Note: This is part one of a two-part essay. The first focuses on whether history can be “rewritten.” Part two focuses on what history asks of us today, and will be published on 8/21/2017.
Part One: History Will Not Be Silenced
Language is not a dead thing and neither is the past. We carry their weight from moment to moment. The memories, lives, and deaths of people unknown and unrelated to you breathe through you when you say “egg” (a Norse word carried over the cold North Sea to England by Cnut’s conquest), or “pajamas” (a Persian word which made its way into English). In a moment where the legacy of the wickedness of America’s great sin rises to our minds, it is worthy to recall perhaps the most potent words spoken by Southern Gothic author William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
No, the past is not dead, and neither is history. It suits us to pretend otherwise, though. A dead past is a past we can control, and thus it is that history is not just written by the winners, but is constantly edited by the living who desire eternal victory for their own interpretation. Nor is our impulse for cryogenics a new thing under the sun. Children who have lost parents, mothers who have lost sons, wives who have lost husbands, friends their comrades: all these people are moved by the same impulse to preserve their loved ones, to soothe the cries of grief by seeking an earthly sort of immortality. Since mummification and the pyramid-tombs (and surely it’s not uninteresting to note those pyramids were largely built by slaves, recent contrarian histories set aside), the human race has longed for assurance that their memories matter.
As is so often the case this assurance came, but not in the expected form. Humans were given the Word. And the Word was followed by the Holy Spirit. This is what we have received. There is something comforting in this, and a mystery as well: the past is not gone. The dead are out of sight, but what death itself means when Christ has conquered death is unclear. Tolkien wrote that death is a gift, and it is only our corruption that blinds us to its true nature. We think we wage a battle against death. The true battle we are called to is with the hardness of our own hearts.
Since history, language, and the past are never over, then surely it is incumbent upon us to look at the meaning of the statues. What do they tell us today, and what does their preservation speak to? The impulse to throw them up was human enough, but the sentiment of grief and the desire to remember are not immune from less noble motives. Woven into the erection of these monuments was the same impulse to control and defy the living nature of history. The very monuments of the pharoahs were a testimony to their tyranny over their slaves. They sought to freeze their own history with no regard for the weight of those stones.
Our rocks today loom largely in our mind; or at least, their significance does. They are a symbol, and a symbol is not designed to die but to live. It is there to speak for all who cannot speak. History lives, and it lives in those monuments. The monuments occupy a space, speaking to a human need to memorialize, but also speaking to the human need to control. The monuments are the manifestation of our need to control the past; if the past is never dead, what does that mean for the present?
It means a story of torture, murder, rape, abduction (all-too-easily summed up under the clinical term “oppression”) lives on in the space around statues and monuments. That space indicts the statues with its silence. The statue of a general is there because there was a war, and there was a war because those generals and soldiers defended slavery.
The history of the world is marked by slavery. All around us is the testimony of man’s brutality to man, though whether or not we know what we look upon is a different issue. Chattel slavery in the United States ended in 1865, and was finally eliminated from the Western Hemisphere in 1888. But history and oppression did not come to an “ever after.” The favelas of Brazil are full of the descendants of slaves. The cities of the United States are crowded as well, and a few zoning regulations withstanding, their plight and poverty are similar. Unlike pharoah’s slaves, they were not led through the Red Sea to the Promised Land. They were shuttled out of sight, occasionally thrown a pittance for their troubles. To be coolly ignored was nearly a blessing, as worse always lurked around the corner.
For the hatred and greed of the slave-owners lived on. As they built monuments to their dead they found ways to persecute their former slaves. It is perhaps one of the more telling things about us that we most hate those whom we abuse. They were hated as they were driven into the cities by forces often described in impersonal, technical language, but were a collective mask for a million acts of persecution and ruthlessness.
It is not a war against history or memory to tear those monuments down; on the contrary, it is hearing the living word of history. To take down these monuments is to free the past from its artificial, frozen, cryogenic chamber and allow it to breathe again. It is to acknowledge the sins and evil which still shape the landscape of our time. And when it comes to history, it is no mere truism to recall that forgetfulness of the past is the first step to repetition.
There is truth in the idea that virtue is a golden mean, though. The path is straight and narrow and evil waits on both sides. One day we wrestle with forgetfulness and apathy; the next we are called to wrestle with self-righteous fundamentalism, with mob rule of a different sort. A better world would be one in which we wrestled with our own hearts, but too often we prefer to cast ourselves as heroes in a children’s story.
Thus it is not accidental that one symptom of our current comic-book morality is a refusal to address the concerns of those with whom we find ourselves in disagreement. To do so is to give them “legitimacy” and we don’t legitimize hate. Fair enough, it seems, but one day, sooner than we may imagine, it will be Christianity that is labeled “hate” and the churches which are set upon by crowds. It is not paranoia or fantasy. There are wolves at the gate, and blank-slatist utopians have hands dripping with blood. And if they, too, refuse to recognize their own sins, the day will come when they will turn upon one another as has so often been the case. Worship of power and the assurance of one’s moral purity intoxicate and then devour.
No, it is better to not be the Zealot, convinced of his righteousness, but to take the path of that inimitable gentle ox, Saint Thomas Aquinas. Following in his footsteps, let us put (some) of the complaints of those in favor of the statues in their best light.
