Last weekend I went for a hike in Libby Hill Park where stands the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument.
Afterward I went to Shamballa meditation at Ekoji Buddhist Sangha with a friend. Although I’m in Christian seminary, I enjoy sharing spirit with others. Some in the group expressed complex feelings about having not gone to Charlottesville to stand against the white supremacists gathering around monuments there.
Later that day the tragedy unfolded and an innocent young woman named Heather Heyer died while spreading love. It was hard to think straight on the subject of monuments. But I think I’ve processed enough now that I can think and speak clearly.
I fear that we’re missing an opportunity to be culturally vibrant, awake and mature and that we’re failing to engage with ourselves, each other and our ancestors.
Realizing as boy that my father wasn’t perfect, well, that was part of growing up. But the day I realized, as a young father myself, that I had been unconsciously trying to be my father was the day I began becoming my own man. Growing into an adult means figuring out which of your parents’ ideas and behaviors you should carry forward and which ones you shouldn’t. Pop was awesome. My assignment is to be even better.
We have to try and outdo our parents. And we had better succeed. Because if we don’t there’s no hope for the future.
And if I do succeed in being a better man than Pop, would it be right for me say so out loud? When I discovered that my father was human, did I disrespect him? Did I rub his nose in his faults? Now that’s he’s gone, do I bash him in conversation or on my blog? No, no, no and no. I respect his accomplishments too much to do anything other than focus on what he did right.
It’s no wonder ancestor veneration and worship are still very common practices worldwide. Almost everything we enjoy — our science, art, architecture, music, customs, fashion — comes to us as a fantastic gift from our imperfect predecessors. If they hadn’t invented agriculture and medicine, for example, we’d be sick and starving. We owe them big time.
Taking down a monument is a metaphorical act of patricide. And that shouldn’t be taken lightly.
I personally dislike Christopher Columbus. I think he was a buffoon who thought the earth was pear-shaped, a mercenary who butchered the natives of Hispaniola. But to the 2 million members of the Knights of Columbus, who do great charity work, Columbus is a hero. Should we tear down all of the Columbus monuments? There was time when I might have said “yes.” Now I’m not so sure.
Thomas Jefferson bowed to public opinion and gave up on emancipation. Davy Crockett bought votes with liquor and tobacco. Teddy Roosevelt had imperialist tendencies and made some bigoted remarks. Franklin Delano Roosevelt put 100,000 Japanese Americans in internment camps. All of those guys are heroes of mine. I’m not forgetting the facts, I’m just choosing to focus on the most positive attributes of those great men — not their faults.
If we only allow monuments to perfect people there will be no monuments.
Millions died at the hands of Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot. That’s a clear cut distinction. No monuments to genocidal maniacs should be allowed. But what about Robert E. Lee? I’ve read Bruce Catton’s A Stillness at Appomattox, and my personal opinion is that Lee was a good man who faced an impossible, unwinnable choice — fight against and kill his fellow Virginians and his own family or side with the secessionists with whom he disagreed. After the war he became a college president and set a positive conciliatory example for his fellow southerners. This man was no monster, no murdering despot. The decision to take down his monuments should be made calmly, fairly and respectably.
But it’s impossible to have a calm conversation about any of this when there are evil, bigoted, white supremacists, Klansmen, Nazis and other domestic terrorists standing in front of our monuments spewing hate and and killing people. Perhaps we’ll be able to talk about it later when we’ve locked up the killers and healed our wounds.
In the meantime, let’s not surrender to our anger, over-react to what happened in Charlottesville, and start smashing things that don’t belong to us the way they did in Durham yesterday.
Remember, we need to do better than our forebears. Violence begets violence and two wrongs don’t make a right.