Bad news, sad news, fake news … it’s all old news! And it’s been around for centuries. So many of the battles we are fighting now have been going on throughout the sordid history of a humanity repeating the sins of our ancestors. Yes, it all started in the Garden of Eden, when our first parents were misled to believe they could know better than God how to run their own lives. But don’t blame Adam and Eve if we are playing the same game!

Remember the first sin. Satan planted a bad seed of thought in Adam’s head: God cannot be trusted. Claim and exert YOUR power and you will be God. It is the age-old conceit that dominance and supremacy are the key to happiness — instead of friendship. “If I would be king!” The belief that somehow if I were in charge, or in control of the world, my life would be better. Yes, this is indeed the way of an errant world. Endless battles to seize power and impose one’s will on others. This leads to constant conflict. It is fallen humanity’s way, but not God’s way. God is not a tyrant, but time and again, throughout salvation history, is revealed to us as a friend. And this finds beautiful expression in the words of Jesus. “I do not call you servants … I call you friends” (Jn 15:15).

I mentioned that many things that we are seeing today have happened before. Statues and other effigies have come down before or been defaced and subject to graffiti, in ancient Rome and Athens, as in the New York subways, and now in most cities. Even images of the Mona Lisa have been famously moustached. To be frank, if you don’t take offense, I have never been a statue or photo collector. I know this may trouble some of my readers to hear. I can’t tell you how many kind gifts I have received of images and statues of saints and other important figures throughout my life. I treasure them because they remind me of the loving kindness of the person, adult or child, who gifted me — not so much because they can say much about the person they represent. An image of a person is never as beautiful as the person themself! The person behind the statue or painting is what interests me and, of course, the one who generously gave me the gift.

A young friend of mine, who has started a website with his brother called emptytombproject.org — check it out — recently gifted me, not with a statue or image, but with an article he wrote entitled “Junipero Serra: Behind the Statue.” You can read it on his website that I just cited. He was commenting on the destruction of monuments to St. Junipero Serra in California by people who knew nothing about who the man really was and what he did.

Tearing down or defacing an image of a person is a profoundly hopeless action. In effect it says: you are a sinner or nogoodnik beyond redemption – or whatever good you might have done is obliterated by your unpardonable sins. Mind you, I have no particular affection for statues or other images, but I do have a curiosity about the stories of these historical figures and would like to learn not only from their virtues, but also their vices. Don’t most all of us have a little of both?

A lot of the destruction of images and statues that we are witnessing is a manifestation of pent-up anger and frustration that I do not want to disparage as totally unjustified. While I cannot in conscience or responsible leadership advocate violence or destruction as a way of making progress, I can understand the desperation of those who might resort to it to get attention because perhaps nothing else does. If not all, many of us have had the temptation at times to just throw something or bang a wall with our fist — but this can hurt. At some point the noise and banging has to stop and people have to start talking to and listening to one another.

To repeat, none of this is new. You can do a little research and find numerous examples throughout the course of history in which angry uprisings have torn down and defaced various monuments – the iconoclasm of the eighth and ninth centuries, among Christians no less, or, more recently, the Maoist cultural revolution or the purgings of the Taliban. Ignorance of the past can lead us into thinking we are lost, tossed in this present storm of violence and destruction. But it’s old news … what happens when people get lost, losing their moorings by a detachment from the ground of life, the life of the living God.

People are starving spiritually and it shows. When people are hungry, they will devour anything, sometimes even one another! Spiritual starvation can actually become more horrific than the kind historians tell us about when we read of our tribal ancestors. We have a hunger to be loved and respected — and not mocked, stopped, searched or fingered by someone else’s power play over us through the stereotypical caste system they impose on us through the “isms” of racism, sexism, clericalism, intellectualism, ageism, etc. ad infinitum.

As I have been reflecting in my columns of late, I see the recent upheavals as much more than political or economic struggles that can be fixed by legislation or wealth transfers. It is more even than a crisis of culture. It has to do with what we are, or believe we are, as human beings. The notion that some people are better, superior, more worthy, more valuable than others because of what are “accidents” of birth – the race, ethnicity, nationality, economic state you and I are born into. One thing we know from our faith, God loves us all and does not deal with us differently because of these incidentals. Jesus is everyone’s Savior, we profess. But human dignity is also something the founders confessed as “self-evident” in the Declaration of Independence: ALL are created equal.

Yes, we hunger for that good news, that all are equal and loved by God. And the good news is not advanced in obliterating the past or its symbols, good and bad, but learning from them. Who does not learn from the past is doomed to repeat it, is an old aphorism that reminds us of the importance of not trying to whitewash or suppress the memory of the evils that humanity has done, even if it horrifies us and makes us very uncomfortable. Do we really want to forget what happened in the concentration camps and gulags of the 19th century under Hitler and Stalin? Or, for that matter, the excesses of the Crusades or the conquests of indigenous peoples on our own continent? 

If we look at the past and mementos of the past, however they may be replicated and portrayed by artists in images of stone or glass, or rendered in colored oils or water, we can observe them with a critical eye that looks beyond the object itself which is merely a tool for our imagination and conversation, not some talisman or totem that holds a magical spell over us. Even a religious image like that which depicts the Sacred Heart is not THE Sacred Heart. It has no power in itself unless the beholder believes in the real person behind the image.

The Good News is always new and will shed light on the past, the present and the future. When we see in God’s light, we see light (Ps. 36:9). And we find hope and promise, never despair or discouragement. The Good News is not only that “God is with us” (Emmanuel), but that we encounter God, or rather, God comes to us personally. God friends us. Believing that, owning that good news that we are friended by God makes each of us friends. That’s our natural state, the original created will of God, subverted in the Garden by the Ancient Foe. We are confronting today the same sin, the same conceit. We can fall for the lie, as our first parents did, or we can choose to accept God’s friendship, and walk with God together as friends.

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