False narratives and the Rustat Memorial judgment

False narratives and the Rustat Memorial judgment
On 23 March 2022, the judge in the Rustat Memorial case declined to grant Jesus College a faculty to remove a memorial to a known slave trader from the chapel to another part of the College. Key to the decision is the finding that it was a “false narrative” that money he had donated to the College was derived from the slave trade. Historically, it appears that although he had invested in people trafficking and slave labour at the time of his donations, he had not yet received any return on his investments.


The false forgiveness narrative
In fact, the false narrative in the judgment is the version of forgiveness set out by the judge: a version which, by contrast with the forgiveness of the Gospels, does not require confession, repentance, change of heart or change of behaviour (Zacchaeus - Luke 19:1-10).

This type of forgiveness is clearly not the Gospel kind because it transforms nothing. Salvation does not come to Rustat’s house if this wealthy man remains exactly where he was – praised, respected, remembered – while the poor and oppressed also remain where they were, only with the added burden of having to forgive someone who didn’t have the insight to be sorry and would have been astonished to learn that he was in need of forgiveness.

This is a doctrine which works for the rich and/or powerful and does nothing for the poor. It does not change anything, for the forgiver or the forgiven and its principal use is to justify the status quo. It says: This wealthy person hasn’t done anything wrong, but if you think he has, it is your Christian duty to forgive him. Forgiveness should sort out your hurt feelings, too. Once that is done, we can go back to worshipping together, in the same old way.

I first came across this false forgiveness in Mrs Gaskell’s Mary Barton. John Carson, the wealthy factory owner whose materialism has caused the poverty from which John Barton’s wife dies, and John Barton, the starving factory worker, are reconciled through the transforming power of the Bible, explicitly as sons of the same God. Nevertheless, there is no suggestion that having recognised the humanity and eternal worth of the poor man, the wealthy man reviews his payroll and starts to pay his workers a living wage. There is no suggestion that he opens a factory canteen, so his workers will no longer be “clemmed” (“starving”), a word used frequently in Mrs Gaskell’s description of the Manchester poor and for which she was vilified as a liar by the good Christians of the time. Ultimately, the root causes of the poor man’s crime are defined purely in spiritual terms. There is no mention of their socio-economic drivers, despite this being the theme and context of the book.

Black people have heard this all before. There is even a slave-forgiveness narrative in Brazil, where the brutalised Anastacia Escrava is venerated as a folk saint for forgiving her (non-repentant) owners and conferring blessings on them from her premature deathbed. A more recent example is South Africa. Truth and reconciliation meant the poor forgiving the rich. There was no question of the rich re-directing past or present wealth to remedy the wrongs of the apartheid era for which they had been forgiven. No sign of Zacchaeus here!


A truer narrative of forgiveness
Furthermore, it is not true that in offering Rustat forgiveness, we would be emulating Jesus on the Cross. He did not forgive his torturers: he commended them to the Father’s forgiveness, which Bishop Stephen’s witness statement indicated he was happy to do. No Christian can properly object to doing this for Tobias Rustat, but no-one can be exhorted to forgive him.

What we can be exhorted to do is follow Matthew 5:44:-

But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.

The difficulty with this is that the judgment strives to exonerate Rustat, inconsistently with its trenchant condemnation of the slave trade. Africans may have been despitefully used, but not, it seems, by him.


In defence of a famous man
In fact, taking Rustat’s life in the round, he was just a regular sinner, like the rest of us – no worse than Archbishop Cranmer nor, as regards slavery, any person today who is implicated in modern slavery – nor, indeed, the College and its alleged immoral investments in China. This is what might be called the “all sins matter” defence.

There is even a Nuremberg defence referred to, uncritically, at paragraph 109 of the judgment. The enslaving corporations were Royal Companies and, as a courtier, poor old Tobias had no choice but to invest in them.

The excuse is also made for him that “slavery was legal”. The general public knows this is a morally bankrupt argument: just Google this phrase and see the memes pointing out, correctly, that legality is no guarantee of morality. It is beyond disappointing that the Church of England seems willing to accommodate this view.

