I had planned to have this read for me on Saturday at the rally to preserve the Columbus statue on Wooster Square in New Haven. But it turns out New Haven may tear the statue down over night, or early tomorrow morning, to make the rally moot. Event organizers have given me permission to publish it before hand.
The Roman orator Cicero once said that a commonwealth, a republic, is not just a collection of people joined by geography. A republic, a res publico, or public thing, is a group bound together by common interests and a common conception of right.
Are we a republic any longer?
We’re here today to voice opposition to removing a statue of Christopher Columbus from a public space. We’re here to say that the history we were taught, which became part of our ethos, our character, is not a vulgar lie, or the product of some vile conspiracy. America is an ideal, a series of commitments, transplanted to these shores and then husbanded over centuries. Tearing up pieces of the history doesn’t make us stronger; it diminishes us.
We are not here to defend Christopher Columbus. He was a great explorer who shares the tragic marks of all whose ideals come hard against reality. You can find fault with Columbus without defiling his memory. You can love American and acknowledge both its shortcomings and the work that needs doing to make a more perfect union.
The same can be said of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt.
The same can also be said of Booker T. Washington, Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas and Martin Luther King.
There was a time when everyone understood St. Paul: “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” That is original sin, a part of the human condition that only can be overcome by grace.
Much is said these days about America’s “original sin,” the sin of slavery, transported here in 1619 when Africa sold her own children into a bondage perpetuated on these shores. We fought a civil war to eliminate slavery as a legal institution. It took decades of struggle to end the tragic legacy of Jim Crow. In the 1960s, federal civil rights legislation sought to level the playing field in terms of housing, employment and voting.
We’ve come a long way toward fulfilling the American dream.
We have a long way to go.
But what species of pride, of arrogance, justifies tearing down monuments, and attempting to rewrite our history? It’s a long leap from problems with policing to destroying our common heritage. We can’t redeem ourselves, that is the teaching of original sin. Recall, all have sinned.
What sins are you prepared to commit today in the name of your brand of righteousness? What idolatry justifies making today’s rage the prism through which all of history must be viewed?
“This land is your land; this land is my land; from California to the New York island,” wrote Woody Guthrie.
We’re here today in a spirit of hope and promise.
Protest, rage, demand change, but don’t for a moment think you’re alone on history’s stage, and that you have a monopoly on righteousness. That way lies danger, even destruction, history teaches.
We, too, have grievances and claims worth making.