A vandalized statue of St. Junipero Serra in San Francisco is seen June 19, 2020. The Spanish Franciscan founded several missions in what is now California. CNS photo/David Zandman via Reuters

Peter Stockland: Toppled statues can’t erase past

  • July 4, 2020

Cardinal Timothy Dolan offers up a much-needed reminder that a dangerous effect of toppling statues is forgetting we are all fallen human beings.

“If we only honour perfect, saintly people of the past, I guess I’m left with only the Cross,” the Archbishop of New York wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal. “And some people would ban that.”

Courageously, he reaches into his family history to seal the case for keeping the past in front of us as concrete evidence that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. He notes that when he was growing up, his mother always kept a photo of her parents on a wall of the Dolan house.

“Her dad, my grandfather, was an abusive drunk who abandoned his family,” the cardinal writes. “I’m glad we got to know of him, the good and the bad.”

No doubt some of that gladness comes from the recognition Dolan owes his flawed ancestor the primal debt of biological existence. Even greater gladness must come from awareness that young Timothy Dolan was able to distinguish the good from the bad — and understand the possibility of both being contained in the same person — sufficiently to serve God as a priest and a Prince of the Church.

The cardinal considers the recent mania for statue smashing and reputational obliteration of former heroes as comparable to Puritan book burning. It’s a reasonable parallel. There is an acrid pall of purifying smoke hanging above and around the current mob zealously trying to erase public memory of nation-founders such as Sir John A. Macdonald and George Washington.

There is something more, though, sparking the ascetic spasms of our new iconoclasts. Their desire to deface and erase monuments to disagreeable historic moments arises from a misunderstanding of the nature of history itself. History is not a stopwatch. We cannot click it to seal off the time before and resume it again at the instant of our convenient choosing.

History remains ever contested in some form. The saying that history is written by the victors is worse than a cliché. It’s nonsense. It implies that history stops long enough to be written for once and all. As long as there is human consciousness, that’s impossible.

Sure, time will arrive when those who appear victorious dominate and oppress. But the history of the submerged and suffering continues no less, which is how the wheel turns for uprisings, rebellions, revolutions, even what some insist on tautologically calling “progress.” The idea, then, that we begin a “new” history each time that happens is self-evidently ludicrous. Every era necessarily proceeds out the preceding era, what T.S. Eliot in his long-ago essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” called “not the pastness of the past, but its presence.” To topple the icons of past in the belief that doing so somehow clears the field for a “new history” borders on the farcically tragic. It denies the simple reality that the very act of physical destruction extends the history of that which is destroyed.

As Christians, as Catholics, we live out an even greater reality, indeed the ultimate reality. The history that begins with the Fall turns definitively only when Eternity bends into history and transforms it not just for all time, but for our eternal salvation. It does not obliterate the past. Doing so is futile. More so because it has no need to. It extends history through charity, mercy, through the hope that is forgiveness.

The Irish scholar Donal Casey, in an essay on imagery that commemorates violent conflict in Northern Ireland, coins the term “hybrid hatreds” to describe those in contested histories who unconsciously adopt each other’s habits of thought, language and mythology. Casey argues such social hybridity can open the way, “if not to a hybrid love (then to) a hybrid understanding, a hybrid sort of tolerance, and finally acceptance of hybridity itself as a complicated reality rather than just an interpretation.”

Or in Dolan’s words, we are “left with the Cross” — a hybrid of history and Eternity, never to be toppled by fallen humans.

(Stockland is publisher of Convivium.ca and a senior fellow with Cardus.)

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