9 min read

A present focus on future change should trump paying penitence

Reparations are in fashion for compensating for the past argues John Milbank, asking whether taking a stance about the past is more important than achieving an outcome in the present.

John Milbank is a theologian, philosopher and poet. A co-founder of the Radical Orthodoxy movement, he is an Emeritus Professor of the University of Nottingham.

An accounting entry in copperplate writing.
Entry in Queen Anne’s Bounty Accounts showing money received from the executors of Edward Colston.

Reparations are in the news these days. Poland is demanding $1.3trillion from Germany for the destruction to their country by the Nazi’s invasion 84 years ago. The Mayor of New York City Mayor is advocating reparations payouts as a solution to the wealth gap between blacks and whites in the city, and Caribbean countries are considering approaching the United Nation international court of justice for legal advice about reparations for slavery. 

In line with this trend, the Church of England intends to spend £100m on reparations for its past involvement in slavery.  

As many have already pointed out, the receipt of any money from slavery profiteering was minimal and marginal at best, such that the rationale given for this intention involves a strange exaggeration of its own past faults.  

The problem with this is that it implies a kind of boasting about its sins, which is itself a mode of sin, all too akin to the agreeable shudders produced when a supposedly repentant sinner details his past wrong doings before the altar. The greater the lapse, the greater the grace, in a kind of gross liberal parody of an already gross exaggeration of a more authentic Protestant legacy.  

Why should the Church seek to do this? The answer surely is nothing to do with its reckoning with its own past shortcomings. It is rather the same old courting of middle-class respectability that has always afflicted Anglicanism at its worse, despite entirely opposite tendencies of which it can be proud. Reparations are fashionable in middle class circles and the Church wants to be in on the act. One should not mistake this for radicalism, nor for real repentance. If the West was really sorry for what it has done wrong in the past, it would not pretend that this wrong was not mixed up with a lot of good (in the case of overseas empires for example) but would seek in the present to act in an entirely different way: to abandon economic and ecological exploitation of the rest of the world in the present, and to seek to act always in a globally collaborative manner.  

Rather than seeking to change the present, it is far easier to continue to condemn the past, which cannot seriously be undone. 

The reasons it does not do so concern not only its continued commitment to an unqualified capitalism, but also and more subtly the truth that if we seriously wished to act positively and helpfully, we would have to resume some of our past paternalistic concern in a new idiom, that would no doubt prove unacceptable to a now liberal-dominated left. Increasingly, respectable liberal opinion cares far more about formal stances than about actual beneficent outcomes.  

Rather than seeking to change the present, it is far easier to continue to condemn the past, which cannot seriously be undone. Financial compensation is itself a substitute for any real change of heart. For if we really regretted past exploitation, we would not continue to sustain it in a less involved and more purely economic, and therefore worse form today.  

Furthermore, to imagine that one can set a price on damaged heads is only to repeat the quantification and monetarisation of humanity that was the logic of slavery in the first place. The fact that so many non-white people nonetheless back the call for reparations is only a sad proof that they are covertly locked into a capitalist logic and a liberal-rights thinking that tends to tilt over into the unchristian (despite Nietzsche) ethics of ressentiment.  

Rather, one should say that our involvement in the Atlantic slave trade was so bad that nothing can offset it, save the sacrificial blood of Christ (recalling that he was betrayed for money) and our sharing in this atoning action through repentance and compensatory, embodied action in the present.  

So why on earth would the Church of William Wilberforce and Trevor Huddleston feel that it needs to regret its supposed slave owning and racist past? 

This was initially and most of all demanded and carried out by Anglicans of a usually High Tory persuasion, and though we should not forget some enlightenment opposition to slavery, which sometimes inspired the revolt of slaves themselves, it is an illusion not to consider this to be also Christian or at least post-Christian. After all, pagan republicans were not just at ease with slavery, they built their entire republican systems upon it. To a degree the United States tried at first to repeat that, till eventually a radical Christian vision (taking it beyond the qualified Biblical acceptance of slavery) won out in that country also, though it lagged in this respect behind Britain and the Anglican Church. 

So why on earth would the Church of William Wilberforce and Trevor Huddleston feel that it needs to regret its supposed slave owning and racist past?  

One might say that it is more important to feel shame and regret than to boast. But to celebrate one’s past saints is not to boast of oneself, but to accord honour where honour is due and to raise up admirable examples for admiration and imitation. To be human and to be creative in the image of God is continuously to praise as well as to blame, as the Anglican poet Geoffrey Hill frequently argued.  

Moreover, if we only follow fashion in our blaming, which is also important, then we will tend to miss the more hidden and subtle culpable targets. Uncovering the latter is surely especially incumbent upon anyone claiming to follow Christ, who constantly located sin where it was unsuspected and inversely found hidden if suppressed virtue to be present amongst those publicly deemed to be sinners.  

In reality our coming to see the Good is always the work of time and is always revisable. 

