When I was in school, I had a serious ambivalence about history. I had some serious dread associated with the topic partly because most history teachers have this thing about students remembering dates. Because numbers tend not to stick in my mind, I was always getting dates wrong. On the other hand, I found the narrative of history fascinating and loved looking at connections and relationships and how actions in one place and time affected actions in another place and time.
During one of the course I took in history, we were looking at ancient Egypt. Fortunately, the dates for that course were not particularly important and I could really focus on the narrative. One interesting fact I discovered was that when a new pharaoh or dynasty took over, one of their first official acts in office was often to send out crews of workers whose job was to chisel the name of the previous ruler off all the public and private monuments that they could reach. Sometimes the name was simply chipped off and a blank space left–and other times, the new ruler had his name cut into the monument.
I thought at the time that that was hilarious. The ruler was trying to do away with the past, probably trying to wipe out the existence of a predecessor just by removing a name. No matter what the new ruler did, someone would remember the previous ruler and depending on what the ruler did, would laugh or applaud the vain efforts to get rid of the past.
Well, skip ahead. We live in a whole new era, an era where we have a deeper understanding of history and people and how things work. But we are still trying to chip the names of the monuments–or in some cases, removing the monuments. When we discover that our heroes of the past had feet of clay, we often feel that we have to remove them from the historical record.
In the nearest city to where I live, for example, there is a statue of one of the city’s founders. He was a significant figure in the history of the city and our province and so his name is everywhere. But he was also responsible for some significant evil, causing the death of a great many native people.
We don’t actually know what to do with such people. Does the evil they did outweigh the good or does the good overcome the evil? Do we build them a statue and name things after them or do we remove the statue and change all the names? Maybe we are not all that much different from the ancient Egyptians trying to alter history by chipping names off monuments.
People are people. The greatest are sinful and the worst are good somehow. The man who founds a city also persecuted natives. The politician who did so much to help the nation also owned slaves. The preacher who brought help to many also abused others. The drug lord funded a children’s hospital. The war criminal deeply loved his wife and children. The liberator of the nation was also prejudiced against outsiders. These are realities coming from the heart of humanity–we are both good and bad.
We probably need to discover how to live with that reality. We need to learn how to accept and praise the good while accepting and denouncing the bad. We need to learn how to balance our accounts so that both the good and the bad have their rightful place. Some people deserve a statue or monument for their good–but their evil also needs to be recognized and condemned. As we learn how to deal with this human reality in history, we can then help ourselves deal with it in our own lives today.
Chiselling names off monuments; erecting and then removing statues; rewriting history books to fit our cultural and personal desires are all rather expensive and pointless ways of trying to deal with an essential human reality: the best of us are going to do bad stuff and the worst of us are going to do good stuff. God knows how to deal with our reality: he show us all the same grace in Jesus Christ. I expect that in the end, our answer to the dilemma involves learning how to be as graceful as God.
May the peace of God be with you.