On Images

Statues are falling all around the world.

One byproduct of the rise of Black Lives Matter is an aggressive assault against images that represent repression. Former slave owners whose statues stood tall and proud in plazas and universities suddenly found themselves attacked, brutalized, vandalized and, at times, violently removed from their pedestals and unceremoniously dumped. The statue of King Leopold of Belgium has seen the same treatment. Then there’s St. Junipero Serra in San Francisco, USA. There are those who find these actions unacceptable, criminal; however, there are those who find the same necessary. The removal is seen as a way of correcting the social injustices made possible by these great men of history.

Of course, there are those who see this assault as an attempt at whitewashing the past. Choosing as it were to highlight the negative over the good he has done. However, history today may be seen as whitewashing the past: highlighting only the good and pooh-poohing the negative. Slavery? Why focus on that? This man gave much of his wealth to support education, culture and society! Focus on that. Never mind that his wealth came from slavery and all the misery it brought to the unfortunate victims. Better they say to see them simply as great men rather than mere mortals like us. Is this wise?

There are those who say we should be forgiving because these people were living at a different time when slavery was not seen as the evil it is now. But isn’t that the heart of the problem itself? It is that way of thinking that justified generational racism that lives to this day. Why shouldn’t we see them in a new light when we are supposed to be more enlightened? Shouldn’t we precisely condemn their wrongs so we can truly determine who is in fact a “great man”?

And this applies equally to our saints. We all know that saints are mortals who rose above themselves to be shining examples for the rest of us. Kings, soldiers, mothers, nuns, priests, good-for-nothings and ordinary people become saints but there are those whose lives are more controversial than others. The case of St. Junipero Serra in San Francisco in California, USA, is one such case. A missionary, he is known to have saved native Americans but he is also seen as part of certain abuses that came with the mission life in California. Of course, the Catholic Church defends the saint but that is no different from, say, Oxford University defending the statue of the imperialist Cecil Rhodes for the longest time, and although a decision has recently been made to have the same removed, it appears that it will stay for at least another year until a commission has come up with a decision. The fact remains that, regardless of whatever else they may have done for society, there are still those who will view both St. Serra and Mr. Rhodes as instrumental to a period of oppression. I do not think the Church should ask for an exemption just because this man was a saint. The fact remains that there is a portion of society that sees him differently, and the Church should also take that into consideration. If need be, then we can move his statues into churches and chapels where he is better appreciated than in public where some may be offended in the same way statues of “great men” are moved to museums where a better understanding of their part in history may be appreciated by all. People may better appreciate their contribution when it is properly presented in its context that must also accept the bad with the good.

We are all human after all, and while we all strive to do good, we can be just as bad at times. I think that this is all part of our continuing enlightenment. Whatever injustice we may fight against, there is always something that may not be too flattering in ourselves. One can rage against slavery the most common form of which is the enslavement of Africans but it should be understood that the industry was not exclusively ran by whites. There were Arabs and Africans who were complicit in the slave trade. And various civilizations had their own versions of slavery. The Philippines had its alipin. Slaves. Let us, therefore, not be self-righteous. North to South and East to West, we all have something to answer for when it comes to oppression and slavery. We are — everyone of us — a Cecile Rhodes, King Leopold, and St. Junipero Serra. We must tear down, vandalize and correct that which is wrong in us. They are us.