“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
The wall built in 1961, separating Easter Berlin from West Berlin, served to further prevent the mass exodus of East Germans seeking democracy’s freedom in West Germany. The barbed wire barricade stood in history as a symbol of the Cold War between the US and USSR. Republican President Ronald Regan commanding General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, to tear down the Berlin Wall is a pivotal moment in history.
Should this obstruction have remained standing? After all, it was history.
There are a number of concentration camps in Europe open to the public—among them are Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Dachau—that serve as memorials for one of the most horrific events in our world’s history. After visiting the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC when it first opened, I could not begin to imagine the emotional impact of walking on what one might say is consecrated ground.
These sacred spaces remain as a narrative which we dare not repeat.
The United States of America and its capitol, Washington, DC, are full of memorials—placards, statues, buildings, walls, paintings, museums full of historical artifacts, icons and images—of a seeming contradictory and enigmatic history full of paradox. Some events to be celebrated and others to be forgotten—but which is which?
What makes one historical symbol more valuable to celebrate than another? What are we believing and is it helpful?
Some additional questions to ask ourselves regarding monuments and memorials as we watch statues being toppled and portraits being removed, or perhaps before doing so, are these:
What is its message, and how is it received…?
Does it attempt to avoid the real or full history and outcomes of the person(s), action(s) or event(s) it seeks to memorialize…? Does it attempt to rewrite that history or gloss over it…?
Does it include or imply a message in regards to the truth of what it is about…? In other words is the message helpful to all, that is pro-life (in the large sense of this term), or is it harmful and anti-life, anti-human, arising out of and/or supporting extreme beliefs in separation and alienation…?
Is the monument or memorial honest and helpful in its attempts to reveal the truth behind what it attempts to memorialize, whether it be person(s), actions(s)or event(s) that it is about…? And if the event(s) and/or actions(s) represented were anti-life, anti-human, and arising out of extreme beliefs in separation, does the monument help people see that it must not ever happen again…?
Do not some monuments, for instance memorials to the holocaust, and recently constructed monuments to slavery and lynchings, seem to score high grades in response to such questions…? And for that matter, though maybe to a lesser degree, are not monuments to Lincoln, Washington, Ganhdi, and Martin Luther King, Jr similar, in the sense of pointing and remembering in positive life-affirming ways…?
George Santayana, “philosopher, essayist, poet and novelist” is credited with saying “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
I have mixed feelings about the progress we, as a human race, have made in these regards.
This morning I was reading about Joshua from the book of Joshua in the Old Testament. The story begins after the death of Moses who had led the Israelites out of the land of Egypt where they had been enslaved for hundreds of years. Prior to entering the land that God had promised them and before his death, Moses laid his hands on his apprentice conferring leadership to him, and Joshua was filled with the “spirit of wisdom.”
Preparing Joshua for the challenges ahead, God tells him three times to be “strong and courageous” before leading the Israelites across the Jordan River, which was at flood stage. God told Joshua to tell the priests to carry the Ark of the Covenant into the river. As soon as their feet touched the water, the river stopped flowing and the priests stood on dry ground while the water flowing down stream “piled” high like a wall just upstream from them.
Approximately 40,000 Israelites crossed from one side of the river to the other on dry ground. Prior to this monumental move, God had instructed that twelves stones be collected from the middle of the river, one for each of the twelve tribes of Israel. After the priests, being the last to cross, set foot on the promised land shore, the river returned to flood level flowing.
Those twelve stones, which they had taken out of the Jordan, Joshua set up in Gilgal, saying to the Israelites, ‘When your children ask their parents in time to come, “what do these stones mean?” then you shall let your children know, ‘Israel crossed over the Jordan here on dry ground.’ For the LORD your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you crossed over, as the LORD your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up for us until we crossed over, so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the LORD is mighty, and so that you may fear (be in awe of) the Lord your God forever. Joshua 4:21-24
Joshua had a very clear-cut answer to the question “what do these stones mean?” Do we as a nation have such unequivocal and precise answers for our children? Is it really enough to say “it’s history” and leave it at that as we decide to keep or remove our nation’s “stones?”
In light of what is currently happening worldwide and in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, we as a nation and as a human race are being given a wonderful opportunity to examine the above questions and our motivations.
We may not see eye to eye, but that is okay as long as our discourse is done so within genuine and sincere respect for one another as children of God.
… this is my hope.