“Nature abhors a vacuum.” Whilst physicists are still debating the concept of “nothing” some 3,000 years after Aristotle reputably coined the phrase, many of us find it hard emotionally not to rush in and fill empty silences and empty places and empty lives with whatever is to hand.
Humans tend to do anything to anaesthetise the pain of the old human condition. This could not be more pertinent to those of us who call Bristol our home in the light of the tearing down of the Colston statue, leaving an empty plinth in the middle of the city.
One of Bristol’s most notorious slave traders, a statue had been placed to honour Colston over 150 years after his death and, as such, has been a source of major controversy for decades.
The perfect storm of a global pandemic, a fresh revelation of health and other inequalities along racial lines and the viral footage of the murder of the black man George Floyd at the hands of the police in the US sparked protests against racism in many cities across the US and beyond, including here in Bristol.
Remarkably there was no damage to any person or property – except Colston’s statue – when it was torn down, dragged towards the docks and thrown into the water from the quayside where Colston’s ships would have docked.
The statue was later retrieved and will be placed in a museum in Bristol as a part of the story of Bristol’s history, which includes the city’s strategic role in the brutal transatlantic slave trade, and ongoing struggles to break free of racial injustice.
There are significant days in history for Christians, the most well-known of which are Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Good Friday is the day which commemorates the suffering and crucifixion and death of Jesus at the hands of Rome.
In his death all evil, injustice and oppression died with Him. Easter Sunday is the day which celebrates Jesus’ physical resurrection from the dead releasing a new whole, healed, restored humanity into the world.
However, there is another day which is also important in this history: the in between day, a Saturday, a Sabbath. Jesus’ closest followers were Jewish so they honoured the Sabbath (which literally in Hebrew means “cease, stop, pause”) by staying at home after his burial on Good Friday.
When Sabbath was over, early on Sunday morning, his closest friends ran to the tomb. But they didn’t run expecting to find the resurrected Jesus, they ran in pain, anguish, confusion, bewilderment and grief to mourn his brutal and tragic loss. And in this place, seemingly out of nowhere, the resurrected Jesus found them.
According to the British-Nigerian historian David Olusoga, who lives in Bristol, in his book Black and British, the transatlantic slave trade formally “began” in 1619.
It seems extraordinarily timely that 2019 marked the 400th anniversary of this evil trade. 400 years can be symbolic of the completion of a period of time.
It is important, though, before a new chapter begins that we cease, stop, pause in front of the empty plinth rather than rush in to fill the uncomfortable space with whatever is to hand.
As we do so we will too connect with the pain, anguish, confusion, bewilderment and grief that young black people are still more likely to be excluded from school, to go to prison, to have poorer mental health, to secure lower paid jobs, and in a global pandemic, to die.
This is why, although the empty plinth is uncomfortable, it is also powerful.
For, as we focus our attentions on the lived legacy of evil, injustice and oppression, the empty plinth can be a constant reminder of these present realities, and the space we need to see, understand and build vision and relationships that will enable us to deliver quantifiable changes in these realities in people’s lives.
And then, hopefully, together we will all encounter the most appropriate person, message or symbol to replace Colston’s statue, as a celebration of the new chapter in our quest to become a more whole, more restored city, being healed to live out our purpose.
Alice Bond is a pastor at the Hope Community Church in Hotwells.
Main photo: Martin Booth