Stalin, Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Ghenghis Khan, Alexander the Great, Caesar Augustus, Nero, Napoleon, Pol Pot. Robert E. Lee, Margaret Sanger. Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton, Thomas Jefferson, John Sutter.
To differing degrees, and to different people, each of these represents some ideal, or some evil. Some names evoke disgust and offence; others are looked up to despite grave abuse of power, gross lack of integrity. Each brought harm to their families and to others. Each of these violated basic moral codes and showed significant character flaws and offenses, to put it mildly.
Can you put them on a continuum? Can you draw a line where those too evil to honor are on one side and those whose evil was forgivable and not worth remembering against them?
What about the statues and monuments that were built to honor them or their causes? What about the Arc d’Triomphe which glorifies Napoleon? He ushered in the French Revolution and codified some great legislation, stamped out some poverty and class-based crime, yet led an attempt to conquer the world not much different than other megalomaniacs, and directly and indirectly caused the deaths of 1.7+ million people in Europe, some due to war, some due to political executions. Do we honor him?
What about the Roman Colosseum? It was the Circus Ring where the deaths of humans were used as entertainment as they were torn to pieces by lions and used as human torches. Should we tear it down?
What about the statues of Saddam Hussein and Stalin? Were we right to tear them down, and to rename Stalingrad, turning it back to St. Petersburg?
Were we right to tear Hitler’s summer home to the ground so it wouldn’t become a monument for remaining Nazi sympathizers to create a martyr out of Hitler?
What about Margaret Sanger and her philosophies of eugenics and ethnic cleansing of the poorest areas of town? Today Planned Parenthood is her legacy. Do we celebrate the good it does in providing medical care to poor women or do we mourn the millions and millions of babies it is responsible for killing, with an enduring disproportion of those babies being dark-skinned. This has been called a “Black Genocide.” Do we consider that when we decide federal funding?
What about Presidents Clinton, Kennedy, and others whom we still hold up as cultural icons? Kennedy is said to have begun “an Olympian sexual career at the age of seventeen in a Harlem whorehouse.”* His lifelong sexual exploits were renowned and regardless of his marital status or that of his “conquest.” Do we look beyond his handsome face and Camelot legend? Does character matter? Or only when it’s someone from another party? Now that we know all the sordid details, do we remove coins with their images from circulation? Do we shut down their presidential libraries? [*Presidential Passions by Michael John Sullivan]
Kennedy got us into the Vietnam War and lied for years to the American people to hide it. And yet we honor him. Homely President Nixon got us out, and yet his lying brought impeachment and shame. Yet both were reprehensible.
Let’s go back a bit. Let’s look at Thomas Jefferson and his illegitimate children born to slaves which he kept. Let’s look at others of our nation’s founding fathers and their own possession of slaves: George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Patrick Henry, others. One hundred years later, Robert E. Lee was also a slave holder yet even his enemies considered him a good man and a man of integrity. Do we expunge them from our history books? Do we take down the images which make us remember them?
I’ve been to the Colosseum, to the top of the Arc d’Triomphe, to the Deep South and seen statues of Robert E. Lee and Confederate flags still flying. I’ve seen concentrations camps, walked the hall in Dachau’s extermination rooms with their ovens. I’ve wept in graveyards of the fallen from wars where megalomaniacs tried to take over the world and seen great monuments that acknowledged the horror. Can we make the Confederate flag remembered but as a mark of shame?
Which monuments do we take down and risk forgetting the lessons they teach? Does erasing the memory of them also erase the opportunity to learn how far we’ve come? How far we have to go? Does taking down all monuments that are associated with evil just make us feel good about ourselves like children covering their eyes? Or would it be better to re-classify some of those statues as reminders of our own shameful past and a call to change and to continue to fight for the good? Should we not have museums of the Holocaust, of slavery and the horrors fought in the battle Civil Rights, of Stalin’s reign of terror, of the attacks on Pearl Harbor and the World Trade Center, of atrocities like those of the KKK and Oklahoma City, of Islam’s attempt to conquer by the sword and of the Inquisition? Can we turn them into “Sites of Conscience” and places that are redefined to address and remember the tragedies?
The line is fuzzy. People are complicated. History is blurred and on a continuum. It’s easy to honor the wicked and be harsh with good men and women because they fell short of the goodness they sought. “There is so much good in the worst of us and so much bad in the best of us…” We are all fallen. Not one of us is perfect. We all live in glass houses. All of us. So what happens if we start throwing stones? How do we stand bravely against evil, stand boldly for justice, and still have grace? Where do justice and mercy kiss besides at the cross?
I have a lot of questions. I pray for answers. I pray for wisdom. I know only one answer: love God deeply and love our neighbors well. All of them.