With low, brooding rainclouds and gently rolling hills, the Oxfordshire countryside was everything I had imagined it would be. I grew up reading Enid Blyton, Billy Bunter, and William, so driving down narrow country lanes, flanked by hedgerows laden with berries, seemed a bit like coming home after years away. But this was not my home. My home is beneath the African sun, where the wind sings in the dry grass, bringing promises of rain from the distant purple mountains. The burdens I carry are not these people’s burdens. I do not belong here. It is a strange feeling, being in a place that is at once so familiar and so utterly alien; a place that has, in ways it will never understand, birthed me, profoundly shaped who I have become yet which does not recognise me at all.
Now I love history. I love the opportunity it affords one to step back and take a panoramic view of the way human thought and behaviour has evolved over time. I find particularly fascinating those moments that define the direction the river of history flows. At school, studying Latin, I often wondered how different the world would have looked had Hannibal marched on Rome after his decisive victory at the Battle of Cannae, returning home after years of struggle, when he was so close to achieving his final goal of obliterating Roman hegemonic power. Now – as an adult – I am convinced that, being a brilliant strategist, Hannibal knew he could not take Rome itself. He simply could not have sustained a seige with winter so close and food so scarce. I am sure his decision was based on logistics rather than ambition. But as a teenager, I couldn’t understand why, when he was so close, and after all he had suffered, he turned for home. He could not have guessed at the role the Romans would play in shaping the history of Britain, which was – at the time – simply an island in the backwaters of the Empire but which would expand into an Empire that would dwarf even the Romans’. What would Christianity, a religion that has – sometimes for the better and often for the worse – directed the course of human relations in the centuries since Jesus, look like, in the absence of the brutal cultural domination of the Romans that gave contextual shape to Jesus’ life and teachings? When Hannibal wheeled the remnants of his army around and returned to Carthage, he could not have conceived of the millennia of suffering engendered there. How could he?
So, as you might imagine, I found England fascinating. Its history is filled with Hannibal moments. I found one such moment in a cathedral in Bath. “Here”, the tour guide states animatedly, “is where the first king of England, King, Edgar, was crowned in 973”. I could imagine a bunch of battle-hardened warriors standing around and deciding, probably with economic interests at stake, that Edgar would make a splendid leader and that he was both sensible and correct in his insistence that he was God’s chosen one, who ought to be given absolute power. What could possibly go wrong? Would they have chosen differently had they the capacity to foresee how English monarchy would shape the Christian church, influence the colonisation of the Americas, Southern Africa, the Middle East, India and China? If they could roll back the years and see the Salem witch trials, the systematic slaughter of native Americans, the enslavement of Africa, “Third World” debt; indeed, all of the evils unleashed by opening the Pandora’s Box of colonialism, would they have done anything differently? Would somebody have piped up and said, “Say, chaps, has anyone considered the merits of a really good constitutional democracy?” Sadly, nobody did. Nobody ever does; we accept the systems of power we have always known as legitimate and right: we tend not to question “the way the world works”.
Power has always found its expression in blood spilt. And this is a reality that presented itself starkly to me as I visited various historical monuments in England. Human history is the history of the abuse of power. I was simultaneously appalled and amazed by much of what I saw.
At Windsor castle, in one of the display cabinets was an ornate goblet, encrusted with gold and precious stones. The gold has been intricately worked to form a dragon (no doubt the one that St George slew: it apparently never occurred to him that perhaps dragons and humans can peacefully co-exist) wrapped around its hoard of treasure (no doubt obtained through nefarious means, which justifies St George’s wanton slaughter of it). It was exquisitely crafted and astoundingly beautiful. It was also utterly repulsive: how does one justify the pillaging of foreign lands and the slaughter of their people (one of the traditional means of gold coming to England), only to use what was stolen to make an ornamental cup when so many of the people whom you claim God has entrusted to your care are starving and diseased only a mile from where you sit and dine in opulent splendour? The extravagance and lavishness of the aristocratic houses in England are, frankly, appalling.
No wonder Jesus remarked on how difficult it was for rich people to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. He was not commenting on how our earthly wealth becomes an idol that we love more than God and which thus precludes us from entering a happy afterlife. Remember, when Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God – when any Jew at the time talked about the Kingdom of God – he was talking about social configurations in this world. Jesus was, I think, observing how wealth prevents us from relating to people in love. Wealth can make us treat people in terms of their economic usefulness. The pursuit of wealth creates relationships where people dominate others, manipulate and exploit them. Wealth allows us to ignore the humanity of others. It can render people invisible. That is not love. That way of relating is not how God intends us to relate, because it is devoid of love.
Perhaps nowhere was this more evident than in the British Museum and the Ashmolean Museum. Those two days were among the most fascinating days I have ever spent. But I was also acutely aware, every minute I was there, that this was the history of things the British have looted from the rest of the world and refused to give back (No-one, after all, is as well equipped to safeguard the world’s heritage pieces than the Brits). So the existence of the collection itself is a testimony to the abuse of power in the name of God. But the pieces themselves are as damning of humanity: so many of the artefacts reflect the evolution of our ability to mutilate one another with increasing efficiency. And here is the thing – we celebrate it! The pieces that I found myself drawn to, and I saw that the same was true of most others, were the weapons: instruments the sole purpose of which was to inflict suffering on fellow human beings. Farming implements and buttons just don’t hold the same macabre appeal. And we are just so good at hurting one another. We have turned it into an art form. And I felt sickened by it all, even as I was enthralled.
Even back home in South Africa, I find myself a traveler beneath a grey and brooding sky in a world I feel increasingly alienated from. I cannot comprehend the violent desires that drive us, even as I recognise in myself just how profoundly I have been shaped by those very desires, how powerless I am, in so many ways, to resist being controlled by them myself. I feel like a stranger in a strange land, though the place feels so familiar. Even as I am critical of British aristocracy, I recognise in myself those same impulses after earthly wealth that allow me to refuse to see those less fortunate, wilfully blind to their plight. I can see how wealth drives me from the Kingdom, making loving others just too darn inconvenient. And that makes me ever more grateful for the love and forgiveness of a God, Jesus, who looks at us in love, even as we torture and murder him, and forgives us because “we know not what we do”. I do know this, however: we – I – have a lot of work to do if God’s Kingdom – as Jesus taught us to pray – is to come on earth as it is in heaven.