Memorials to Racist Rebellion: No!

One of my most memorable places from the years I lived in Saint Louis, Missouri was Forest Park.  This expansive city park, larger than New York’s Central Park, was the site of the 1904 World’s Fair. Today, now is home to a wonderful art gallery, an expansive outdoor theater, cascading pools and fountains, and trails to walk and bike.  One Sunday, I took a long walk in the Park to explore parts I hadn’t visited.  Near the rugby field and cricket park I stopped dead in my tracks as I looked at the street sign.  There it was: Confederate Drive.  On this circle was a memorial to the Confederacy: a family sending a son off to war as a Confederate soldier.  I was speechless.

I knew that St. Louis had been the Midwestern hub for the slave trade.  The Missouri Botanical Garden is the former estate (plantation) of slave owner Henry Shaw.  His gardens were planted and tended by slaves.  While I knew the history of slavery in the United States and studied the Civil War in some depth, I found it difficult to accept that families encouraging their sons to be rebels to the United States would be memorialized.

Some of my colleagues at work were white people from Southern States.  I asked them about how they understood their families’ role in the Civil War.  I remember one colleague telling me about ancestors fighting for the Confederacy and their commitment and sacrifice.  It was clear that he admired them.  Perhaps sensing my discomfort he added, “Well, they were on the wrong side of history, but they were people to admire because they lived their values.”

In June 2017, the City of St. Louis removed this memorial from the park.  It was relocated to a Civil War museum.  I think that’s the right place for such memorials.  It’s too easy to forget history.  Further, people have a tendency to reinvent history to suit their perspectives.  While I value history, I don’t think history is served by maintaining public monuments to those who fought to divide our country.

Confederate memorials convey that there was something right about the Confederate cause.  Living in the South, I hear many traditional Southerners claim that the Civil War was fought for states’ rights and property rights and not slavery.  In fact, the state’s right and property right being fought for was the right to own slaves, to take another human being as property.  Historic document after historic document attests to this.  Slavery was at the root of secession and the cause of the Confederate rebellion against the United States.

While I hope that communities will come to decisions to remove memorials as did St. Louis and place them appropriately in museums, these memorials are deeply offensive to many people.  They are reminders not just of slavery, but that white people revolted against the federal government, committed acts of treason, and in the end, were simply given back their property. Yes, Lincoln’s successor, President Andrew Johnson from North Carolina gave those who committed treason against the United States their forfeited property if they simply took an oath of allegiance. It was these rebels who enshrined their values in memorials which are an affront to liberty and equality.

Some ask, “What about other monuments? Where will this end? What about the founding fathers who also owned slaves?” Indeed, slavery was part of the culture, which in itself is tragic.  But the founding fathers were not the ones who betrayed the United States to advance their own cause.  I find this objection disingenuous. In my mind, having monuments to Confederate heroes is akin to asking, “Why not have a monument honoring Timothy McVeigh?  He was willing to give his life for his ideals and was deeply committed to his cause.  Oh, yes:  he blew up the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, but his dedication to his values is part of our history and heritage!”  Clearly, there isn’t and won’t be a monument to Timothy McVeigh. Instead, there’s a memorial honoring those he killed.  The monuments we need from the Civil War are monuments to the heroic slaves who won freedom and to those who worked to support their new life.

I recognize that everyone in the United States benefited from slavery.  The US economy was built on it.  Further, the United States would not have become a global power if it had not been for the genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of African Americans.  That’s the history we need to remember.  It’s not a history to celebrate nor is it a history to which edifices should be built.  But it is a history that must be taught and lessons learned from it. The proper way to do that is through history classes and programs which convey the stories of the past in proper context as well as building museums which store the remnants of what was, both the positive moments of history and the terrible ones.  Without keeping the difficult moments of history before us, learning from them and understanding them, we will continue to be complacent in the face of the white supremacist movements that now confront us.


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© 2017, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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Creating Change: Toward a Better Society

I don’t remember the year, but the memory is very clear.  I’m guessing it happened in 1968 or 1969.  My classmates and I took a school field trip to Washington, D.C.  We visited the monuments and one or two of the Smithsonian Museum buildings. What stood out most was the encounter at the Capital.  As we made our way up the steps, at the top was a man sitting in a bamboo tiger cage.

The US war in Vietnam was being fought and demonstrations occurred throughout the country. Of course, demonstrations were a daily event in D.C. As I recall, the man in the tiger cage was on a hunger strike.  He was living out the experience of prisoners of war in Vietnam.

As we walked around the Capitol building, a demonstration began on the lawn below our vantage point.  People sang, “All we are saying is give peace a chance.”  They had signs and blew whistles.  A socio-drama was acted out with people playing the roles of airplanes bombing villages.  Demonstrations like this went on for years.  Finally, in April of 1975, Saigon fell and the US left Vietnam.

This was just one of the historic threads woven into my youth.  There were many others like the Civil Rights marches I watched on TV with my parents.  Walker Cronkite brought the events into our living room each evening at 6:30.  We were shocked by what we saw.  There was also the moon landing.  Sitting on the floor near the TV, I was wrapped in awe. How amazing what we, as a nation, had done.  Of course there was the development of computers. I remember using a kind of typewriter used to make key punch cards and then feeding them into a machine as big as my bathroom.  In my lifetime, computer technology grew much smaller, much more intuitive and became part of our phones, cars, and, well, most every device we use today.

I’m very much aware that these events have shaped the way I see the world.  I grew up in a world in which it was evident that social change was possible.  People made change happen. People brought about improvement for the good of society.  We dreamed dreams and aimed for the stars.  Yes, our dreams came true.  There was forward progress in society.