Was Rustat a good Christian? We shall never know, although the court seems to have adopted a sort of “presumption of goodness”, accepting Professor Goldman’s analysis that Rustat had led an otherwise “worthy” life. As a practising Christian, he may have been “letting his light so shine before men, that we might see his good works, and glorify his Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). But at the very least it appears from his eight-foot-six memorial, the wording which Bishop Stephen described as “self-vaunting”, and an epitaph which he wrote for himself, that he hadn’t fully grasped the message of Matthew 6:3:-

Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.

Nevertheless, in answer to the Dean’s concern that if this petition could not succeed, what, if any, petition to relocate contested statuary could do so, the answer given is that the more splendid the monument, the less likely it is to be removed [see paragraph 131 of the judgment]. Accordingly, if your wealth enabled you to build bigger, as Rustat did, employing the celebrity sculptor of the time, your monument is more likely to be cherished by today’s church. Contrary to the verse cited above, grandiose will therefore trump modest. The reputations of the rich are safe in our hands.


A theology of wealth
The statutory guidance, to which the consistory court rightly had regard, makes passing reference to the “theology of forgiveness” and the judgment takes this up. My respectful view, however, is that this is not a relevant or helpful consideration, not least because no-one appears to be sorry. By contrast, what might help is a distinctive theology of wealth.

Such a theology would have to be deeply rooted in the New Testament (not the Old, where riches are typically associated with righteousness or wisdom) and neither capitalist, nor socialist, nor any other -ist in nature. This, I feel, would provide the church with a solid framework of her own within which to address issues of contested heritage memorials. Our difficulty is not with slave-derived wealth, but with wealth as a whole.

The starting point would have to be Jesus’s pronouncement: How hard it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven!. The Church, including its courts, should not be afraid to say to rich Christians what Jesus said to the Rich Young Man (Matthew 19:16-22): You are loved by God. You are faithful. But if you want to be saved, you must get rid of your wealth. It stands between you and your salvation.

This is as outrageous a commandment now as it was then and likely to receive just as hostile a reception, but that is the word of the Lord.

It seems to me that the Western church lacks a track record of preaching that you cannot serve God and Mammon (Matthew 6:24). We know that we should store up our treasure in heaven, but where is the warning not to spend hours and hours managing and preserving our savings and investments? We – especially the female of the species – know all too well that even braided hair can be fatal to our salvation (1 Peter 3:3), but are Christians made aware of the dangers posed to our spiritual wellbeing by a second home or a third car?

Is anyone thundering against today’s billionaires, for “adding house to house and field to field” (Isaiah 5:8); or saying “You fool!” to the wealthy man, busily planning ahead for future bumper harvests (Luke 12:16-21); or condemning those who shamelessly pursue every last penny of profit, even if this means cheating the poor (Amos 5:8)? Where are the churches which regularly, habitually and faithfully exhort their congregations to “be on their guard against all kinds of greed” (Luke 12:15)?

Even if wealth is a personal matter and re-distribution a matter of private holiness and philanthropic choice, why in a decade of increasing inequality are we afraid to say to Britain’s billionaires, dead or alive, what Jesus said to the rich young man: Give it all away, if you want to be saved.

There was a time, as the Jubilee Year approached, when the church engaged very seriously with a theology of wealth re-distribution and the moral and social perils of being Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (Ronald Sider – 1978). There was also, however, the Theology of Liberation, which seemed to many to be a communist-wolf in Christian-sheep’s clothing. And who can forget the hostile reaction to Faith in the City, in 1985, which was dismissed as Marxism. It seems that this may have rendered the church, as an institution, impotent in the face of financial injustice, no matter how many individual Christians remain active in this field.


