There has been so much suffering in the world, for many thousands of years and for many reasons. Some of it was because families, tribes, nations and even empires clashed with the resulting horror, bloodshed and brutality that always usually ensued. Some of it was, sadly, ‘religious’ in nature, people using religions to gain power over other people, gain wealth, land, resources, justify oppression and ruthless exploitation, slavery and the conquests of other countries, even ‘holy’ wars and crusades, and many other things lost or basically forgotten in the mists of time. I think we need as Christians especially to accept that European empires used the notion of being godly, to conquer other vast territories all over the world, and rather ironically do very ungodly things to achieve worldly ambitions. Was the conquest of New Spain or the conquests of the British Empire really done for the glory of God, or was it about greed, selfish ambition, a desire for land, gold, slaves and women and to make vast profits along the way? Do I really need to have that answered? There are very specific arguments in Britain about the nature of empire; those whose ancestors were crushed in some way or ruthlessly exploited have one story to tell, and those whose ancestors profited or who made good in the British Empire have another story to tell, quite understandably perhaps. Not all people from Britain who went out to the far flung corners of the empire were going specifically to exploit people and many people were actually going to escape living in poverty in Britain and for better opportunities in another country, but those who made vast profits in the slave trade, the plantation system all over the empire and later the factory system in the Industrial Revolution in late 18th century, and throughout the 19th century, England were making vast profits through the ruthless exploitation of people who were generally paid so little and worked so hard that many of them had very short and very brutish lives, and if they lived they were worked very hard and paid generally a pittance.
Of course, as well as harsh realities, there seemed to be a necessity, especially throughout the 19th century, of ‘justifying’ the ruthless exploitation of people and the grabbing of land and wealth and resources, so there developed the idea that white Europeans, of a certain class at least, were superior to the poorer classes of Europeans and were certainly superior to Africans and Indians and other peoples around the world, particularly those with darker skin. In effect, adding insult to injury. Our whole modern world, and indeed global culture and trade and ideas of all kinds, come out of the ideas and practises of Europeans and European ambitions and global colonialism for the last five centuries and certainly for the last two hundred and fifty years at least. Some British people, Americans, South Africans, Australians and others are very reluctant to hear this, and some even get bitterly angry that anyone should even mention it, but it has to be mentioned and it has to be talked about, like so many other things that have been, sometimes very carefully and purposefully, brushed under the carpet. When we talk about these things we come to terms with them, and through talking about them we can seek forgiveness, redemption and reconciliation.
For Irish people, Jewish people and Black people, these notions of European superiority and European global ambitions have had very bitter, poignant and real consequences, of which for the most part I don’t have to go over here. My own story alone, as I wrote about in a recent post, is of having Irish blood, and Welsh blood too, even a little Scots for good measure, and of course after that, goodness knows what! But we as a family grew up in poverty very probably because my ancestors on one side of the family at least also grew up in poverty too. It can sometimes be a long chain of poverty that is very hard to break, which is why I try never to judge someone who is struggling in some way, or who has issues with drink or drugs or even if they are in and out of jail for that matter. We never know what someone else is going through, or has gone through, so we should never judge for that reason alone. Suffice to say, many Jews, black people and Irish people feel angry at the way their ancestors were treated in the past; we all know about the Holocaust, we all know about the Slave Trade and most people are aware of the Irish Famine and perhaps the English establishment encouraging colonies in Ireland and violently suppressing rebellions against this, for many centuries. These stories of course are just the tip of the iceberg in the story of European empires and European ambition and expansion. I will also add something else too; I notice that in America and Britain especially, there is a sense to all these stories that one story is worse than the other, that our people suffered worse than yours, and so on. Please do not ever go down that path, because it is one of self-pity, it is judgemental, it is comparing different experiences and it is playing off your suffering against someone else’s suffering when you may know nothing at all about that person, their suffering or their history. It’s all bad in effect. And above the horrors and sadness and tragedy we know about, there is so much heartache and sadness in the past that is forgotten simply because the people who were oppressed or abused or harshly mistreated had no one to speak about it to or anyone to turn to, and perhaps lived sad lives of poverty and struggle and hardship as well. All these things enter our collective history someway and we are aware that not so long ago people’s lives were for the most part very hard for all kinds of reasons and most people’s ancestors lives even in the recent past were hard, or at least unremarkable except for a boring low paid job and little in the way of plenty many of us have today.
But, notwithstanding all of this, getting angry and upset is acceptable and understandable, but it won’t change things one iota. We all have to forgive the oppressors and exploiters of long ago, we have to seek redemption for the hatred we have for other people for any reason, and above all perhaps we have to seek reconciliation, because in the end we are all hurting for one reason or another, perhaps for a number of reasons. We also have to live the lives many of our ancestors couldn’t, the lives of peace and freedom, the chance to prosper and live decently, that so many people in the past couldn’t even begin to have because they were poor or black or Jewish, because they were women, because they were Irish or for any reason whatsoever. Forgiveness, Redemption and Reconciliation are bigger words than hatred, self-righteousness and revenge anyway.
Here’s a few links to photographs of times gone by, and some of them also have galleries of other photographs too and articles attached to them.