T.S. Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’ are the greatest English poems of the 20th century. In ‘Little Gidding’, one of the Quartets, Eliot meditates upon time, Christian resignation, and the contingencies of human history in the light of God’s eternity. The particularities upon which Eliot concentrates, the ‘place, / And…people, not wholly commendable’, were ‘[u]nited in the strife which divided them’ in the English Civil Wars. Little Gidding, which played a small part both in the years of Charles I’s prosperity in the 1630s and also in the years of his strife and defeat in the 1640s, was a village where Nicholas Farrar and his family and friends lived in an ordered Anglican community of prayer, arts, and crafts. Eliot, in recalling that time and place, denies a desire to ‘ring the bell backward’ or to ‘revive old factions’ or to ‘restore old policies / Or follow an antique drum.’ The King and those who opposed, and eventually beheaded, him ‘[a]ccept the constitution of silence / And are folded in a single party.’
Both when Eliot wrote the ‘Four Quartets’ (1935-1942) and also as I write these words (2020), there stand in London two public statues representing antagonists of the Civil Wars. Before the Palace of Westminster, where Parliament meets, stands a statue of Oliver Cromwell, designed by Hamo Thornycroft and erected with some controversy in 1899. The original objections to the statue came from Englishmen, displeased by an honor to a regicide, but also from Irish nationalists, whose land was brutalized by Cromwell. Yet still the statue stands as a monument to a man who presided over the execution of Charles I and then over the supplanting of the effective sovereignty of the monarch by that of Parliament.
The second statue is far older, having been cast, probably, in 1633. It is an equestrian statue of King Charles, now located in the notional center of London, at Charing Cross. The site of the statue originally bore one of the Eleanor crosses set up by Edward I in the 1290s. The Charing Cross was destroyed by the iconoclasm of Charles’s opponents in 1647. After the Cromwellians ordered the destruction of the ancient cross, they also ordered the destruction of the statue of Charles. But the second order was disobeyed: the statue was hidden away until the Restoration, when it came forth from hiding. The statue in due course was placed in its present location in 1675.[i]
In short, within a few miles of each other stand statues of the two great antagonists of the 1640s. London is large enough, and the English seem sufficiently attentive to their history, to tolerate the tension. London can contain both the Royal Martyr, beheaded by Cromwellians on January 30, 1649, and Oliver Cromwell, whose regicide allies were executed by command of Charles II – Cromwell himself having died of natural causes in 1658. Charles and Cromwell are ‘folded in a single party’, accepting ‘the constitution of silence’. While sub species aeternitatis the two men are united, their statues still proclaim contrary policies which echo to those with ears and an inclination to hear.
Though Eliot’s poem disparages the attempt to revivify antique policies, we recall his self-identification as ‘classical in literature, royalist in politics, and Anglo-Catholic in religion’. Eliot’s poem is generously neutral to the past disputants, but Eliot himself was not neutral.
My main point, however, is not Eliot’s modified partisanship, but the generosity of London regarding the tensions of its history. Perhaps the 17th century is sufficiently remote to permit calm equanimity towards Cromwell and Charles I. And in 2020 even in England there are iconoclastic calls to remove statues of Cecil Rhodes, Winston Churchill, and other historic figures. Nonetheless, I think the coincidence of statues of Cromwell and Charles suggests the Christian perspective embedded in English society. Eliot’s poem, though not truly neutral, truly does accept the Christian truth that God’s Providence stands behind and above human affairs and human agents, none of whom is ‘wholly commendable’, but some of whom did strive to incarnate the Faith that converted Eliot and converts all who attend to the will of Eliot’s Lord.
The statuary of London brings this writer around to the toppling statues of America in 2020. The presenting cause of the new iconoclasm is resentment of racial injustice. The most immediate cause of the resentment is not doubtful or ambiguous: it is an eight minute and 46 seconds long act of brutality by a policeman of one race ending in the death of a man of another race. The anger set ablaze by this murder is in its initial justice like the inspiration of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. In both cases, good causes invite good and fair-minded people to deplore injustice and to seek the rectification of wrongs.
And yet the two movements – that of the 1960s and that of 2020 – feel very different. The older movement was largely led by clergymen. It was explicitly Christian in its main currents, and it spoke in the language of the great classical and Christian traditions of natural law, justice, virtue, and principled civil disobedience. The movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr., called a largely Christian society to take to heart the contradiction implicit in its inhumane treatment of a tenth of the population. King spoke in the language of the Bible and of Thomas Aquinas and of natural law theory. He called for repentance and forgiveness: repentance from those doing and tolerating wrong and forgiveness from those who were wronged. King rejected violence and, in accordance with the principles of civil disobedience, he acted publicly and accepted unjust punishment to demonstrate the sincerity of his stand. It was precisely the Christian nature of this appeal and behavior, I believe, that produced the positive change of heart that began a long, slow, imperfect, but also long-lasting, real, and deep movement.