To remove the statues is to condemn the South to live stripped of its history, similar to post-WWII Japan. Some may shrug at this, but let us not be light about grave matters. Japan’s fertility is plummeting. Families and caregiving have collapsed. Millennia-worth of traditions and cultures were neglected as they fled their own memories in shame. There was wisdom in this, but also grave folly. For what did they embrace as they sought a new framework? The drug of global capitalism, and with its pernicious kernel of community liquidization in favor of individual consumerism, Japan now suffers the phenomena of “hikikomori” and “kodokushi” (“shut-ins” and “lonely death” respectively) on the most crowded island on earth.
Slavery was almost entirely eliminated in the medieval world. With the onrush of capitalism and dismantling of Christendom, an age of dislocation and liquidization emerged. We have not seen its final triumph and its legacy is yet veiled. What we do know is chattel slavery was a part of that process. As we acknowledge its poison, we must carry in our minds the dangers of related poisons, though they may not seem to be part of the same family. My second post will address this issue more specifically, but for now I shall leave this point with this: history abhors a vacuum. The absence of the monuments will be filled, and what will fill it poses its own risks. If confidence in our own self-righteousness and disdain for the concerns of others takes the pedestal, an opportunity for true metanoia will have been lost.
There is the concern about where this stops. Alongside those who correctly see the brutalization of their ancestors (and its living legacy) and the silence on their history in the statues, are there iconoclasts with a broader agenda? Likely, yes. Those in the crowd willing to crush capitalism seem a little too willing to crush heads as well. Speech is equated to violence very quickly. Dehumanizing language is employed regularly. All dissenters are Nazis. This is troubling indeed, and to have concerns reduced to “whataboutism” (if not accusations of being an outright Nazi) magnifies those concerns. Those of us willing to proceed with tearing down the statues must wrestle with these dangers.
Finally there is another concern, one that may sound trivial in the telling but is deeply related to these other objections. The art world is callous in its disregard for public feeling. They have foisted dehumanizing works of art upon the people for decades and they have been proud and cruel in the process. I, for one, would happily see every Brutalist building in this world torn down, and would rejoice to witness the monstrosities of mega-malls and McMansions replaced by architecture which cared for more than profit. There is almost no chance the monuments will be replaced by anything beautiful, anything which acknowledges human complexity, anything which looks with love at the overwhelming beauty of the South. Those who will be commissioned will accept their righteousness as objective while conveniently defining beauty as subjective. They will laugh off concerns and mock the commoners who avert their eyes in grief. Overly-sensitive! the art lords and their supporters will cry with barely disguised glee as they revel in their moral superiority. What, you can tolerate a monument to a man who owned human beings but recoil from a metal shard slashing at the sky?
Well, yes. Human beings are imperfect, and the modern art world is deeply, deeply imperfect. The language spoken by them for decades has repeatedly been one of sneering contempt for the people, and all too often a co-option of the stories of marginalization for the purposes of furthering a liquidized view of humanity. That their language is highly comfortable with the fluidity of global capitalism should trouble those who claim their art is liberating. It is an art that has failed to stand by the disabled or the unborn, which has too often looked upon the human body with hate. It cherry-picks groups according to an ideology which uses Christ’s love of the poor, and the Christian legacy of loving the suffering, as an excuse to remake the world as they desire.
Permanence is not a right. We cannot and should not remake the world according to the wishes of the few, of the rich, of the powerful, of the “I-know-betters.” But it does not follow that changing anything is bad. There is a golden mean between preserving the past as a mausoleum where no fresh air may enter, and erasing the past to build what resembles an impersonal dystopia suited for machines rather than people. We need the golden mean, which in this case is, once more, to serve the Imago Dei. Communities should be consulted while taking these monuments down, and these communities should play a part of deciding what goes up. African-Americans had no say in the erection of these monuments which were pivotal, not incidental to their history and their ongoing oppression. The entire community should have a voice in what replaces these monuments. The faces and voices of the people, neither the slave-owners nor denizens of industrial lofts most profiting from the fruits of global capitalism, should determine what replaces these monuments.
Our perpetual inclination is to strangle the living nature of the Word, to capture breath and spirit and remold it to suit ourselves. We limit our thinking to “this or that.” It’s the monuments or modern art. It’s history or brave new world. We enable the evil of the past, or we encourage a fundamentalist zeal in the present. But it doesn’t have to be this way. There is the narrow path. Let us start with the Imago Dei. Let us start with our neighbor. There are other people to commemorate, all complex, all who have wrestled with their angels and demons, rather than merely projecting them onto others. A statue of novelist Walker Percy will soon be up in Louisiana. Let Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Zora Neale Hurston, John Kennedy O’Toole, Sterling Allen Brown, and Thomas Wolfe be commemorated. This is one possibility. There are others.
Yes, the monuments are history, but it is one perspective, one frozen history, and one in which the distortion and abuse of the Imago Dei is not peripheral but fundamental. All efforts to capture the ongoing story of imperfect mortals in one moment, in one stone, are doomed to failure. Efforts to stamp out the past and create a blank slate pose their own significant dangers, and prone to co-option by the global capitalist narrative, ending as attacks on any human values which cannot be turned into consumer products.
None of this means we should not acknowledge certain moments, or recognize certain artifacts as worthy of preservation. But they should not be made idols over and above people, or over and above the living nature of our history. It is our task to extract the truth and the duty from a history which keeps knocking at our door, and this may be the noble task we accept as these monuments are removed from the public square. This may be their final cause, a cause better than any their builders could conceive: to illuminate our own understanding. To remove them is not to end history, but continue on its path. We have been frozen in one moment. Despite the clamor of the crowds, we can yet hear the living voice, the still small voice which calls to us. Let the monuments come down. What we allow our conscience to hear about ourselves as we do this marks the true test of our character.