Dismantle Confederate Memorials? Let’s Build Some Different Ones

16301481_BG1A Robert E. Lee monument is dismantled in New Orleans.  A torchlight rally in Charlottesville, Virginia to protect another one.  A lieutenant governor candidate in Virginia calls for removing all Confederate memorials and renaming all highways and buildings named for Confederate leaders.

William Faulkner had it right.  “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”

But the effort to erase the memorials to a shameful part of our history may not be as helpful as its supporters imagine.  A past submerged is not a past resolved.  What we need is more memory – not less.

New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu got a lot of deserved attention this week for his eloquent defense of the decision to remove four memorials.  He said:

These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.

Landrieu lamented the prominent place that these memorials had in the city, the way they defined the city’s landscape and imposed a narrative about who was in control.

All of this is true.  My white ancestors, who no doubt were part of the masses who contributed to the erection of these memorials in courthouse lawns and city squares across the South, felt a need to honor the sacrifice of the dead and to give meaning to the senseless suffering of the Civil War.  But there was a lot left unsaid – ugly things about the senseless suffering of enslaved people and the continuing ideology of white supremacy.

And yet…have we really moved to a new level of discussion and engagement if we simply move the stones?  That’s the easy part and it is functionally destructive.  Where is the constructive counterpart?

Landrieu noted this:

Why there are no slave ship monuments, no prominent markers on public land to remember the lynchings or the slave blocks; nothing to remember this long chapter of our lives; the pain, the sacrifice, the shame… all of it happening on the soil of New Orleans.

I know the Lee monument in Charlottesville.  It stands in front of the downtown United Methodist Church and we used to gather around it for the Palm Sunday celebration – something that always seemed like a perversion of the message of the day.  Unless the waving palms were an act of defiance of death-dealing powers, a connection we never openly made.

I imagine a new act of art in such places.  What if, lining the looming boxwoods that surround that memorial, there were new statues turned toward the general on his horse in various stages of reaction?  White and black, 19th century and 21st century, stunned, appalled, weeping, wondering, saluting, casting stones?  What if we commissioned a flurry of such works that would transform these old works from hagiography to conversation?

Perhaps the work of Michael Mergen, a photographer reflecting on memory and place, should get more prominence.

These old monuments deserve our attention because they are offensive.  Some of them should go.  But I can’t help feeling there should be more.

How Bad Memory is Afflicting Your Ministry (& Maybe Your Marriage)

one-wedding-251029Could your church (or community) be suffering from faulty memory?  I thought about this last Monday when I attended a presentation on the Missional Wisdom Movement.  The movement is relatively new and it is supporting the creation of new forms of Christian community that take the form of everything from a laundromat ministry to co-working space for local entrepreneurs.

What isn’t new are the roots that the movement draws from.  They are building on the contemplative tradition that draws people into the presence of God for discernment of insight and releasing God’s vision into the world.

The possibilities intrigue me.  (What might an intentional Christian community do and be on the Eastern Shore?)  But the presentation also hit me right in the memory bank.  This is the kind of spiritual practice and community dreaming that formed me when I was a seminary student in West Dallas.  Why had I lost touch with this?

This is the kind of spiritual practice and community dreaming that formed me when I was a seminary student in West Dallas.  Why had I lost touch with this?

The marriage researcher, John Gottman, says that one of the telltale signs of a troubled relationship is bad memory.  As it says on his website, “In a happy marriage, couples tend to look back on their early days fondly. They remember how positive they felt early on, how excited they were when they met, and how much admiration they had for each other. When they talk about the tough times they’ve had, they glorify the struggles they’ve been through, drawing strength from the adversity they weathered together.”*

On the other hand, couples that have difficulty recalling those formative days of the relationship are usually struggling.

IMG_5611I worry about churches that are so caught up in conflict or in the mechanics of ministry that they can’t remember why they are doing what they’re doing.  I also worry about clergy who have lost their first love and their sense of calling.

To use the Gottman analogy, if a church can’t remember the excitement that got them into a project and celebrate they strength they discovered by going through it together, then perhaps its time to recall their mission.  If clergy fumble for the words to say why they are in ministry, it may be time to get reacquainted with the Lover who turned their lives around.

So many times our programs, at every level of the church, are tinged with an institutional anxiety that sees everything we do as a way of saving the system.

This applies to the connection as a whole, too.  So many times our programs, at every level of the church, are tinged with an institutional anxiety that sees everything we do as a way of saving the system.  No disciple lays aside her plans and life in order to save a system.  Disciples became a part of the body of Christ because they heard a call that rearranged their world and the work they do as a result only makes sense in light of that call.

When I am attuned to the voice of God in my life, I know that it because the task before me is a part of a greater joy.  It’s the same joy I knew as a youth coordinator in a West Dallas community center.  That’s a memory I savor.

