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Angela Tilby: Empire: a striking back

05 January 2018


A ROW has broken out at Oxford University over the legacy of the British Empire. My former colleague at Christ Church, Professor Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology, has been condemned by fellow academics for writing in The Times that the legacy of empire was not all bad, and should not be remembered only with shame.

I am myself a child of empire, being born in Nigeria before independence. My mother, a midwife, worked in hospitals in Lagos and Kaduna, as part of the British Colonial Service. I was brought up to think that the British in West Africa were positively preparing those they served for independence.

We had good relations afterwards with our former house staff. I remember one visiting our north London home at Christmas.

The vehemence with which Professor Biggar’s carefully worded statement was challenged suggests that it touched a raw nerve. In certain circles, empire always and everywhere means racism, oppression, and the plundering of other people’s natural resources for profit. The Amritsar massacre is frequently quoted against the British legacy, as is the empire’s investment in the slave trade (even though the British abolished it).

In the eyes of Professor Biggar’s detractors there is simply no debate: the British Empire, like all imperial adventures, was simply wicked.

Christians who care about mission should not rush too hastily to judgement on this. As has often been shown, the British empire offered opportunities for Christian mission which the Bible and missionary societies gladly took up. Many brought literacy as well as the Christian faith, opportunities for girls to have an education, and a challenge to some of the injustices of native tradition.

It is, of course, a mixed legacy, and it is hardly surprising that some of those whose forebears were subjects of British imperial rule should have complicated emotions about their inheritance. But a view that condemns imperial rule out of hand without recognising the possibility of any positive legacy runs counter to Christian history.

Even the New Testament record is nuanced. On the one hand, the Revelation of St John condemns Rome as the Great Whore. But St Luke sees the Roman Empire as the providential backdrop to the spread of the gospel. The peace inaugurated by Augustus introduces the nativity story; the greatest missionary, St Paul, is proud of his Roman citizenship and seeks Roman justice. The early Christian apologists went even further, seeing Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue as a pagan prophecy of the coming of Christ.

The Kingdom has not yet come on earth, and all forms of human government, including our democratic systems, are imperfect. That does not mean they are all entirely bad.

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