In recent days, we have seen widespread defacing and destroying of many local and national statues and monuments. It would seem that many names and faces of the past are being subjected to a barrage of contemporary scorn, derision, and opposition.
To be sure, some of these memorials have enshrined people and ideals that probably should never have been celebrated in the first place. They are, in many ways, reminders of a time of racist oppression and godless subjugation. As such, an honest admission of wrongly hallowing past evil-doers and the need for corrective action to be taken are positive signs of repentance and restitution. Perhaps some could be moved to museums and we could learn from their wrongdoings and shortcomings, while still recognizing their positive societal contributions.
But having said this, just how stringent should our standards of enshrinement and retention be? And when past heroes become disgraced by the changing winds of time, what contemporary criteria are we using to disgrace and discredit them? One problem with judging the past through the lens of the present is that the blind spots of our age can become the embarrassments and sources of shame in the generations that follow.
One example comes quickly to mind: How will future generations judge our confused obsessions with gender and sexuality? I suspect, for example, that many of the things we find so noble and defensible in these arenas might well be deemed downright decadent and devious by future generations.
Judging the past with criteria from the present is not wholly illegitimate, but it should always be done with circumspect humility and caution versus a bold and reckless sense of self-righteous indignation. The standards with which we judge the past will often come back to haunt us in the future. Our contemporary heroes can just as easily be weighed and found wanting in the scales of future generations since many of the standards are based on the ever-changing spirit of the age. As such, what is considered heroic in one era is often deemed demonic in the next.
All of this highlights the fact that we should be careful and calculated when we start defacing and destroying long-standing historical monuments. In a recent example, the Black Student Union and the (rather ironically named) Student Inclusion Coalition are now calling for the removal of a statue of Abraham Lincoln from the campus of the University of Wisconsin, Madison. To be fair, Lincoln was not a perfect man and he only became a Christian later in life. He had to make hard decisions and compromise politically to preserve a fragile union that all Americans (regardless of race) still benefit from today. Over the course of his life and career, there was plenty to find offensive and questionable. After all, we are all deficient and if scrutinized closely enough, will be crushed by the demand for perfection. The only ones who can stand up to the standard of flawlessness are figments of our own imaginations. And even these figments will compete with one another if they are not grounded in a transcendent standard of determining who or what is truly perfect.
So, if you are looking for dirt on someone, rest assured, look hard and long enough and you will find it since we are all sinners. No one but Jesus has led a perfect life, and even He gets a bad rap for the misuse and abuse of His name amongst His followers.
In the end, people are not perfect, but they can add value and teach us important lessons, nonetheless. There is a limit here, of course. We cannot and should not immortalize just anyone at all. But we can appreciate those whose lives were worthy of emulation and appreciation for the ways they helped change the world for the better, even if there were things for which they should be ashamed.
It is widely known, for example, that Martin Luther King, Jr. was an adulterer. His honorable work for civil rights, however, overshadows this immoral aspect of his life. It doesn’t hurt him much right now since adultery (and fornication, I might add) is not currently considered especially immoral when weighed against the sins of racism and racially-motivated murder, for example. Every generation has its pet moral outrages regarding certain sins and its blind spots and passes toward others. In our time, extra-marital sexual expression is deemed more akin to authenticity and normalcy than it is to unfaithfulness and betrayal.
Again, regardless of how you assess his sexual lifestyle, Martin Luther King, Jr. was so much more than that. He was a hero for his moral courage, his persistent vision of equality, his brilliant wisdom in organizing and standing up peacefully and non-violently against the vicious racism of his time, alongside his willingness to suffer and die for what he knew was right. We should not overlook his serious flaws, but neither should we overlook his many virtues simply because he was also an imperfect sinner.
One of the beautiful features of scripture is its deep honesty about the multifaceted character of its heroes. The Apostle Peter was a loud-mouthed, boastful, and cowardly betrayer. King David was a murderer and adulterer. But the Bible also tells us what these men (and many more like them) became through the process of humble repentance and glorious redemption. Their colossal failures did not end up defining them wholesale. God was able to not just see beyond their sins but transform them for His greater glory.
The irony of all this is that no matter who we choose to glorify and remember, every statue and monument will ultimately fall prey to the eroding sands of time. Percy Shelley’s haunting poem, “Ozymandias,” poignantly remind us of this:
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell its sculpture that well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Rest assured, time will pulverize into powder every attempt to immortalize the merely momentary. And yet, there is hope. You will be permanently remembered if you surrender your life to the Risen One who was nailed to a cross to die for your sins and your failures. And when you trust in Him, He will forgive you and transform your life. Not only that, at the end of the age He “will also give [you] a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it” (Revelation 2:17). That stone and that name will never fade away and are reserved throughout eternity for all who love and trust in Jesus.