Monuments and Memorials – Symbols of Un-forgiveness or Symbols of Forgiveness?

Memorials and monuments are symbols. Their meanings, or rather how one thinks of memorials and monuments, determines whether they are beneficial or harmful. What I mean by this is that perhaps it is one’s worldview that determines one’s interpretation and therefore the experience that is derived from a memorial or a monument.

For example, some folks certainly do use memorials and monuments as a way to ‘never forget’ and to perpetuate anger and even justify retaliation. For example, I often see Facebook posts to ‘never forget’ concerning the 9/11 tragedy. We can think of and relate this sort of ‘memorial’ to the angry actions to the Muslim community that continue to take place as a violent retaliatory response to the 9/11 tragedy. In this way, the reminder (the memorial or ‘monument’) may be harmful as it may perpetuate pain, anger and violence.

Sometimes memorials exist even as they are not consciously recognized as such. An example of such a memorial could be the transformation of the  continent of North America that has taken place as a result Western European colonial expansion. For me, attempting to understand how Native-Americans might feel concerning the loss and harm that they have experienced (and continue to experience) as a result of Western European imperialistic colonial expansion is difficult, because I am a recipient of the benefits of that social change, not a member of the oppressed culture. Yet, I am certain that Native-Americans experience daily reminders of their past and present injuries because the dominating mainstream U.S. culture serves as a constant reminder, even if no formal ‘monument’ exists. This type of memorial, therefore, may be an obstacle to healing, because it can be a constant reminder of one’s ongoing pain.

Other memorials are created as living memorials in order to intentionally bring about goodness as a response to tragic events. I think of the lyrics from a song in the children’s musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, “up from the ashes come the roses of success” and relate this to the Amish response to the Nickel Mines tragedy that took place on October 2 of 2006 . The Amish community had the school where the tragic event took place torn down, and with it the hurtful reminder. They built a different type of remembrance by planting evergreens (a living testimony) that reach toward heaven as a way to continually remind their community of the peaceful response that Jesus the Christ (the word Christ to be understood as ‘the way’) demonstrated as an example for peace-loving Christians to imitate and live.

The peaceful response creates a space for the reconciling of broken relationships. It is generative, not destructive. The ‘world’ was astonished by the Amish immediate actions of forgiveness and reconciliation with the transgressor’s family. The Amish were able to recognize a larger perspective than simply their own. They could see that the shooter’s family must also be experiencing pain and suffering. They could see that the mainstream culture is also experiencing pain and suffering as it was demonstrated by the violent actions of the shooter. The Amish forgiving and peaceful actions (even as their hearts ache) puts a stop on the violent reactions that can take place in the event of a tragedy. By their action, the ‘world’ has become much more interested in this peaceful forgiving, generative response. Roses are growing up from the ashes.

I also think of another tree-planting response to violence theme in the poem ‘Torture’ by Alice Walker, author of the novel, The Color Purple.

Alice Walker Torture Video from Amnesty Bermuda on Vimeo.

Please also listen to Ms. Walker speak about response to tragic events as she discusses the reason that she wrote The Color Purple here:

Alice Walker’s novel, The Color Purple, can act as a memorial, a testament to the lives of the African-Americans that lived, suffered, loved, joyed and died as a certain notion of ‘progress’ shaped a new country.

These three examples of memorials offer very different perspectives for one to consider. Surely, when a monument or memorial is intentionally built it’s purpose is to remember. Other memorials exist perhaps unintentionally, but because they generate memories, they are a memorial. Other times a memorial may be built in order to achieve growth, that is, to inspire a path toward healing, forgiveness, and perhaps reconciliation of damaged relationships. How one thinks about a memorial depends on the assumptions concerning the purpose of the memorial and this also depends on the worldview, history and circumstances of the person interpreting meaning from the symbol.

Memorials can act as symbols that remind us of a path toward healing and forgiveness. Sometimes, arriving at a state of forgiveness must be incredibly difficult.  Therefore, thinking of forgiveness might be better understood as a process. That is, a process that begins with pain, and perhaps even anger, but moves toward increasingly positive attitudes and/or actions that takes place in such a way as to bring about greater emotional, physical and/or relational healing. In this way, forgiveness is not something that is done and completed, but something that continues to take place and something that continues to bring benefit to those involved in the forgiveness process. Memorials can help us to accomplish this type of healing and forgiveness, if we choose this path.

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