A witness to cheap self-flagellation
The 'Walk of Witness' to apologise for the slave trade captured today’s use and abuse of past atrocities for political (and religious) ends.
The wind was freezing and the ground was damp. Not ideal weather for walking through the streets of London, or watching performances and speeches in the park, but a perfect backdrop to a spot of self-flagellation. Saturday’s Walk of Witness, organised as part of the Making our Mark campaign, marked the bicentenary of the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. With a crowd eager to wallow in guilt for someone else’s crimes, and presumably on first-name terms with the Lord, the cold grey day was positively heaven sent.
The Walk of Witness centred on the themes of remembrance, repentance and restoration, which made for an easy-to-text logo: 3R200. And when it comes to wallowing in guilt, some of the walkers on Saturday were pretty hardcore. Participants in the event included members of the evangelical Christian group Lifeline, who have been walking around the world apologising for abuses against Africa. Their latest expedition was a 24-day walk from Hull to London, ending at the Walk of Witness event. Some wore sweaters with the words ‘so sorry’, others were chained together or connected through wooden yokes around their necks. It seemed the main concern of this march of egocentric and god-fearing saddos was to secure the walkers’ entry through the pearly gates on the day of judgement rather than an enduring memory of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Speaking to a less eccentric group of people – members of a church in Essex who had just stuck to tying the purple Making our Mark ribbon to their right arm – the self-serving goals of the remembrance day were still evident. At first their desire to ‘show solidarity’ to the 12 million people that various non-governmental organisations have termed ‘modern-day slaves’ seemed very genuine. They believe the government should crack down on traffickers and other ‘perpetrators’ and that their victims should be given the choice to stay in Britain. ‘Our country should give them a good home’, one woman told me.
But the real mission of these churchgoers soon became clear. When I asked the woman if the event was mostly about guilt for past wrongs, she objected. ‘We should be looking forward’, she said and added that the campaign is about ‘literally and spiritually setting people free’. A vicar then explained to me that ‘unless they [former slaves] come to Christ, they’re still enslaved to the devil’. He is supportive of the organisation Tearfund because it doesn’t ‘just help people, but also tells them the gospel’.
A young volunteer from Anti-Slavery International, which co-sponsored Making our Mark, explained why Anti-Slavery had teamed up with Christian groups. Taking a break from handing out Declaration postcards to be signed and returned by those taking part, he said that there are strong relations to charity and development in church organisations in general and that ‘the Church has officially apologised [for the slave trade] but the government hasn’t’. He thought it was positive that the Church recognised its role in the slave trade.
He insisted that the event was ‘as much about slavery still existing today’. He also quoted the figure of 12 million modern-day slaves, listing a range of injustices from forced prostitution – ‘which is horrible, it’s disgusting’ – to bonded labour in India.
Surely using past atrocities to campaign against a range of adversities and injustices existing today muddles up our understanding of both the past and the present? He disagreed, arguing that the anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade is a ‘platform’ to draw attention to what’s going on today. He believed that while people have little problem condemning the slave trade that ended 200 years ago, they are not as clear in condemning ‘modern-day slavery’. So Anti-Slavery wants to tell people that ‘if you feel this way about the trans-Atlantic slave trade, you should also feel this way about what’s going on today’.
There were a series of performances and speeches at Kennington Park, including an all-girl gospel choir and a play by a group of year nine and 10 students. Entitled Amazing Grace, it ‘confronts the ignorance of a British school girl’, who is transported to the cell of an African slave awaiting execution. The slave, played by a black boy dressed in African clothes, tells the girl his ‘everyman’ story of kidnap, transportation and auctions. But it made itself ‘relevant’ to young people today by making reference to the alleged racism in Celebrity Big Brother towards Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty. Perhaps there is a slippery slope from an argument between has-been celebs over Oxo cubes and the enslavement of large sections of mankind.
A member of the executive committee of Set All Free, another sponsor of the walk, was impressed by the performance and told me it is good that kids are being educated about the issue of slavery, what it meant and its legacy. According to him, slavery still exists and in some parts of the world, like Mauritania, it’s ‘exactly as it was 200 years ago’. But what about people today who call themselves ‘modern-day abolitionists’ – don’t they have a skewed sense of self-importance? He did not seem to think so. ‘It’s okay’, he told me. ‘If they’re working to abolish slavery they can call themselves that.’
As we spoke, the director of Set All Free came on stage. His complaint was that unlike the Holocaust, the slave trade doesn’t have a commemoration day, even though slavery went on for hundreds of years. This really encapsulated Making our Mark’s degraded abuse of history. In such campaigns, history becomes a tool that can be used by anyone to further their own cause and flaunt their own sense of guilt or victimhood.
If only we could all be set free from misguided historical explanations of today’s injustices, competitions for Holocaust one-upmanship, and the treatment of black people in Britain as ‘former slaves’ rather than equal citizens. That would be a reason to rejoice.
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