History has always been a favorite subject of mine. When I was in high school, if I wasn’t talking about English Literature, I would be talking about history. My fascination with history is more than simply recounting the stories of old, but rather reflecting on how we could live into a glorious future devoid of the mistakes of the past. From my view, without the guidance of history, without our ability to remember the stories of old, guess what? History has an interesting way of repeating itself.
Over the past several years and more recently, we have all been witnesses to the racial tensions and demonstrations going on throughout the country. Some of these demonstrations have been violent and some have been peaceful, but that is the nature of demonstrations. One notable escalation since the demonstrations started a few weeks ago has been the toppling of statues of some historical figures who had some questionable characteristics and who, some believe, are not deserving of a statue in a public square. For many people, the idea of the statues is so repugnant that it is of firm belief that having these statues in the public square is akin to either glorifying these individuals and/or their core beliefs.
It is true that the world has moved on from the atrocities that these individuals perpetuated. But we tend to forget, quite tragically, that the world is not far removed from the views of those people whose statues we are so eager to pull down. Yes, the intended purpose of the statues was to glorify those individuals for what some in their time, and even presently, refer to as heroic acts. But whether heroic or not, our time-tested values have an opinion on that, and as far as I am concerned those aren't heroic acts.
The enduring question is, if statues are only meant for holy and righteous people, how do we represent the worst of humans? Are we suggesting that we look up to only the good, and not reflect on what the dark side of human can be? Any attempt at sanitizing history robs both present and future generations of the ability to learn from the lessons of history. A sanitized history suggests that human depravity isn't even an issue worth thinking about.
I haven’t been to the Holocaust Memorial in Auschwitz, and so I cannot tell if there are statutes there or not. Maybe those of you who have done so will tell me more about it, or if in the future I happen to go there myself, I will see what they have built that represents a dark part of human history. The point of the memorial - which Jews advocated for its building so to serve as a reminder that never, never again should human beings be baked in the furnaces of hatred, bigotry, arrogance, and false superiority - is a memorial, but it serves as a reminder as well.
There’s a story in scripture where the prophet Nathan goes to King David, and narrates a rather despicable story about a rich man. According to the prophet, there was a rich man who had many sheep, cattle, and goats. In the same town was another man who had one sheep. The man with the one sheep adored his sheep so much so that he would cuddle the sheep to sleep. One day, the rich man had a guest, and in his desire to serve the guest he asked that the sheep of that one man be slaughtered for the guest. When King David heard the story, he was beside himself with rage, and promised that the rich man must be punished. The prophet looked at King David tear his garments, and in response said to him, “You are the man.” As Israel’s king you had available to you many, many women, but you obviously forgot your own history, decided to take the wife of another man, and not only that but engineered his killing. Read 2 Samuel 12
The point is that good living breeds forgetfulness; we are so eager to forget our challenging stories when life begins to look upward. That is primarily why God charged the people of Israel to always REMEMBER. I am the Lord who brought you out of Egypt - ‘REMEMBER.’ I am the Lord who brought you to the land of milk and honey - ‘REMEMBER.’
If you are to recall the genesis of how the Israelites were turned into slaves in Egypt, you will come to find out that it was primarily because there was a Pharaoh who did not know about Joseph. The story of how Joseph saved the people of Egypt had been long forgotten because people have moved on. People move on, and when they do, they tend to forget the stories of old that give meaning to their lives.
Do I want to see Confederate flags fly around? No, I don't. Not at all. But seeing those flags reminds me of the extent of human depravity. Do I want to see the Nazi flag fly around? Of course not. But whenever I see the flag, I am reminded of the extent of human depravity. Do I want to see statues of Robert Lee, or of any of the leaders of the Confederacy fall down? No. Not at all. Seeing those statues also reminds me of the extent of human depravity. Do I want to see the cross of Christ wherever I go? Yes, I do. For that also reminds me both of human depravity, and of the power of God to rescue us from even ourselves.
Not every single one of us might sit in a classroom and study the history of our forbearers. Not everyone may visit a museum to learn about our collective history. And so when we begin to act as arbiters of history and pull down statues, then where do we start, and with which statue? Do we erase the entire history of the Founding Fathers since almost all of them owned slaves? I am as confused as you might be.
There’s this sense of comfort or satisfaction in those who pull down statues, that the act in and of itself satisfies the grievances of the past, or even attempt to do so. I beg to differ. They don’t solve the systemic racism that many people of color do face. It may be a gesture, a momentary satisfaction. But the real work of solving our problems lies somewhere else, and not with the statues or the evil they may represent.
From my point of view, whether a statue is in a public square or museum, it is important that it is recognized as a part of the human story that always has to be told, always has to be remembered, and always as to be retold - just as it is, for we should not sanitize history.
I am sure you remember America’s favorite hymn, Amazing Grace. The author was a slave trader who later chanced upon a deeper meaning of God’s grace. The fact that the author was a slave trader doesn’t mean that we should stop signing that hymn. At the barest minimum, what we’re saying when we sing with all enthusiasm and vigor, even at the most solemn of occasions, is that we embrace the God of whose grace the former slave trader sings about.
To me, true freedom is living in community with God and with others, and that means looking at the statue of that one man who represents, to you, the very worst of human character.
A sanitized history, in my view, rejects human depravity. Each of us has a dark side, as I've learned. And mainly because of our dark side, we dare not sanitize our history.
We can yet look at the Confederate soldier and sing Amazing Grace because he needs as much grace as we do.