A Marian statue in the Queens-Brooklyn area of New York was marked recently in thick, black spray-painting with one word: “Idol.” A friend shared a photo of it on Facebook, and some defended the marking: “If it looks like an idol…maybe it is!”
I jumped in to defend Our Blessed Mother, asking the commenter if he keeps a photo of his mom anywhere. I assume he does, and that he neither worships the picture nor his mother.
The conversation soon turned to the reality that religious statues are not the only ones being marred these days. Though I find the desecration of religious images especially egregious, the toppling of some other statues throughout our land also concerns.
The Facebook discussion, now between me and a local history scholar, continued with the proposition that history should be assessed in its proper context. Locals want to erase Woodrow Wilson and Louis Agassiz “from our buildings and streets because they were racist,” he said, adding that “one led the country through war, and another contributed scientific knowledge.”
He asked, “Do we bring values of the present to judge those people from the past who didn’t share those values?” I wonder, too. Not that we shouldn’t question, but to what extent? Is society being prudent in these moves to cancel history, or hyper-reactive?
The history scholar said that while those seeking to topple statues and erase names simply don’t want to elevate anyone not reflecting current beliefs, Christopher Columbus, “though despicable in many ways,” lived at a time “when values were enormously different.” Regarding targeted representations of St. Junipero Serra in California, he noted the good done by Catholic missions, and the “monks and friars who took time to learn the language and chronicle the history of Mesoamerica” who “really cared about Native Peoples.”
Can we distinguish between such hate groups as the KKK, which seek to erase some humans from existence, and a 15th Century explorer, who sought to survey an area recently noticed by Europe but without intent to destroy anyone?
We are not much better now than in the past, the historian said. I’d add that in many ways, we’re less enlightened. Moral and immoral behavior has existed in all times, but in our current zeal to eliminate any trace of negativity regarding historical figures, we risk removing any trace of positivity, too, and learning from the humanness of the people they represent.
If we are incapable of honoring the good while not giving credence to the bad, then no statue should ever again be erected, no building named to honor a human, no picture of anyone placed on or in any wall or wallet, except Jesus and those canonized saints who’ve proven their enduring heroism.
Indeed, the wheat and chaff grow together. May the mercy we seek from God for our own faults be what we also use in our assessment of others – both those memorialized in stone and those before us in the flesh.
[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, I reprint them here, with permission, a week after their run date. The preceding ran in The Forum newspaper on Aug. 3, 2020.]