Today’s controversies over monuments represent a profound teachable moment, which everyone should embrace with all due seriousness and hope. However, the subject of public art, e.g., war memorials, monuments to heroes, historical markers, decoration of public spaces, etc., generally is beset with more perplexity than clarity.
The first perplexity about public art is—who does public art belong to anyway? In the case of civic monuments, history is involved, which belongs to no one person, yet affects everyone. A monument not only celebrates history, it affects the course of history. The derivation of the word monument is from “monere,” to remind, to remember gratefully.
A good example is the memorial to John Lennon in Central Park in NYC, called Strawberry Fields.
A second perplexity is—civic monuments strangely seem to appear the way mushrooms do—from nowhere. What inspired whom to erect a monument and to what and to whose memory? Who funds a particular monument? Why? Who designs it? Who hires the artist? Who is it meant to please, to educate or to inspire? Is it a strictly local matter, or does it have a national audience, or even international? Our monuments just appear and nobody seems to know why. The third perplexity is—why are many monuments so bad? Consider this monument to Boston’s fire fighters (pictured here), a noble and worthy subject deserving of our honor, yet this sculpture’s cartoonlike composition does not do justice to the sacrifice they routinely make on our behalf.
On the other hand, why do some monuments inspire people beyond all comprehension. The memorial in Washington to those who died in the Vietnam War designed by Maya Lin has evoked strong emotions of both grief and appreciation from the hundreds of thousands who have paid their respects there.
Finally comes the bombshell question—who can remove and/or replace a monument? What if when it goes up, nobody likes it?—it’s not as if you can just take it off your living room wall. The case of naming a building is a related matter of similar sensitivity. Who may change the name of Faneuil Hall? To what, and why?
A confirmation of how potent symbolic images and names are—in the 2nd commandment, Yahweh prohibits images of God. And according to Jewish custom, the name of God is never to be pronounced or written, lest a lesser reality be taken for God. What applies to Yahweh would seem to apply also to human culture. We may not bow down and worship these objects, but we certainly form powerful attachments with them. Another way to look at the power of monuments is that they feed a people’s need for meaning. Think of them as the food one generation provides the next generation to carry forward the civilization. I’m borrowing Jesus’ personal image here to put our monuments in context—would you give your child a stone who is asking for bread? One generation feeds the next—we pass along the experience and experiences of our forbearers in these “graven images.” Eventually, time reveals new truths about the past, and suddenly monuments and names attain a different, sometimes offensive aspect. Today, the stubborn fact of slavery and its evils has broken over white heads. New meanings demand fresh images. Given all these considerations, how are we to respond to the call for the removal of certain monuments and the removal of names from certain buildings? Here are three cases—the Confederate monuments, Faneuil Hall, and Eliot Church. Case #1—the Confederate monuments. I don’t begrudge a society the right to preserve its heritage, as Pres. Trump argues. But I do begrudge the gesture when the purpose was never to memorialize but to send a covert message of subordination of the descendants of the enslaved to white society. You may have been emancipated, but we still own you. Do these qualify as true memorials? Or rather are they examples of bad faith, as I think they are, and deserving of being targets or reevaluation and removal? Case #2—by naming Faneuil Hall for a slaveholder and trader, we honor a dishonorable man and give tacit approval to the perpetuation of racism. Have we inherited a memorial that does not reveal history but obscures it? How shall Boston respond—do we commission a monument that acknowledges the fact of slavery, or erase the name that profited from it? Case #3—Eliot Church is the namesake John Eliot Church. Here we must prayerfully study the history. The first missionary to the Native Americans was operating within the completely accepted norms of the time, and yet he opposed the war against the Indians and the taking of them prisoner to sell them into slavery. Eventually John Eliot translated the entire Bible into the Algonquin language with the help of three native Americans at the risk of their lives. One of them, John Sassamon, was killed by the Wampanoags who doubted or suspected his loyalty to them. An article written for our website by an Eliot Church member tells the story of John Eliotwho famously preached in 1631 to the Wampanoags not far from here where there is a small monument marking the site—and this building itself with his name is a huge monument to him.
How do we disavow a certain part of our heritage and not all of it? Do we honor a dishonorable man, or is it more ambiguous? Or does he fall under complete judgment? The Newton Historical Commission last fall was deliberating removing Eliot’s image from the town seal, although I don’t know what has become or will become of that discussion. It’s time for white America, including our churches, to own our own history. The Wampanoag tribal family has been asking us to do this since they started making their Thanksgiving witness at Plymouth Rock (way) back in 1970 (!). How do we embrace the ambiguities as well as the praiseworthy aspects of John Eliot’s ministry at the same time? Moreover, we could afford to investigate, since we were founded in 1845, what role did we have with abolitionist movement (founded and run by William Lloyd Garrison from Boston), or not. This church opposed slavery and supported the Civil War [according to a sermon by Eliot member, Susan Nason.] But now, people will have to decide. We are caught in an absolute conundrum. A society wants to make permanent that which we value in a person, or an historic event. The trouble is, the value we attach to an unchanging symbol can change with time. New meanings demand fresh images. But if we want purity, we won’t achieve it— all Americans are part and parcel of a morally ambiguous enterprise, from violent colonization to ambitious expansion to heedless entrepreneurial juggernauts. We can have honesty, however—we can complete and complexify our symbols in order to represent the whole story, not by subtracting from the horizon but adding to it. A public hearing on the Faneuil Hall issue would be good, although Mayor Walsh has not opened that possibility, which is a shame. How did they arrive at the decision to memorialize Mary Dyer (pictured here next to the State House) who was executed in 1660 on Boston Common by our congregational forebears?
And, what process led to the commission of the monument (pictured here) recognizing the accomplishment of nuclear fission at this location at the University of Chicago (my graduate alma mater)? They weren’t shy about acknowledging the profound ambiguities following from that discovery.
But we have to attend to our own institutional history. Where is our curiosity? Where is our commitment to get right with history? And where is our wish to get right with our God? There is a valuable learning for us awaiting to be undertaken in faith, in hope, and in charity. --Richard Chrisman