When Robert E. Lee was in the Walgreen’s Parking Lot – An interview with Photographer Michael Mergen (part 1 of 3)

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Michael Mergen at work – photos used with permission

Michael Mergen is a photographer of memory and landscape.  His photos capture ordinary, even shabby parts of America and invest them with the meanings we place on them.  So a series on the things businesses give as freebies to veterans (burgers, ice cream) and another on the things we name for war heroes (interstate highway bridges, stretches of commercial streets) becomes a silent commentary on our values.

At a recent exhibition at the Longwood Center for the Visual Arts, I was particularly taken with a series that imposes the image of highway historical signs over the contemporary landscapes of Virginia Civil War battlefields.  So I gave Michael a call and the Farmville, Virginia-based photographer and professor at Longwood University gave me some time to talk about his work.

Can you tell me just a little bit about how you see your work?  How would you describe what you do?  

I’m a photographer who looks at ideas of America, or our idea of citizenship, or ideas of American history, American politics – looking at how those things are manifest in the landscape, to how landscape can reveal history, how landscape or space can reveal, or show, or point to some of these fragments of American culture, American civics, American citizenship.  These recent works are more drawn to the landscape, but in some of the other work, looking at certain tiers, actual physical spaces that somehow speak to American civics and the American citizen.

So, the landscape you’re working in right now, [Southside Virginia], obviously influenced some of your projects, like the Civil War series.  Is there one region that was kind of formative for you? 

14_13m26-obverseI grew up just outside of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania and that’s still home.  That’s where my family is…So, that landscape was home.  I’d always been a student of American history and enjoyed that history, but never really was taken by the Civil War and never thought of that as more than just a part of the long, complicated American history.

Then, I moved to Virginia and it took quite a few years of being here to let some of that influence creep into the work.

This is obviously this pivotal event in American history.  About half of it was actually fought here; and then, living in Farmville is like you’re living on Lee’s Retreat [in 1865 from Richmond].  So, I’ve seen some of the historical signs just doing other projects.  I’ve see the signs driving around rural Oklahoma.  Even in California and other places.

It was one of those things I kind of saw out of the corner of  my eye–I was probably doing 60 miles an hour down some back road, and thought that the physical marking of a landscape was denoting some kind of historical significance to it.  But then, so often what is being described there is absent from the landscape.  Occasionally there’s a house, [but] usually it’s more of an oblique, invisible reference. So, with the signs, it’s one of those deep, backburner kind of ideas. With the Civil War sesquicentennial, the 150th anniversary, I was thinking about the war.  I don’t have a connection to it, per se, but living in Virginia gave me, in some ways, permission point to it.

So, doing the signs, the rubbings, was fitted to my interest in landscape and the interest in history.

And you literally went out to those markers, and used a crayon to do a rubbing of the markers, and used that.

14_22f60detailYeah, so, I would photograph where the sign was and put myself within a reasonable distance.  I didn’t have too many set rules.  I started photographing where the sign was–sometimes, literally right next to the sign.  Sometimes, it might be 100 feet down the road a little bit, or off the shoulder of the highway.

Then, I’d make a print back here at school that happened to be roughly the same size as that sign, and then take the print back to the sign and clamp it on using spring clamps.  I’d do a crayon rubbing. I ended up using these jumbo, black crayons from Crayola.  I’d go into Wal-mart and buy these 8 packs.    My daughter would be like, “Dad, where are all the black crayons?”  She was left with 7 jumbo ones but all the black ones were used up.

I’d do this rubbing over the print because I was interested in this collision of history and contemporary landscape, to get at the idea that these signs are speaking or pointing to something that is gone.  We’re saying a hundred years ago this army passed through here, or, half a mile from here, a big battle happened, but there’s no trace of it.  There’s nothing.  So, I’m interested in the visual disparity of that.

In some of the ones where the landscape feels more contemporary, the ones that are closer to Petersburg, where you’re photographing the parking lot of a Walgreens, if you have an advertisement for Walgreens sale on potato chips, if you have that text colliding, literally, with a description of Lee giving the order to retreat.  Those contemporary collisions are interesting to me.  Or the one with gas stations and the price of gas, and the ads for vaping and the e-cigarettes.  You get very contemporary images and text colliding with text about Sheridan’s men or this troop brigade or that troop brigade.  That was interesting to me.

Also, the ones where it was really rural, and where I’m looking at the landscape thinking, “Gosh, this probably looks the same as it did 150 years ago.”  So, having both of those exist together in the series was interesting to me to talk about the way landscape has rapid change or how in some ways it has remained unchanged.

It’s such a great, visual way to place memory in the picture.  To have those words kind of hanging over it is a powerful image.

It comes out of a tradition in photography where people are interested in pointing the camera at a place that has some kind of historical or social/political significance.  But then, the challenge is always—how do you let the viewer in on the idea without relying exclusively on the text?  So you look at 20 photographs and say, “Okay, those are interesting photographs.”  And then, the text says, “Oh, X, Y, and Z happened there.”  Sometimes that can drive you back to the text to look at it, but that’s also been done.  So, this was a way of still engaging in that commentary but doing it in a more direct way, where the piece could be able to stand on its own and be a bit more self-evident.

Michael Mergen’s work can be found at http://www.mimages.com.