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What We Honor

We must be careful what and whom we honor, especially those of us on the privileged side of history.  Who is a white person to tell a black person he shouldn’t be offended by a statue of Robert E. Lee?

I read in the paper last week that the city of New Orleans removed a statue of the Confederate General, Robert E. Lee, which had been erected in 1884.  It caused quite a stir, as such things tend to do.  Death threats were made against the mayor and city council.  The workers removing the statue had to wear bulletproof vests.  And I thought the summer job I once had picking up roadkill was tough.  Sheesh.

Those opposed to General Lee’s removal said it was erasing history.  A woman asked me what I thought about it, and I said it never should have been erected in the first place.  Think about that, honoring a man who fought for the right to take children from their parents and sell them.  Can you imagine having your family sold?  His supporters said Robert E. Lee was a gentleman, and a fine Christian man.  Really?  Seriously? I don’t believe that for a minute.  Take him down.  Put up a statue of those slave children.  Let’s honor them.

The woman who asked my opinion told me saw nothing wrong with the statue.  I said, “Well, of course not, your children weren’t sold.”  I asked her how she would feel if a statue of Hitler were erected at the Monument Circle Oktoberfest this September.  That’s history, too.  She said that was different, but then, it always is.

Tomorrow is Memorial Day, when we commemorate those who’ve gone before us.  But we must be careful not to act as if everyone who has ever died merits our devotion.  Have you ever noticed there’s no quicker way to become a saint than to die?  I had a relative die and he was just a rat, but he was family and I went to his funeral and as I listened to the minister give the eulogy I thought for a moment I was at the wrong funeral.  It was a miracle!  Somehow, in the three days between his death and funeral, he became a paragon of virtue.  I guess there’s nothing like dying to boost your reputation.  Shortly after Hitler died, I bet someone said, “Sure, he had his faults, but he sure was nice to his dogs.”

There are some people who don’t merit our remembrance, except as examples of how not to be.  I know a woman whose father had been sexually and physically abusive to her.  Every Memorial Day, her mother insisted all the family go together and place flowers on his grave, so off they’d go to the cemetery.  Finally, this woman couldn’t bear it any longer and told her mother she wouldn’t go.  The mother threw a fit.   But, you know, some people don’t deserve our flowers.

The writer Annie Lamott was once asked whether it was okay to write true stories about people who had been mean to you.  And Lamott said something very wise.  She told the questioner, “You own everything that happened to you.  Tell your stories.  If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

Some people don’t deserve our flowers.

We must be careful what and whom we honor, especially those of us on the privileged side of history.  Who is a white person to tell a black person he shouldn’t be offended by a statue of Robert E. Lee?  It wasn’t our ancestors who were seized from their homeland, yanked from their families, and forced to labor in malarial swamps half a world away. It wasn’t our ancestors whose bare and shackled feet stood on a grief-worn auction block, who were bound and bought and sold like cattle.  It wasn’t our ancestors who were lynched.  Those of us who stand on the privileged side of history have no business telling them to avert their gaze and ignore that statue.  If Robert E. Lee wanted a statue, he should have behaved better.  If I want my children and grandchildren to leave flowers on my grave, I need to earn them.

Joan and I went for a walk the other night in town, to South Cemetery.  There’s not much to do in Danville in the evening if you don’t have TV.  It was dusk, we were reading the tombstones, spotting familiar names, discussing the people.  Kind of like looking through a picture album.  As we were walking  I was thinking how when some evil tyrant dies, they don’t get buried in marked graves, because we don’t want people showing up at their tombstone keeping their memory and legacy alive.  We don’t want that grave to become a rallying place for evil.  Because we know a great truth—that what we honor, we become.

Do you remember that story where Jesus is walking along the road, sees a young man, and says to him, “Follow me.”

The young man says, “I will, but first let me go and bury my father.”

“Leave the dead to bury the dead, but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

That always seemed like a hard story to me.  I read a scholar once who suggested the young man’s father wasn’t even dead, that he was maybe years away from dying, and said the moral of the story was that you shouldn’t put off following Jesus, that you shouldn’t wait until some people are dead before doing what you need to do.  Get at it.  Do it now.

Maybe it means that, I’m not sure.

Or maybe it means we can be so bound to the past, so chained to the past, we are not free to live in the present. This is the drip, drip, dripping poison of nostalgia.

Honor the history and people that are worthy of honor.  But let’s not be so enslaved by the past that all we ever hear and see are the rattling bones of our ancestors.  Live in the present.  Look to the future.  Let the dead bury the dead.  Let’s you and I live out the Kingdom.