St Basil’s Sermon to the Rich
Help is to be found in the writings of St Basil the Great. His 4th century Sermon to the Rich is an extended exposition of the story of the Rich Young Man, whom he describes as “clouded by a schooling in avarice”. The man who loves his neighbour as himself, says St Basil, will acquire no more than his neighbour has. Accordingly, great wealth is, by definition, an indication of lack of love for humanity. This causative link between one man’s wealth and another’s poverty is made even more starkly by the anonymous pamphlet, De Divitiis, possibly by “the Sicilian Briton” a follower of Pelagius, or possibly a (non-heretical) work of Pelagius himself.

From a starting point such as this, the church could progress to asking the Major Barbara questions posed by Bernard Shaw’s play and, so, to arrive at Gospel conclusions: Is this donation sourced from good wealth or bad? If bad, we should say so boldly, especially if it is blood money from the “utterly abhorrent”  and “repugnant” slave trade [paragraph 6 of the judgment]; but we should also consider whether we could sanctify or cleanse an imperfect gift (since every donor, even a widow and her mites, is a sinner) by putting it to holy use. Such a framework would also help the Church to decide where a benefactor sits on the spectrum from Zacchaeus to Dives: is this a wealthy person who is to be celebrated for giving his money away or one from whom we should hasten to dissociate ourselves?


The false narrative about the past
The court is also not assisted by a further false narrative. The Church’s statutory guidance on contested heritage speaks of not “judging people of the past by the standards of the present”. But is it true that we “now” have a more humane understanding of enslavement than Rustat’s society? The mores of the time included the abolitionists – albeit many of the earliest ones were Quakers, for whom the Church of England, in the era of the Test Acts, would have had little time. Furthermore, cases about slavery were already being heard by the English courts: see e.g., Butts v Penny (1677). And let us not forget that more than a hundred years earlier, the papal bull Sublimis Deus of 1537 had condemned the enslavement of the indigenous peoples of the New World.

In any event, Rustat existed in an era of churchgoers. He would have known better than we do that St Paul’s list of the “ungodly and sinful” (1 Timothy 1:8-11) includes “menstealers” (KJV), now translated as “slave traders” (NIV and NRSV) or “kidnappers” (NKJV). The past is indeed a foreign country [para. 7 of the judgment, quoting from Hartley’s The Go-Between]: it is a country which paid far more attention to the Bible than we do.

And to be perfectly honest, in which century have decent human beings not been able to see that shackles, whips, chains and forced labour are cruel? I doubt that the people of Rustat’s time were so morally deficient.

If, nevertheless, it is true that they did not know that the “menstealing” trade was “utterly abhorrent, and repugnant to all right-thinking people” [para. 6 of the Judgment], then they ought to have known. As William Penn, who moved in similar court circles to Rustat, is credited with saying: "Right is right, even if everyone is against it, and wrong is wrong, even if everyone is for it."


Woke, anti-woke and other secular arguments
Because the Western church has, historically, failed to engage effectively with the morality of affluence, it lacks the tools to address the legacy of a man like Tobias Rustat. Instead, it defaults to applying the rules of Mammon where it ought to apply the Gospel of Christ.  Thus, when deciding issues of wealth and benefaction, it finds itself hearing and deciding between “woke” and “anti-woke” arguments, even though the former formed no part of the College’s case and the latter do not amount to legal arguments within the framework of the Duffield guidelines for the Church’s heritage, on which the court relied.

Alternatively, the Church may default to applying secular principles, such as those familiar to commercial and trusts lawyers, where the ring-fencing of different funds is a commonplace, or advocating secular solutions, such as better education about the slave trade for the students, which has no bearing on the holiness of a place of worship.


The impression given by the judgment is that, where the rich are concerned, the Church is still in no hurry to dissociate herself from a historically enslaving and colonising culture; in short, that “the oppression and disenfranchisement [such memorials] evoke for many in affected communities is socially and theologically acceptable to the Church”: see para. 2a of the statutory guidance.

The objectors are not, it seems, to be relieved of the discomfort or outrage they feel in the College chapel. They are exhorted to embrace it and regard the Memorial as they might the image of Christ on the Cross or that of a martyr [see paragraph 9 of the judgment]. Tobias Rustat is not merely to be celebrated but venerated. Since the good thing he did was donate money, as opposed, say, to laying down his life for his friends, it seems that we are as determined to serve God and Mammon as ever.

