For a while now there has been a lot of controversy about memorials. The two events that stand out for me are the attempts to remove the statue of General Robert E. Lee in Charlotte, Virginia and the removal of Bishop George Bell’s Memorial from Chichester Cathedral and the change of name of a school.
So I am trying to think through the question: what is it right to do with physical objects whose history is now contested?
So the first place that I go to is my own life. There are things that I have done of which I am ashamed. Like the recovering alcoholics in a twelve step programme, most of the time, when I have been made aware of the shame that I bear, I have gone to the person concerned and have tried to make up for it by confessing the wrongdoing.
Often this works. I am released from the shame, and I can then say “I am not that person anymore. My sins have been confessed, atoned for and forgiven. I have changed my ways. The person that did this thing is now not me.’
This strikes me as being similar to the situation of Germany. Ever since the holocaust, they have set up memorials to what they have done. As a nation they have done all that they can to make amends. They have said ‘That is who we were, true, but that is not who are. We want to set up a memorial to remind us of who we were so that we do not do it again”. German has two words for ‘memorial’. One is ‘Denkmal’ Its origin is in the word ‘denken, to think’. So a ‘Denkmal’ invites a person to think about what is memorialised. But their second word is ‘Mahnmal’ This word has its origins in the verb ‘mahnen’ to warn. The object is set up, like a light house to warn people of things that have been done in the past that should not be repeated.
It is because of the ‘Mahnmal’ that reminds Germans of the Holocaust, that prompted Angela Merkel to offer places to Syrian refugees. She was saying “Once as a nation we expelled people and killed them. Now as a nation we are receiving people and giving them life’.
In the English speaking world, I cannot think of any ‘Mahnmals’ so that the idea of ‘remembering’ is more ambiguous. I think it might be possible to add information to a statue or memorial, in order to describe what is going on in the light of changed circumstances. Some people have suggested the doing of this about the statue of Robert E. Lee, and about the memorials to Bishop George Bell.
But what if I do not think that I have done anything to be ashamed of? The memory of my actions is not ‘grievous’ to me, but others disagree? Then the history of my actins is contested. This is true of both Robert E. Lee and George Bell. For very different reasons, some wish to keep a positive memory of both people. Then the acknowledgement of the contested nature of a person’s legacy could also be acknowledged in the memorial.
But the problem gets murkier. I am worried by the polarisation of things. It is as if we want someone to be a ‘saint’ in which case we can happily remember them, or a ‘sinner’ in which case we can happily forget them. Alternatively, as is the case with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, we have a selective memory, or use a rationalisation and say ‘Yes, he was a conspirator in a murder plot, but the one whom he wanted to murder was a terrible person, so that makes it ok, and he was really good about everything else.’
Sometimes ‘moving on’ depends upon forgetting, or maybe better, being agnostic and leaving the issues about how to evaluate the history unresolved. Bonhoeffer himself said that a person could sometimes throw themselves on the mercy of God. We could say about Bishop George Bell “He did some wonderful things in being a voice against revenge in the Second World War, but now someone is accusing him of also being a paedophile. He is in the hands of God’s judgment and mercy.” In heaven, or at judgement day all that is true of him will be laid bear. That is the true place of judgement. Being Christian allows for this perspective. As St. Paul writes ‘We see through a glass, darkly, but then, face to face.’