Dust to dust, but sin goes deeper

02 November 2006


Demolishing a house of horror is only symbolic, says Elaine Storkey

Despite a shortage of accommodation in the area, councillors in Tayport, Fife, unanimously voted this month to knock down 67 Tay Street. The bungalow, where a teenager, Karen Dewar, was viciously murdered 14 months ago by a young man she befriended, is the latest house to face demolition because of what happened within its walls. The same fate befell 25 Cromwell Street, Gloucester, the location of Fred and Rosemary West’s terrible slaughters, and 5 College Close, Soham, where Ian Huntley killed his young victims.

I’m sure the decision is the right one. Few people would ever want to live in a house where murders were planned and executed, and only a macabre minority would want to keep it as a memorial. Demolition seems very appropriate. Erasing every brick and lintel is as close as we come to a symbolic ritual of closure. It’s an attempt to wipe out the memory of what happened there: to obliterate the past, and eradicate the traces of wickedness.

The problem is, of course, that wickedness is not expunged so easily. Many excavations could yield testimony to things that are gone but not obliterated, including acts of brutality and inhumanity. And although physical sites can eventually be wiped clean, we all know that mental and emotional traces are more difficult to remove. The inability to prevent the death of someone deeply loved can leave survivors feeling tortured. Even after therapy, people who have experienced atrocities may suffer the memory for years, the pain often passing down the generations. For some people, the past is never wiped out, and its effects remain long after visible scars have gone and after those who inflicted the wrong are dead.

So, as with all the previous houses of horror, the agony associated with 67 Tay Street will not be eradicated with its demolition, however symbolically necessary that might be. Yet this is not only because of the tenacity of pain, or the persistence of long-term memory. It is also because, although they are a sickening reminder of terrible wrongs, the bricks and mortar were not to blame. They were bystanders, unwitting onlookers of human destruction, screening off the cruelty that took place within. As they cannot be held accountable, erasing them is not enough. Human symbolic gesture takes us only so far. Wickedness is a human problem without an ultimate human solution.

Although our society has become sophisticated at recognising the need for counselling, symbols, and closure, it is less good at identifying these spiritually, in relation to God. Yet, because evil is not just a product of time or material conditions, this is exactly where they need to be sought. C. S. Lewis concludes this when he reflects on the way we make light of things we did in the past, as though, with changing circumstances and passing time, their significance diminishes. He suggests: "Mere time does nothing either to the fact or to the guilt of a sin. The guilt is washed out not by time, but by repentance and the blood of Christ."

The Christian faith needs to provide a constant witness to our culture that only God’s goodness can overcome human wrong, and bring any lasting healing for the past. It must testify that the most powerful symbol is not the demolition of a place where evil reigned, significant though that is. It is the simple act of broken people sharing bread and wine in the hope of resurrection, knowing that evil does not have the last word, because it has been defeated through love.

Dr Elaine Storkey is president of Tearfund and Senior Research Fellow at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford.

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