But in the case of both praise and blame what matters most is to take the drama of past history as instructive: not to claim that we can finally undo its past injustices as past. This is blasphemously to appropriate the prerogatives of God at the last judgement and to newly extend the false logic of sacramental indulgences.  

For a kind of unspoken presentism lurks behind the reparations mentality. The assumption is that we all really live in an ahistorical eternity within time, such that if we were always thinking rightly we would always see, in any time or place, the truth of current liberal nostra, despite the fact that they are themselves incessantly changing, for example with respect to gender and sexuality.  

In reality our coming to see the Good is always the work of time and is always revisable. What the Greeks and Romans regarded as acceptable treatment of ‘barbarians’, women and slaves we can now see to be horrendous, and we are right to do so. And yet it would be a mistake to suppose that classical nobility was a self-delusion: by their own lights people in antiquity acted virtuously and in certain ways which we can still recognise today, with regard to fortitude, magnanimity, forbearance and so forth. We can also allow that they developed acceptable notions of virtue in general, even if they filled them with often highly questionable content. 

In the case of the Bible, the notion that ethical insight changes with time is still more foregrounded than with the pagans. It is a record not just of backsliding, but of constantly new prophetic and visionary insights, culminating in the drastic New Testament revisions of what is ethically demanded of us all the time, even if this is often cast as return to lost origins.  Yet despite this, the forefathers continued to be praised as well as blamed, celebrated as well as condemned, even in the New Testament. 

In the case of both pagan and Jewish antiquity it was realised that even if we can claim to have surpassed our predecessors in insight, our new insights still depend upon their earlier ones, such that we stand upon the shoulders of giants.  

We have then no warrant to condemn people in the past who were good by their lights of their times, including benefactors like Edward Colston of Bristol who were also slave traders, and whose statues should therefore be left to stand. They were perversely blinkered indeed, but they lived in a blinkered age. It is pointless to blame them and more important to praise the rare visionaries who were able to think beyond this. One may say well ‘everyone could have seen the point if some did’ but this is to ignore the truth that most of us usually find such people awkward and that they have not always thought through an alternative way forward. After all, a failure of Northern abolitionists adequately to do that was in part responsible for the continued pervasive misery of African Americans through many decades and continuing today, after the American civil war.  

Everything in time and space is infinitely ramified and ramifying. Absolutely everything is contaminated and yet the bad is interwoven with the good. 

Another problem with reparations is, of course, the problems of identifications and the selectivity involved.  

Just who are the current descendants of slaves and the continued legatees of disadvantage thereby accrued? All African Americans, of every class, despite much intermarriage? All the inhabitants of the Caribbean, again despite social hierarchies? African countries, despite past African complicity in, and indeed originating of, specifically modern slavery?  

And then why only certain selected ethnicities? To focus on only black people looks candidly like supporting a will to power and a reverse anti-white racism. What about all women, and all gay people so mistreated in the past? What about the working classes in Britain whose children were sent down mines and up chimneys under conditions of dependence little better in practice than outright slavery? Are they deserving of compensation? After all, their ancestors are often readily identifiable by both family and region. 

So wherever would one stop? Should Anglo-Saxons demand at last justice from the conquering Normans, since these different ethnic legacies are still somewhat identifiable by class, as anyone suddenly summonsed into the arcanum of old county money lurking within guarded private estates with unimaginably huge old trees, will readily testify.  

Everything in time and space is infinitely ramified and ramifying. Absolutely everything is contaminated and yet the bad is interwoven with the good. If we start to try to break with all of the bad through a sort of Maoist cultural revolution (in relation to the British imperial past, for example) then we will end up losing the fruits and flowers as well as the tares and political terror will ensure that even only the most privileged weeds survive such a purge.  

So, the Church of England needs to stop following fashion and lose its current obsessions with reparations, diversity, excessive safeguarding and all the rest of it. Instead, it needs to recover its genuine legacy of paradoxically conservative radicalism, nurtured at once by evangelicals and ‘liberal Catholics’, by radical Tories and Christian socialists. It is just this which can truly challenge the economically and culturally individualistic times in which we live, to the ruin of us all.  

At home it needs first to set an example in its own backyard, by entirely reversing the current policy of parish destruction, which all the evidence now shows is partly responsible for Christian decline in this country and entirely cripples Anglican mission in all its dimensions. The more that the Church returns to a policy of putting sophisticatedly trained clergy in socially prominent and capacious parsonages (enabling hospitality discussion) within single or very small groups of parishes, then the more it can start directly to nurture rooted and genuinely inclusive communities, socially responsible enterprises and integrated local ecologies, beginning with churchyards. 

This is where the church’s money should be spent: on substantial nurture, not questionable and futile gestures.   

On the global scale, Anglicans need to turn from a presentist abolition of the past to a future-orientated preoccupation with the present.  If our current way of living is everywhere destroying the planet, promoting ever more inequality and inhibiting human health and intellectual capacity, then surely the question to be posed is whether this is the result of abandoning past spiritual priorities?  

