The Purpose of Memorials

Two days ago, in reflecting on the solar eclipse, I mentioned that we all like to commemorate special events by taking photos or keeping mementos to help us remember. Does that sound about right for you too? However, I don’t take pictures of miserable things; I take pictures of beautiful things and happy events I want to celebrate. It was in this light that I understood why many people want to take down the statue of Robert E. Lee from Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, and why it was draped in black yesterday (also as an expression of mourning for Heather Heyer).  One insightful reader sent me this note: “…the Confederacy has held a special power over this state. We’ve sort of changed history to make ourselves look better than we really were. We portrayed our losing generals as if they were triumphant in spirit or really on the right side of things – as long as we don’t emphasize the role that slavery played in the war. We might have lost on that point, but it [is] really about our right to be messed with and our right to live how we wanted to live without somebody from somewhere else to tell us how to live. We gave these men the status of heroes and placed their likeness on the footsteps of our courthouses. So every time we went to deal with a matter of the law, somebody white could look upon them and remember that they’re in the right and somebody black can look upon them and know that our history hasn’t died in our hearts. So, if we keep those statues on the steps of the courthouse, aren’t we really endorsing their legacy?”  What a wise reflection. Moving and true! I’ve been to Germany several times, but I’ve never seen a statue of Adolf Hitler, and I’m very glad for that! What if he were still revered in Germany? I would think that deep in their hearts, the German people still believe Hitler was right.  Part of admitting that we’re wrong about something is renouncing it…giving up our right to glory in it and mourning instead. In Germany, there are holocaust memorials so that we will never forget the evil that happened and continue to be horrified rather than attracted to anti-Semitism.  Similarly, there are many war memorials on the Normandy Coast of France. None of them house statues as such; they are filled with photos and information teaching about the devastating effects of war.  At Nagasaki, the memorials don’t exalt leaders, they portray the terrible suffering of the hundreds of thousands who died from the tragic bombings that ended the war, and they cry out for people to find peace. If we’re really sorry about what we’ve done wrong, we won’t be retelling the story and making heroes of those who led us astray. Right?  If I lived in Virginia, I would vote to remove the statues of the leaders who championed slavery. This morning I saw a map of where there are Confederate memorials. I don’t know the exact number, but it looked like over a hundred and possibly hundreds.  I thought back to visiting Tiananmen Square, where hundreds of protestors were killed in 1989. In the little shops all around the square, you can buy statues…of Mao Zedong!  He is still considered a great hero by many in Communist China (even among some Christian young adult Chinese students I know), although I was taught that he was responsible for millions of deaths and a brutal dictator. So, why do they revere him? And, what of Vladimir Lenin’s Mausoleum in front of the Kremlin in Russia? Millions visit every year, celebrating??? After the Iron Curtain came down in 1991, there was a movement to rebury Lenin’s body next to his mother’s grave, but Vladimir Putin “opposed this, pointing out that a reburial of Lenin would imply that generations of citizens had observed false values during 70 years of Soviet rule” (Wiki).

This, I think, is very telling. Memorials celebrate the values of the person being memorialized! Logically, statues of Confederate heroes are memorializing what they fought for, which was slavery. Do we want that commemorated or approved in our country? I hope we do not. To show respect for all races of people, particularly the African Americans who were enslaved, I totally support the idea of removing statues of heroes who stood against racial equality.

Spiritually, there is a personal parallel for each of us. Are we keeping photos or mementos from past events that were negative rather than positive influences on us? Are we “worshiping” icons that represent values we should not be endorsing? Are we beginning to remember “the good old days” of sinful pleasures that were in fact “evil days”? May we repent of all evil—past as well as present—and take glory in God alone, focusing our minds on: “whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things: (Philippians 4:8).

But let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth me, that I am the Lord which exercise lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness, in the earth: for in these things I delight, saith the Lord” (Jeremiah 9:24).

(The photo of Stalin’s Mausolem at the Kremlin was taken by Andrew Shiva via Wiki; the rest our mine, taken in China, Japan, Germany, and France. Not all of them match the text perfectly, but they were the best representations for the ideas that I could find.)