Messages of Hope

Sanitizing history

Published / posted by Sandy

To everything, there is a season (Ecclesiastes 3)


The pulling down, removal and defacing of statues around the world has had mixed reactions – some applauding the eradication of statues of slave traders, some saying the statues need to be retained to remember our history. Toppling statues marks a break with the past, but makes it more difficult to learn from it, and to see how that past still shapes the present.

In 2017, when the statues of Governor Macquarie, Captain Cook and Queen Victoria were defaced, Bill Shorten suggested that additional plaques be made to indicate that contemporary thinking may have moved on. Indigenous Affairs Minister Ken Wyatt says, “Statues can remind us of things that were offensive. That’s a good thing. He also suggests some of the statues may be more valuable if an additional plaque is added to explain and honour a different perspective. That’s also a very good idea”. (Amanda Vanstone)

Similarly, Condoleezza Rice, former US Secretary of State and the first black woman to hold the position, has commented: ‘Don’t sanitize history by taking down monuments. I am a firm believer in ‘keeping your history before you’ and so I don’t actually want to rename things that were named for slave owners. I want us to have to look at those names and recognize what they did and to be able to tell our kids what they did and for them to have a sense of their own history. When you start wiping out your history, sanitizing your history to make you feel better it’s a bad thing”.

“Erasing the past, however painful it may be to remember it, is a mistake. Imagine if the German government sought to have all the concentration camps from World War II levelled to the ground. Wisely, they spend millions of dollars maintaining a visible reminder of a terrible past. It is right to say we should never forget the Holocaust. We need to be reminded just how terrible things can happen. We might be able to stop a repeat event. But how can we tell people to never forget something if we never told them of it in the first place?” (Amanda Vanstone)

Lea Ypi writes: Focusing only on whether statues should stay or go obscures how unjust histories are still borne by current structures. The struggle is broader than toppling offensive monuments and removing problematic traces of the past. If we scratch the surface, we may discover that since capitalism has historically relied on colonial structures to survive, it may be difficult to demand the end of one without demanding the end of the other.

Julia Baird’s article is worth reading. She writes: One of the more perplexing arguments made in recent days is that toppling, relocating or removing old statues amounts to the erasure of history. It is in fact the very opposite: it is history. To seek a fuller understanding of the past is not wrecking, but restoring, salvaging and deepening history. History is not just a set of facts but a series of questions, a mode of inquiry that seeks to comprehend and put flesh on dates, events and places, to understand and include all possible perspectives, all while knowing that, until about 50 years ago, history was almost solely written by white men, about white men. This history was comprised of flawed, incomplete and often deceptive stories that not only excluded vital records, but were frequently used for propaganda purposes, and the buffering of myths like: all war is good, mighty and noble, if somewhat sad; the expansion of empire was jolly impressive; all important people sat in parliament or courts; and women and non-white people have not done particularly much of note for millennia. What has happened to statues – rolled into harbours, set aflame on their plinths, defaced with graffiti, hung with signs – is merely the visible form of what historians have been quietly doing to the myths of the past for decades – documenting a more complete account. The time for a public reckoning with the ongoing legacy of slavery, the horrors of colonial expansion, and the fact that we have not considered violence against people of colour, or women, to be of particular note, has come. We need to stop thinking about history as a kind of binary “positive” or “negative”, as either nice or bad, but as something that reflects all of the wild chaos, dark violence, and glorious triumphs of humanity; the story of all of us.

The story of all of us.

What might this look like in considering the history and practices of the Church, and as we consider the Biblical narrative – the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Scriptures. What have we preferenced, and ‘placed on a pedestal’. What has been overlooked? What do we name, reframe, ‘tear down’, read or do differently? The following insights come from an article by Gretta Vosper in which she reflects on Jesus and Martin Luther (though the same lens could be used for other reformers). She writes:

Both Jesus and Luther honoured their traditions. Though we long assumed Jesus was Christian, we now know he wasn’t; he was a Jew. Luther learned the only acceptable religion of his day, a Rome-centred Catholicism. They were steeped in their traditional religions, born into and formed by them. Like everyone around them, they were supposed to fit in. Their education, far above the level of the average believer, was supposed to further hone their beliefs. It was not supposed to expose the little hypocrisies and gross abuses that had been so artfully woven into the everyday business of religion. Once noticed, however, the normal way of doing things became unacceptable. There were no options for Jesus or Luther but those that would bring about catastrophic change in their religious traditions. Even as others fought to maintain the status quo, forcing banishment or conspiring toward more final solutions, the Reformers laid out and presented their arguments. And the world changed.

We stand on the shoulders of great men and women. Countless Reformers dared challenge the norms of their day – religious, political, economic, and social. And they did it at great cost. We are grateful to them for their struggles, for their lives, for their blood, and for the first discomfort noticed that set them on their course. They created the world in which we live, the freedoms we cherish, the perspectives we are welcome to embrace or refuse, the right to make our own decisions, whether wise or foolish. They set in course the possibilities from which we have chosen our new realities and so have become, with them, co-creators of the world we know.

They also, however, created gross disparities and abuses that yet plague humanity and the planet: the economic enslavement of whole nations for the provision of privileges assumed by others; the legal jargons that entrap indigenous peoples in politically ritualized battles for sovereignty; the lines that set out who is worthy of the right to choose their own lifestyle and who is not; the notion that humanity is separate and above the natural world rather than enfolded within and vulnerable to it; the entertainments by which we anaesthetize ourselves to the truths that quake around us; the cruelties endured by herded, caged, and crated animals so we might pleasure our taste buds and sooth our sun-scarred skin. And we, in making our choices, remain co-creators, complicit in a litany of normals that, had we the heart of Jesus or Luther or the millions of unnamed men and women who have poured their lives out in the pursuit of justice and compassion and the building up of love in the world, would make every one of us a Reformer.

There is a legacy in the Reformation that I believe belongs in the middle of our work, calling out the power brokers, the hegemonists, the deceivers. Ours is not the work of complacency or settling for imperatives that take decades to conjure only because it takes that long to soothe the sensitivities of those still wielding ecclesial powers that make no difference to the challenges facing our world. Our reforms must be much bolder, our work in the world more creative than what those beyond our walls believe is all we do. It may be that humanity is facing the greatest crises of its too-brief history as it reels with the challenges of global warming and climate change, exponential population growth, and resource depletion. There may be no future moment for us to step up. Now may be all there is. Literally.

Change is our very birthplace. It is our right and responsibility as heirs of the Reformers, to stare down every comfortable “normal” that sings its siren song and refuse to be enchanted by it. It is our right and responsibility to count up every ease and privilege we enjoy and educate ourselves about its source – what makes it possible? Who pays for our pleasures and how? And when we find that “normal” is built on the subjugation of others – our tea, our chocolate, our party-ready shrimp rings – work to redistribute or limit those pleasures until all have access to shelter, security, food, clean water, and the joy of planning for their children’s futures.