Instead of mounting the liberal bandwagon of futile and counter-productive virtue-signalling, the Church of England should ask what an alternative ‘psychic politics’ based on a mixture of genuine hierarchy and participation would look like, and turn its energies towards supporting those already seeking to enact this. 

Life & Death
4 min read

Did God save Donald Trump?

In the aftermath of the assassination attempt, Graham Tomlin asks whether or not we can see the hand God at work.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

Red hat with the words Make America Great Again

Given the polarised nature of American politics and the venomous nature of the debates, the assassination attempt on Donald Trump was not entirely a surprise, even if a massive shock to the system. It was both tragic for those who were killed and yet a relief for everyone that Trump survived, not least for the unimaginable consequences across the country if he had not.

It doesn’t take a very deep dive into the maelstrom that is Twitter/X these days, to discover a common theme among Trump supporters - that God shielded him from a certain death. “God protected President Trump,” Senator Marco Rubio posted. “God saved the life of Donald Trump” say a million others, confident that the seemingly miraculous slight head tilt at the moment of the shot that ensured the bullet hit his ear, not going through the back of his temple, was a moment of divine intervention.

Yet look elsewhere on X and you can find vast numbers of people equally certain that this is complete nonsense. God did not save Donald Trump, either because there is no God to save anyone, or because if there is a God, either he doesn’t intervene at all, or even if he did, he certainly wouldn’t want to save the likes of Donald Trump.

If God saved Trump, they say, why did he not save the life of Corey Comperatore, the volunteer fireman who was killed by bullets fired from the gun that was used in the attack?  Trump supporters respond with the claim that Trump has a special calling, justifying divine intervention, to ‘restore the Judaeo-Christian heritage to America’ as one tweet put it.

So, which is it?

Christian thinkers have normally held to the possibility that God can and does, at decisive moments, interrupt the normal flow of history.

Christian thinkers have normally held to the possibility that God can and does, at decisive moments, interrupt the normal flow of history. After all, the central Christian claim is that he did this in remarkable acts of deliverance such as the Exodus, at key moments in the history of Israel and most importantly in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And, they claim, he does it in less prominent ways, as testimonies to prayers answered and apparently miraculous occurrences suggest.

Yet divine interventions like this are by definition rare. In one of Douglas Coupland’s novels, one of the characters ponders a Christian group that expects constant miracles: “They’re always asking for miracles and finding them everywhere. In as much as I am a spiritual man, I do believe in God - I think that he created an order for the world; I believe that, in constantly bombarding him with requests for miracles, we are also asking that he unravel the fabric of the world. A world of continuous miracles would be a cartoon, not a world.” He has a point.

Yet a world without any interventions at all would be a world which God had seemed to abandon to its fate. The idea that God set up his world to run like clockwork with no further intervention is Deism, not Christianity, a theology popular in the C17th and C18th, still found today, but leaves God watching us from a safe and uninvolved distance. It would lead to the conclusion that God did not really care that much about the world, leaving it to its own devices, especially when evil runs riot and nothing seems to prevent it. Such interventions are best seen as signs, special indications that do not ‘unravel the fabric of the world’, yet are tangible reminders that even though it is broken, God has not given up on this world, and will one day redeem it.

Yet if God can and does step in at certain moments to divert the course of history in a fallen and broken world, that doesn’t mean that every claim to divine intervention is genuine. So how can you tell? Who do we believe?

If God can and does step in at certain moments to divert the course of history in a fallen and broken world, that doesn’t mean that every claim to divine intervention is genuine. So how can you tell? Who do we believe?

At several points in the Old Testament, writers wonder how you can tell the true prophet from the false. One of them answers like this: “If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken.”

To be honest, this doesn’t appear to help much. You can tell if a person has got it right if their prediction comes true, but at the time, you have no idea whether it will come true or not, so it still leaves you in the dark as to who to believe.

Yet it does suggest an important insight. You can only tell God’s intervention retrospectively. You can only say with a degree of confidence that God has ‘intervened’ when looking back on events and seeing how they turn out.

If Donald Trump is elected, and somehow brings about harmony and flourishing for as many people in the USA as possible, stabilises the economy, enabling all people to live a decent life, not just the rich and powerful, restores a sense of civility and generosity to public life, resists the forces of harm and evil in the nation and in the world, and brings freedom for Christians and others to practice and promote their faith, then maybe we might look back in future years and say that God did step in on July 14th 2024 to frustrate the purposes of evil in the world.

Yet if none of that happens, and what results from his survival is instead a deeper fracturing of social cohesion, a coarsening of public debate, a siege mentality that divides the world between ‘us’ and ‘them’, an increasing divide between the rich and the poor, the elites and ordinary people, then we might in future say it was mere chance, one of those random things that happen in this created yet fallen world with its mysterious blend of order and chaos.

Which will it be? Time will tell. Until then, we’d better be cautious about claims of divine intervention. Not because God never does it, but because we’re not very good at telling when it happens.