Photo Credit: Halifax Metro
Travel the world over, and statues are everywhere to be found; in public squares and on stately grounds, honouring the people who represent accomplishments of which to be proud. Whether warrior, explorer, or political leader, a statue represents the values a culture wishes to uphold in a person they wish to honour. From perfect human forms in ancient Greece, to the victorious modern soldier, a statue is an ‘idol’ of an age. This is reinforced in totalitarian cultures where statues of leaders are openly venerated.
As history rolls on and culture changes, so values shift. The statue of Edward Cornwallis, in Halifax, is earmarked by some for dismantling. The toppling of many confederate statues in the United States has heightened this discussion, as that of Robert E. Lee disappeared overnight at Duke University. Not everyone agrees with these actions, suggesting we are erasing our history and destroying art by removing these statues from public spaces.
Is it true that we are prone to repeat a violent history without these statues to remind us of the past? The problem here is twofold. First, culture changes and values shift. The ideals that one culture would wish to honour may be rejected by a later culture, for either practical or moral reasons. So, these statues represent history, yes, but as a society, we no longer share the values that history represents in its entirety. The claim that removing them erases our history is untenable. Would we produce a statue of Hitler to be placed in a public square so that we would remember to not repeat his genocidal history? Of course not. Our statues are idols, representations of our highest values, not humanity’s greatest regrets.
Secondly, those who seek to have statues removed are not ignoring history; rather, they are rejecting the version of history that statue represents. Many confederate statues were mass-produced and placed in the 1960s to make a political point about race in the south. They do not represent more than a legacy of racism that continues to spread its hideous tentacles today. Historian Grace Elizabeth Hale thinks we can determine whether a statue ought to be removed by reflecting on what achievements are being commemorated. This enables her to distinguish between statues of American presidents and those of confederate soldiers, for instance.
However, history is owned by those who have the power to control the story. Those who place the statues are the ones who get to tell the story that history reflects. The story most often told is the side of the victor, the powerful, those who have benefited most from that version of history. The statue of Cornwallis was not placed there so that everyone could remember his evil deeds and not repeat them. It was placed there to honour him and his contribution to the settlement and development of Nova Scotia. The fact that we now realize what a terrible history that was for indigenous people means that it may no longer be appropriate to honour him with a statue. He is no longer an idol of a history we wish to exalt.
Whoever controls the story, controls the culture and its values. Pulling down statues allows another story to be told. It allows an act of repentance to be offered as a symbol of a desire for reconciliation. It enables us to forge a new direction in history where voices other than the dominant ones are heard, and valued, and reflected in the icons of culture.
And if some statues are truly works of art, then put them in museums where the story can be told in a balanced context. If they are not, then melt them down and make something new that reflects the highest shared values of contemporary culture.
Confusion will always result when people forget that history isn’t ours anyway, but belongs to God. Ultimately it’s his story. When we forget him, we turn to whatever values make us feel comfortable. Like the golden calf of the exodus, we repeatedly make the error of thinking that we have the best ideas for how to live our lives together. Whatever the graven image of our hands, it’s always in competition with the values revealed by an unseen God, whose hand is yet at work in history, and whose justice works out within, and beyond, human experience.