In some places and in some cases change was compelled. The National Guard and the federal government enforced some court orders. But as a whole and in the end, the nation would not accept officially imposed regional segregationism. A white majority conceded the justice of the complaint of the minority, framed as it was in common, Christian, and natural law terms. My mother’s mother was born in North Carolina in 1888 to parents both of whom lived through the Civil War. As some point in the 1960s she said to my mother, ‘I think, Mary Lou, we did not treat the Negroes well.’ Multiply that conclusion, that dawning realization, that real repentance, by tens of millions of times, and you have the story of the provisional triumph of the civil rights movement.
Now a half century has passed. I live in a county in Georgia, in the deep South. This county is majority white. In this county, however, there are or recently have been African-American sheriffs, city police chiefs, school superintendents, school principals, county commissioners, plant managers, doctors, lawyers, and millionaires. Most of that was not the case before 1970. In the United States as a whole, the most highly educated ethnic group is not white: it is Nigerian-Americans. In the United States as a whole, the highest income ethnic group is not white: it is (South Asian) Indian-Americans. The United States is not a paradise on earth. In the United States profound injustice can and does occur. But neither is this 1950s Alabama. Race is not the central explanatory category. While racism undoubtedly exists and does harm, neither is it inescapable and all-powerful: as is revealed by the success of a million Indian- and Nigerian-Americans. Probably every one of those Indian- and Nigerian-Americans can tell a story of prejudice and injustice. But then most of us have such stories, whether racial, professional, religious, or individual. The question is not whether we have suffered and suffered unjustly. The question is what America and our faith enable us to do about our difficulties and injustices.
The rhetoric and the anger unleashed by the murder of George Floyd in the late spring of 2020 is qualitatively different from the earlier civil rights movement. And the difference is precisely that the current movement is not Christian, does not speak either the language of the gospel or the language of a universally relevant natural rights tradition. The current movement seems attuned, not to faith and natural law, to non-violence and civil disobedience, but mainly to power, incivility, and resentment – which are not Christian categories.
At this point, allow me to quote a bishop friend and colleague of mind, Paul C. Hewett. Bishop Hewett write that ‘In these stressful times, people’ can
…find it helpful to talk about…“plague, pestilence and famine…battle, murder and…sudden death, sedition, privy conspiracy and rebellion,” and some of the other conditions mentioned in the Litany. (PB p. 54-55)
The Church strongly prefers to talk about these matters not in terms of race conflict, class conflict or gender conflict, but in terms of sin. Sinners can repent and be forgiven, and we can all, by the grace of God, go on in amendment of life. But framing a crisis in terms of race, class or gender is a never-ending discussion in which what is done is never enough, in the on-going revolution whose flames the ideologues keep fanning, for the sake of endless revolution. “The problem is sin, not skin; the solution is grace, not race.”
In other words, the Church has ultimate and eternal Good News in the face of all crises. The Blood of Jesus is the root solution, the “radical” way, for all that drags man down. As we share this fundamental truth, if only through a “ministry of presence,” we are helping to make one another’s lives resurrectional. We are becoming spiritual alchemists. The Holy Spirit is teaching us how to turn adversity into gold. We can say, with confidence, because we know the risen Lord, “it is the grain of sand in the oyster that makes the pearl.”
Without this kind of Christian perspective, all that is open to us is anger, tribalism, a will to outrage, a will to power, and a future without reconciliation. The ‘systemic justice’, the ‘restorative justice’, and the ‘root solutions’ that some call for are nothing of the kind. They are a call for power and for moral acquiescence, which would simply transfer the locus of grievance and the identity of the aggrieved and would in due course twist into the antithesis of justice. The real answer, as the real answer always shall be, is the Cross: on which Love dies for the sake of others. There is no other answer than self-giving Love. All else will fail.
[i] In Ukraine 20 years ago I was taken to a beautiful country village, where there was a new church, whose greatest treasure was an ancient Byzantine icon. The icon ‘disappeared’ from the parish when the Bolsheviks seized the place. The same icon reappeared after the fall of Communism, roughly 70 years later. Memory and faith and their icons endure through darkness grim whose end is only glimpsed in hope.