Avoiding “Historical Dementia”
Thank God some good can come out of evil. The horror of the nauseating death of George Floyd has brought thoughtful, necessary, sane reflection on the curse of racism that has afflicted our beloved country for close to four centuries. This process is indeed therapeutic and helpful.
What is not helpful is the impetuous, cascading demand for the destruction and removal of monuments, portraits, statues, and literature that adorn our buildings, public areas, and culture. Such rash iconoclasm can lead to an historic amnesia that will eliminate something essential for our necessary common conversation on racism: the memory of flawed human beings who, while sadly and scandalously wrong on burning issues such as slavery and civil rights, were right on so many others, and need to be remembered for both.
Years ago I was dedicating a new parish to Saint Peter. A woman wrote to protest: “Why would you name a Church after such a coward, a sinner who denied even knowing the Lord when Jesus needed him most, at the hour of His arrest and crucifixion?”
Knowing her and what parish she was from, I wrote back, “But you’re a proud parishioner at Saint Mary Magdalene Church. She was sure not a paragon of virtue for a chunk of her life. Yet, by God’s grace, she became a radiant, inspirational saint. If we can’t name churches after sinners, the only titles we’d have left would be Jesus and His Mother!”
Is not the same true with our country’s historical personalities? All of them had flaws, yet all of them still contributed a lot of good to our nation’s progress.
Defacing, tearing down, and hiding statutes and portraits is today’s version of puritanical book-burning. Our children need to know their country’s past, and her normative figures, their virtues and vices. That’s how we learn and pass on our story. Is there any more effective way to comprehend America’s innate racism than reading Huckleberry Finn or one of Flannery O’Conner’s short stories, works of literature now ominously on the chopping block?
I do a lot of research in my family roots. Refreshingly, my ancestors are mostly loving, hardworking, virtuous people, well worthy of emulation. But are there ever some embarrassing lemons. Yet, I’m not about to erase their names from my family tree. If I’m honest, I acknowledge both their dark side and their side of light, existing together, in my own character. My own Mom kept a picture of her mother and father hanging on the wall of our house; her dad, my grandfather, was an abusive drunk who abandoned his family. Mom certainly would have been justified in tossing that picture in the trash. I’m glad she didn’t, and we got to know of my grandfather, the good and the bad.
The same could be true of the Church I love and am honored to serve. Yes, there are scandalous parts of our history, and countless episodes when popes, bishops, priests, and others – including some who are now saints – did not act as they should have.
God forbid we’d go through a “cultural revolution” like Mao’s China did five decades ago! What a mess! What a disaster! Beware of those who want to purify memories and present a tidy – and inaccurate – history. It seems like some of our leader’s today wake-up each morning and ask, “What are the demands from the protestors today? Let’s agree to them!”
And who’s to say which statues, portraits, books, and dedications are spared? Remember when some objected to raising the status of the Reverend Martin Luther King’s birthday to a national holiday, citing his humbly self-admitted flaws as reasons to exclude him? Thank God they did not prevail!
If literature with some expression of prejudice, or words or scenes that are today rightly abhorred, is to be banned, I don’t know if even the Bible can survive! If we only honor perfect, saintly people of the past, I guess I’m left with only the Cross…and some people would ban that!
Nope! As an historian by training, I want to remember the good and the bad, and recall with gratitude how even people of the past who had an undeniable dark side can still let light prevail and leave the world better. I want to keep bringing classes of school children to view such monuments, and to explain to them how even such giants in our history had crimes, unjust acts, and just plain poor judgment mixed in with the good we honor.
Most of all, I do not want to be infected by the new virus of today, “historical dementia.” As the saying goes, “Those not familiar with the past are bound to repeat its mistakes.”