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freedom Archives | Chaplain | JM Faith at Work

We Have a Monumental Problem

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Pastor Jim Melvin

 

Ozymandias

 by Percy Bysshe Shelly

 

I met a traveller from an antique land,

Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal, these words appear:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

 

The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis touched off peaceful protests and violent riots across America.  These events have now called into question the display of monuments that honor historical figures who are associated with slavery and white supremacy in America’s past.  Statues of confederate generals and heroes across the south have been defaced, torn down by angry crowds, and in some cases dismantled by local governments.  The movement has spread nationwide and statues of Christopher Columbus and even Abraham Lincoln have come under scrutiny.

The destruction or moving to less prominent locations these sometimes centuries old monuments is criticized by some as rewriting history and disrespecting local heritage.  For the descendants of slaves and native Americans, these monuments are reminders of a painful past and a current affirmation of racist and supremacist attitudes.  The collision of these perspectives demands attention; otherwise we will perpetuate yet another source of conflict.

Historical monuments are important but not essential.  They are important in that they keep us in touch with our past and serve as reminders of the price that our forebears paid for our freedom and way of life. They are symbols of what they fought and died for.  These works of stone and bronze stand for some “thing” but they are not the “thing” itself.  As symbols, therefore, they are not essential.  Destroying or removing the symbol, does not destroy what the symbol stands for whether it is good or bad.  There is a word for gracing a physical object with undue or ultimate value.  That word is idolatry.

I would argue that these symbols serve as a safe way to process the difficult and painful acts of the past.  As the ruins of the statue of Ozymandias in Shelly’s poem shows, the physical monuments of any civilization, no matter how great, will always be reduced to rubble.  In the case of the egomaniacal Ozymandias, we are led to believe that the great ruler and his empire passed away with his statue.

If we are wise enough, we can turn our monumental problem into a monumental opportunity.  We can gather at the base of these depictions of our past to discuss or even vehemently argue for what purpose they were erected in the first place, how we see them in the present, and the future toward which they point.  Those which point to freedom and justice for all, should be allowed to stand.  Others would be best displayed in a museum as reminders of our troubled past.  The most offensive deserve the sledgehammers of angry citizens.

We will make some mistakes along the way.  We may give in to the excesses of the moment and go too far.  Anger and rage may turn destructive and destroy that which deserves to remain.  That will be unfortunate but not tragic.  Statues can be chiseled and cast anew.  But if in the process we can reunite in a spirit of love, forgiveness,  and reconciliation,  then the principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness will stand as the true monument to America.