This belief in the ability to bring social change continued to be part of my life as an adult.  Around 1982, while working as a hospital chaplain, I met the first person I would know with AIDS. This encounter would lead me to begin organizations that provided services to people with AIDS and become an activist.  I worked for change.  I lobbied, demonstrated with ACT-UP, spoke on radio and TV, and did all that I could to change government policy, funding, medical treatment, and end social stigma.  I was part of the change that occurred despite the odds being stacked against us.

I recognize that others did not grow up in my era.  Younger people haven’t been inspired by activism that resulted in Civil Rights laws, the ending of a war, or turning a pandemic to a chronic illness.  For many people younger than me, this is all just history and is disconnected from life today.

Yet, we live in a time when social change is needed.  While the ways in which social change will occur may be somewhat different from the past with today’s advantage of social media and networking, the basic lesson is the same:  change occurs when enough people take a consistent stand to demand something different.  It’s not about one march, one phone call, one letter, but years of multi-dimensional advocacy.  Change does occur.

It’s my assessment that effective strategies for change are not born out of anger.  That’s the important lesson of the tradition of non-violent resistance rooted in Gandhi’s life and mirrored by Martin Luther King, Jr.  Rather than violence, consistency and resolve lead to change.  That’s because anger rises up, explodes, and is gone while leaving a trail of damage.  To be consistent in a non-violent response and resolved to see the change occur results in persistence that provides opportunities for actual change.

I believe that we all have a moral responsibility to work toward the common good for all people.  The common good likely means that people who are used to privilege and the benefits of the current social structure will see their privilege and benefits diminish..  It will be difficult for them to let go of these benefits. They will do all they can to stop change. That’s evident today.  But with persistence, change will occur and the outcome will be a society where people are valued for their humanity rather than for their social status.

Yes, I believe that social change is possible.  After all, it’s been part of my life.  In these troubled times, I am looking forward to see more positive change for the common good become a reality.


Photo credit: elycefeliz via / CC BY-NC-ND

© 2017, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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Up-Rooting the Cycle of Violence

I was stunned when I read the meme.  I found it mind boggling.  It read: “If Jesus had a gun, he’d still be alive today.”

I did a little research and found that the quote is originally from the Simpsons, the animated TV comedy show.  As I searched online about this statement, I found a range of merchandise with this saying.  It didn’t appear like those wearing the t-shirts, hats, and other items were joking. Instead, it seemed almost like a rallying cry among some groups of gun advocates.

While Jesus didn’t have a gun, the Gospel attributed to John conveys that when Jesus was arrested, Peter drew a sword and cut off the ear of a member of the crowd named Malchus.  Jesus told Peter to put the sword away.  In a similar passage from the Gospel attributed to Matthew, Jesus says, “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.”  Guns or no guns, Jesus was clear:  violence was not compatible with his way of life.

It’s not my intention to write about gun control or gun rights.  Instead, seeing the meme caused me to think more about violence in society.  I understood the meme as conveying a defensive posture that is fundamentally aggressive:  if someone comes at you, then shoot.  Plan for it.  Don’t let them mess with you.

To understand violence in the world, I think we need to look deeper than issues in the United States related to gun ownership and consider our own values and outlook on life.  For example, the rate of gun ownership in Canada is higher than in the United States, but the levels of violence are quite low.   In other words, the problem of violence is not whether or not one has a gun.  Nor is the problem of violence whether or not one actually shoots another person.  Rather, it is the defensive posture that leads to aggression, which sets the context for violence.  This defensive posture is often rooted in fear of the other and a belief that one needs to protect oneself from the other. This, I suggest, is the foundation for the conviction that we need to get the other person before the other person gets us.  This conviction is what drives the senseless violence we see in the world, ranging in scale from an accidental shooting at home to multigenerational violence in places like the Middle East or Central Asia.

As with most problems, our tendency is to view the problem as something that’s wrong with another person.  We blame gang members, police, terrorist, dictators, and people we label as crazy for the problem of violence in society.  To this end, we view the problem of violence in society as a problem caused by somebody else.  Instead, I believe that the truth is that violence resides in each of us. It’s as though we are poised to respond violently.

Violence often begins as a feeling.  We want to fight back.  We want to stop the other, correct the other, and impose our way on others.  Violence erupts when drivers cut us off.  We want to make sure they know they did wrong, so we honk the horn, yell, and salute with a middle finger.   Violence erupts when an employee at the drive-thru doesn’t provide enough ketchup for our fries, when the clerk askes that a form be filled out another time, or when someone blocks our way in the aisle of the grocery.  Yes, we’re angry.  But more than anger, we want to lash out.  We want the other to feel the frustration we feel. We want to hurt the other who inconvenienced us by erupting with raw emotion.

Wanting to hurt the other, to make the other feel what we feel, is an essential part of the cycle of violence.  Often, this cycle begins because we ourselves have been treated violently in life, even if in some smaller way. Not being able to express the hurt, it builds over time. It builds and is released on another.  It is this cycle of violence has led to senseless harm around the world.

How does the cycle end?  Simply, when we decide to end the cycle of violence in our own lives, then the cycle of violence begins to end. The best way that I know to end the cycle of violence in our lives is to admit that it is present.  Then, in order to root it out, we can use deep practices like meditation.  In meditation, we delve deeply into our inner experience where the root of fear, defensiveness, and violence resides.  In meditation, when we hold our very selves with compassion, these darker aspects of our lives begin to melt away.  That is how we learn to view others with compassion rather than as aggressors from whom we need protection.

Yes, in the end, the cycle of violence isn’t about extremists, gang members, police, or anyone else. It’s about ourselves.  To end the cycle of violence requires that we heal the violence in ourselves with compassion.  Bringing change to a violent world requires that the change begin in each one of us.

© 2017, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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