This is an issue of faith and mission and it is the spiritual wellbeing of living Christians, rather than the reputation of a dead enslaver which, I believe, ought to have prevailed. It seems that the church’s black members continue to be treated as guests, with varying degrees of welcome. They are no longer denied equal hospitality at the Lord’s table, but no-one is about to remove any of the furniture, even if it makes them spiritually uncomfortable.

Asking Christians to treat a sinner as a saint and to forgive him if he did anything wrong (which is apparently not the case, since he had not yet received a return on his “abhorrent” investment!), is legally and theologically flawed.


Araba Taylor
Araba Taylor is a Chancery barrister in private practice. She was recently appointed Deputy Chancellor of Southwark Diocese and Deputy Commissary General of Canterbury Diocese. She is a panel Chair for Clergy Discipline Panels and is soon to serve as an appointed member of the Legal Advisory Commission of the General Synod.

2 thoughts on “False narratives and the Rustat Memorial judgment”

  1. I am wary of the idea forgiveness depends on repentance because I believe in Justification by Grace rather than works. Moreover, we are all mired in Sin, including the Sin of exploiting weak or vulnerable people because we cannot partake in any economic activity, including buying food, without to some extent benefiting from such exploitation. The links within the economic system are such that all are involved and we have to recognise the inevitability of that in a fallen world. Nor can we hope to know how we might be doing wrong in every aspect of our lives. That is one reason the Law cannot make us righteous. We cannot know all our sins and must trust God and those who suffer to forgive us.

    Nor can we apply the Neuremburg principles to people from the past. Nazi Germany and indeed Vladimir Putin were and are morally regressive. They knew or should have known they had departed from civilised values, since the Enlightenment had happened 150 years earlier in the case of the Nazis and Imperialism as a doctrine has been replaced with self-determination a lifetime ago in the case of Putin.

    By contrast, men like Colston and Rustat lived at a time when no one influential had questioned the moral status of Slavery, which, though it did not exist in English law had been an institution in the world from ancient times. They had no ethical arguments to guide them on the matter. What they did have was an opportunity to invest in a National project with Government backing, which included the trafficking of slaves within its three trading components. It is from that Triangular trade that England and later the UK derived much of its wealth and that same trade fuelled the Industrial Revolution. It is not fair to single out individuals when this is what the whole country did and they were only servants.

    Selective quoting of Scripture to back one side or other of a case will not do. The Bible does not directly address the institution of Slavery, but does seek to regulate it. St Paul, in particular, tries to rid it of unfairness, cruelty, and bitterness, urging slaves to work hard, serving God rather than their masters and masters to remember they too are slaves before God.

    Slavery and Empire are blots on our history, but they are the history of us all, and the UK’s current position in the world is still derived from them. Anyone who lives here is a beneficiary and needs to be aware of that. Even descendants of those enslaved, whether they realise it or not, benefit, for it is still the origin of our residual wealth from which they benefit along with everyone else. Indeed, though this is a very uncomfortable thought, had not their ancestors been uprooted by slave raiders and sold to sailors and sent far away from their homeland they would have met and married different people and had different children and the current generation of descendants would never have been born. This is the enormity of the crime – the generations who could never be conceived, and the others who live instead – but the ones who live are the ones who are real. The unborn are unknown and cannot suffer further. Yet none of that detracts from the harm done to the enslaved generation at the time.

    There are no great men or women in British history who did not benefit in some way from Slavery and Empire. All, however virtuous, will have links of some kind, either in serving their country within these enterprises or in the source of their family’s wealth. This even applies to the mill workers of Lancashire who, though themselves exploited and poor, nonetheless derived their work from those very same plantations worked by the slaves.

    So we need to open our eyes to the dark side of our common history, and stop trying to place blame. We are all sinners in need of God’s forgiveness and we should stop thinking we can escape our responsibility by pointing fingers.

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