Rewriting history: How statues to dead heroes become community flashpoints

The shooting of nine black churchgoers in Charleston by a white supremacist in 2015 gave a new impetus to American soul-searching about its internal history. Dylann Roof's action sparked renewed moves to cleanse the country of memorials to its racist past as a way of confronting its racist present.

In particular, memorials to Southern Civil War heroes came under scrutiny, as did the official use of the Confederate flag. They were just defending states' rights, say their defenders; not so, say the critics – they were traitors fighting to maintain slavery. Roof's actions helped ensure that the latter argument prevailed. Now, across the US states are removing Confederate memorials, as CNN reports. 

Wikimedia CommonsThe controversial statue of Robert E Lee in Emancipation Park, Charlottesville.

It was the decision to remove the statue of Robert E Lee from the recently-renamed Emancipation Park – formerly Lee Park – that sparked the violence in Charlottesville. Nothing can excuse that violence, or confused and confusing signals given out by President Trump over whether neo-Nazi white supremacists there were actually to blame.

But the question of whether to remove monuments isn't a simple one. All over the world there are memorials to people and causes, glorified at the time, that a few decades or hundreds of years render embarrassing. The Rhodes Must Fall movement focused on the statue of the notorious empire-builder at the University of Cape Town ­– why, in the new South Africa, commemorate the man who led the dispossession of its black majority from their lands?

There are plenty of others, too. My home city of Bristol is renaming the famous Colston Hall, named after one of its greatest sons, a 17th-century slaver. Trafalgar Square has a statue of the devout Baptist General Sir Henry Havelock, who helped put down the Indian Mutiny – or First War of Independence, or Great Rebellion – with ferocious ruthlessness.

And what about Churchill in Parliament Square? The saviour of his country, certainly – but will future generations think more of his support for the compulsory incarceration and sterilization of 'feeble-minded' people? Or his policy of destroying entire German cities crammed with civilians? Or perhaps his allowing up to 3 million Bengalis to die of starvation while the Australian ships full of grain that could have fed them sailed by on their way to the Mediterranean?

The truth is that many of our heroes turn out to have feet of clay. We ought not to be too quick to judge them by the standards of our own time. And yes, sometimes it's right that Rhodes – in whatever guise – should fall: we know more than we did, or sensitivities have shifted so far that no one wants to commemorate the departed any more. Take Namibia's statue of the Reiterdenkmal, erected in 1911 to commemorate the bloody and senseless German massacre of thousands of Herero, Nama and San people – the first genocide of the 20th century. Resited in front of the national museum, it's now in storage.

In many cases, though, there's a different path to take. That involves not denying the past by trying to expunge it, but learning from it. Take away the visible memorials to past wrongs, even if they were thought right at the time, and we abet the process of forgetting. We should remember the bad as well as the good; and if it makes us think a little harder and feel a little sadder than the creators of the memorials intended, that's all to the good.

And there is, for Christians, an illuminating parallel. There is in the Bible much that makes us wince and wonder, why is this here? There's genocide and ethnic cleansing

in Joshua, evidently approved by God. There's child sacrifice and horrible violence in Judges. The author of 1 Kings describes the massacre of 450 prophets of Baal almost casually. Stories are simply told, with no namby-pamby moralising disapproval.

Isn't it easier not to read these stories, or not to preach on them? Wouldn't we rather they weren't there?
But this is the challenge: not to ignore the dark side of human nature, and certainly not to celebrate it – but to learn just how bad people can be, in order to understand how far God had to go to redeem them.

Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods