We truly live in a monumental time - monumental in the dictionary sense of “great in importance; of historical or enduring significance.” I want to focus this evening on the relationship between what constitutes a monumental time and the place of the various forms of monuments that serve as markers or memorials for where we have been and where we are going.
Monuments memorialize what we have valued in the past as physical or metaphorical historical makers. Our nation's current attention to Confederate monuments represent both the pride of culture and place of many southerners while also serving as visible and intolerably offensive reminders of slavery and our nation’s racism. But there are other offensive iconic American “monuments" that represent competing values that must also be challenged and eventually toppled as well because of the terrible harm they have done and will continue to do if unchecked. I think, of course, of the work of the MeToo! Movement, Black Lives Matter, indigenous tribal activism, challenges to the capitalist economic model, support for prison reform, and demands for lifestyle and systemic changes in our relationship to the environment.
The basic purpose of a monument is to offer a tribute to momentous occasions, sites or remarkable people. We build memorials to provide a lasting creation, usually in stone or metal, to remind following generations of particular achievements or aggrandizements or our historical contributions. Monuments in these genres are meant in most cases to represent values of honor, valor, courage or just gratitude for what a person or event has represented in a community or a nation. We memorialize ourselves with athletic trophies that glorify our competitive success, or family gravestones, or commemorative memorials of local historical events, and, of course, most commonly, our war memorials with the names of those who died or the statues of military or national leaders - often, I must note, built by the egos of those who considered themselves great leaders. In most cases, however, it is right that we want to provide ourselves and following generations reminders of worthy achievement.
The Confederate statues, however, memorialize Confederate generals considered unworthy representatives of the oppressive terror of slavery in America and our failure to have yet reckoned with the evil of slavery in its residual forms of racism today. Tearing down the monuments, then, represents a physical repulsion of slavery and lynching and all the other forms of dehumanization that slavery and subsequent forms of suppression we condoned. Dealing with the statues is the first step of the more difficult part of acknowledging the truth that the whole moral fabric of our nation, and thus each one of us, has been implicated in an enslavement of our history from which we are not yet free. We are reckoning with the reality that White people, most often historically men, have vastly and disproportionately benefited from the nation’s wealth generated from slavery and the privileges afforded us, often at the expense of the neglect and oppression of people who were so treated solely on basis of the color of their skin. We are now in the excruciating process of realigning our nation’s history and values from being a mythological “monumental” success story of righteousness and honor to ones facing the humbling truth that we have largely hidden or ignored the indictment of exploitation of slaves and racist structural violence for most of our nation’s history, as well as the forced genocidal takeover of aboriginal lands.
No, our willingness to face these inconvenient and damning truths doesn’t mean we “hate” America. We are, in fact, trying to love and heal America in spite of all the harm it has done. Led by those demanding police reform and reparations from the Black Lives Matter movement, for example, and finding encouraging energy from the spiritual grounding in the land from our indigenous people, and following the courage of those leading us in confronting climate change, abolition of war, prison reform, and immigrant and women’s rights, among many other movements demanding our attention, we have a truly monumental opportunity for reconciliation efforts of a truth and reconciliation process that will lead to significant structural changes, not only in the U.S. but the whole world.
I want to close with a vision of future monuments we may want to refurbish or erect anew that would memorialize, honor, and elevate precious ideals that once empowered and inspired the best of our nation in the past: the great aspirations and respect for the peace and justice in the compassionate teachings of our religious traditions; the opening words of the Declaration of Independence; and the welcome to the oppressed expressed on the Statue of Liberty, among many other verbal or symbolic monuments from our past “better angels” that can again inspire hope and a commitment to the common good.
What kind of monuments will be erected in place of those being torn down? Maybe we need more memorials like those noted above. Or maybe even more we need memorials that remind us not of glorious achievements, but of the honesty and humility we need to deal with our shameful past if we are to truly be willing to make amends and commit to crucial changes. As a prime example of this type of memorial, I think especially this evening about the National Memorial to Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, that memorializes the sordid history of lynchings and slavery. I have only visited this memorial through video coverage, but those who have been able to go there have found it profoundly moving and inspiring. https://museumandmemorial.eji.org/memorial
Yes, we need to continue to honor those who died in war. But perhaps even more importantly we also need to honor and memorialize the equal courage and sacrifice of those who risk their lives daily to support others' rights and welfare. I think especially this evening about the front line ICU staff dealing with the virus, but I truly believe each us in our own ways are aspiring to be be righteous and caring people. As we explore the positive opportunities for change during this pivotal age, so radically opened up by the universal impact of the stunning Covid-19 virus, may we individually and as a nation have the creative capacity and will to make the necessary monumental changes the times offer us.
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