From the Parish Priest, Fr Nicholas Clews
HAVE YOU STOPPED BEATING YOUR WIFE? is a question none of us wants to answer! John McDonnell may feel the same way abut the question “Churchill: Hero or Villain?” His reason for answering ‘Villain’ was that Churchill, as Home Secretary in 1910, had authorised the deployment of the Metropolitan Police and of troops to prevent violence during a miners strike in South Wales.
Simon Jenkins, writing in the Guardian seemed to think that McDonnell should have gone further:
‘Why did McDonnell not mention Churchill’s role in the death of hundreds of thousands of innocent Germans?’
Or one might cite his stubborn opposition to Indian home rule. Or his disastrous attempt to return Britain to the Gold Standard in 1925 making the depression worse; or his role in undermining the General Strike of 1926.
Perhaps the real point is that any attempt to polarise historical figures into villains or heroes is naive and dangerous except as a frivolous party game. Churchill is both hero and villain. And so am I. And so are you.
This is the point of Ash Wednesday, an observance kept by Christians throughout the world. We enter the church thinking we are heroes but leave knowing we are villains. We are literally ‘ashed’ as a black, dusty sign of the cross is imposed on our foreheads. For over 30 years I have spoken the words ‘Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.’ They are always moving but especially so when spoken to a child. The words remind me that there is much that is wrong in the world and it is not ‘their’ fault but ‘our’ fault or even ‘my’ fault.
This is dangerous stuff. It can lead to despair. It can lead to self indulgent breast beating. And if Ash Wednesday were observed in isolation it would be most undesirable. But the truth is that, for Christians, any observation of Ash Wednesday, or even Good Friday for that matter, takes place in the context of Easter. To put it in another way, whenever we acknowledge our failings, we do so in the knowledge that God has already forgiven us.
Perhaps the harder thing to know, is that God has already forgiven my neighbour, has already forgiven my enemy.
Perhaps that knowledge will be particularly useful this month. Nearly three years ago the government asked us a question: ‘Would you like to leave the European Union?’ That quite unemotional wording has now been transformed into something much more angst-laden: ‘European union: Hero or villain?’ That has led to a much more dangerous question: ‘Villain: Remainer or Brexiter?’
The truth is there are no heroes or villains, neither eighty years ago nor in our own time; neither in the world of politics nor in my family. There are humans beings who try their best and sometimes get it wrong – sometimes very wrong.
So if ever we are asked the question ‘Hero or Villain’ perhaps we should reply very firmly: ‘You are asking the wrong question!’