife, for our annual vitamin D fix.
And like this time last year I am sending this blog from our favourite waterfront café Mokelino as we watch the various ferries leave for the island of La Gomera which I can just glimpse through the haze.
Fascinating place, La Gomera, a small circular volcanic island invariably shrouded in cloud, a place of some mystery. However, on a regular basis it attracts international attention for from here those intrepid adventurers who would cross the Atlantic begin their voyage.
In fact, just three weeks ago (I discover from Google news) some 43 ocean rowing boats set out from La Gomera to compete in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, the world’s toughest rowing race.
They set out as part of a long tradition beginning no less with Christopher Columbus who made La Gomera his last port of call before his epoch-making crossing of the Atlantic in 1492 with his three ships.
However, our appreciation of this Genovese-born explorer has radically changed in my lifetime. At school I learnt that he was the daring explorer, a hero no less, who discovered America, a feat celebrated each year in the US on Columbus Day.
And at primary school one of my favourite hymns was “Hills of the North, rejoice!” The first four lines of the original version of verse 4 go like this:
Shores of the utmost West,
ye that have waited long,
break forth to swelling song;
In fact, these original words took some finding on Google because the verse has now been rewritten:
Shores of the utmost West,
lands of the setting sun,
welcome the heavenly guest
in whom the dawn has come.
For we now realise that Columbus did not discover America: it was already there and populated by peoples who were to be ravaged by the incoming conquistadores with their gunpowder, horses and viruses. In fact, one prominent American anthropologist argues that Columbus Day celebrates the greatest waves of genocide of the American indigenous peoples known in history.
As a result of this new perspective we are now in the process of revaluating our history, particularly in our nation’s involvement with the subsequent slave trade in the New World, in which my home city played such a prominent role. Even today we benefit from its sad heritage, myself included.
For when I was a young vicar each December I received a grant from the Rustat trust, a welcome cheque to help with our family Christmas expenses. This is the same Tobias Rustat, no less, whose memorial plaque stands in the chapel of Jesus College, Cambridge and which many want removed because of his involvement with the slave trade.
Last year a church consistory court ruled that this opposition was based on “a false narrative” about the scale of the financial rewards Rustat gained from slavery, and it ordered that the memorial should remain in the chapel. Many continue to object, including the former Archbishop of Canterbury.
It’s not an easy balance to make, to acknowledge those terrible injustices from previous generations but from which we continue to draw some financial return. Above all, God is a God of justice – even if that justice is delayed. Hence the cry of the Psalmist: “Awake, my God; decree justice.” (Psalm 7:6)
So you may have read this week of the ‘impact investment fund’ set up by the Church Commissioners after a report found that much of the commissioners’ £10 billion wealth could be traced back to investments in the slave trade made in the 18th century.
As the present Archbishop confesses: “The full report lays bare the links of the Church Commissioners’ predecessor fund with transatlantic chattel slavery. I am deeply sorry for these links. It is now time to take action to address our shameful past.”
That we should make restitution is simply a case of upholding God’s justice, how we do so is much more contentious. But even so some restitution should be made, given that we continue to benefit today from this "shameful past."
This fund, valued at some £100 million, is to be administered by a new body, membership of which will be “largely drawn from people from the global South.”
Grants made with the profits from the fund are to be directed to projects working to address the “after-effects of slavery,” particularly in education and especially in West Africa and the West Indies. It seems that education was deliberately suppressed in many of the places where slavery was operating, leaving an educational deficit even today.
A bold move, showing that the CofE, is prepared to honour God with its finances, even against some opposition. Furthermore the Commissioners are expecting that other institutions will follow this lead.
As Archbishop Justin asserts: “Only by obeying the command (to walk in the light of Christ) and addressing our past transparently can we take the path that Jesus Christ calls us to walk and face our present and future with integrity.” Sometimes justice simply means just doing the right thing.