VI. Public Memory: Storied Ancestors in Rome and Confederate Statues
by The Rev. Daniel P Strandlund | August 6, 2020We are storied and storytelling creatures. When we get to know somebody, we learn their story: how did they come to be here, now, this particular person standing before us? How they tell their story is fundamental to who they are. Is the main character of this story a hero, a victim, a survivor, a romantic, a wise fool?
There’s an important distinction at work here: a biographical account is not the same thing as a story. To get to know a person, we want story, not biography (though to be fair to biographers, this distinction is simplistic). The person standing before me has a past, but her identity is not the inevitable conclusion of her past events and relationships. Instead, who she is here and now—her identity, the person with whom I’m having a conversation—is the story she tells about that past.
When I narrate the story of my life, I leave things out, emphasize other things, and take a particular perspective. All of this is part of who I am. My story is not objective; nor is it morally neutral. I should not expect it to be. I exhibit a certain character, certain foibles and pleasures and capacities and biases. My story is not simply a collection of historical facts. A collection of facts is incapable of real change; it can only add more facts. But someone living a story can change, love, repent, share the same memories in a new way.
This is fundamental to the Christian life: when we experience God’s forgiveness, for example, it is not simply that a new event is added to the others, but that our fundamental understanding of our entire past changes. The story changes from, “Oh my God, what have I done?” to maybe something like, “If I had never made such a bad mistake, I never would’ve found God.”
What is true of individuals is no less true of communities. To get to know a community, we do not simply need to learn a series of events, but how the community narrates that series of events. What details are included or excluded? Which perspective does the story come from? Who are the community’s heroes, and why are they remembered as such?
The same distinction between biography and story is at work here. For a community, we might better use words like history and public memory. Just as getting to know an individual means hearing her story and not simply learning a biographical account, getting to know a community means not simply learning the historical events behind a place, but understanding its public memory of itself. To belong to that community means embracing that public memory as our own: belonging means being able to say to some extent, “the story of this place is also my story.”
Ancient Rome was masterful at controlling public memory, particularly in the imperial capital. One way Rome told its story, its ‘public memory’ of itself, was through architecture and sculpture, especially statues. As noted a couple weeks ago, a major example was the forum built by Caesar Augustus a couple generations before Paul wrote his letter to the Romans. Caesar Augustus built his forum to commemorate his rule, the ‘Roman Peace’ (or Pax Romana), and Rome’s hegemony in the known world.
The forum of Augustus included two significant pieces of public memory: a temple to Mars and a series of statues of Caesar Augustus and his ancestors. Mars was the Roman god of war, and by including a temple to Mars in the forum, Caesar Augustus called attention not only to the importance of war for Rome’s identity and power, but to the divine favor (of Mars) that must be perpetuating Rome’s power. “We are who we are because of war, and because of Mars’ divine favor.”
The statues of Caesar Augustus and his ancestors are even more telling. In the forum of Augustus, there was a big statue of him wearing armor and looking powerfully serene. Nearby was a line of statues depicting Caesar’s ancestors going all the way back to a mythical figure named Aeneas. Aeneas was Rome’s legendary founding father. Oh, and by the way, Aeneas’ mom was also a goddess: Venus, who had a statue near Caesar’s. For Rome, Aeneas was sort of like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and every pilgrim aboard the Mayflower all rolled up into one.
We might articulate Rome’s public memory like this: “Rome is divinely favored to rule and conquer. We know that because our founder Aeneas was the son of a god, and Caesar is his descendant. In accepting Caesar’s lordship, you are accepting divine favor and praising the gods! Because Rome is divinely favored, as our empire spreads, so does justice.” The key intermediary figures between the gods and the citizens of Rome in Paul’s day are Aeneas and Caesar.
As you can imagine, the statues depicting these figures were strong, noble, and grand. There are surely other characteristics of Caesar, but these were not foregrounded. Just as anyone telling a story tells that story selectively, the statue of Caesar Augustus tells the story of Rome selectively: there is strength, nobility, and greatness, but the arrogance and autocratic violence are left out, regardless of whether those would also be historical. Again, a public statue like Caesar’s is about public memory, not history.
If you are a Jew living in Rome, or a slave captured in one of Rome’s many wars and forced into servitude in the imperial capital, then this public memory is not your memory: you see the grand nobility of the statue, but your people’s memory is of Caesar’s blasphemy, idolatry, and violence. Rome’s story is not your story; there’s no room for you in it. In Rome’s story, Caesar’s victories are divinely ordained and bring about justice. In the story of Judeans like you, however, Caesar’s victories are oppression and bring suffering. Aeneas is not your legendary ancestor, nor is Caesar your triumphant lord. All those statues and temples in the forum of Augustus offer a public memory that actively excludes you and that you cannot embrace.
You are an alien in the very city in which you sleep and eat and raise your children.
Paul offers the Roman believers an alternative. He offers a new kind of community identity in the form of a different ‘public memory,’ one without the hierarchies created and enforced by Roman swords and coinage. In this new story, this new public memory, the legendary ancestor is not Aeneas, but Abraham, and the triumphant Lord is not Caesar but Jesus Christ. In this triumphant Lord Jesus, all people of faith are made Abraham’s descendants, not through the false justice of the Roman sword but through the justice of faithful obedience in Christ. The key intermediary figures between God and the Roman Christians are Abraham and Jesus.
For us, looking back on the public memory practices of Rome as compared to the approach of Paul in Romans is, morally speaking, pretty straightforward: Roman Empire is bad, Church is good! But the fact that Rome erected statues as a way of communicating public memory is better described as morally neutral. We all need a sense of belonging to something bigger and more longstanding than we are, a kind of anchor in history that exceeds our own lives. We want to be able to say, “The story of this people and this place is also my story.” There’s no reason a statue or monument can’t be the focal point of this public belonging.
The sense of belonging is key. When a community erects a statue or monument, we are not concerning ourselves primarily with historical facts because facts do not create belonging; the shared experience of human hearts creates belonging. Thus, in erecting monuments to figures or events of the past, we are celebrating, mourning, or maybe repenting. We are saying, “Who we are is a people who celebrates/mourns/repents of this part of our past.” Again, we are telling a story.
Thus, figures we celebrate are usually portrayed with nobility. Generals on horseback, imposing judges in robes, the grand strength of Caesar Augustus flanked by the gods. Figures we mourn may also be depicted that way—they recall a bygone era we still aspire to, for example. When the story is one of anguish or of repentance, like many Civil Rights monuments in Alabama are, for example, monuments can be disturbing to see. Why? Because we’re not supposed to want this; we are reminded of cruelty we should reject and want to reject. Who we are today is a people who are no longer that.
In the midst of our current controversies over Confederate monuments, what can we learn from this? First, the distinction between history and public memory allows for communities to change in regards to how they understand themselves and their past. Individual persons change through time, and as we change, the story we tell about ourselves also changes. This is reflected in the pictures on our desks and the posters on our walls: we don’t value the same things in the same way for our whole lives. Likewise, a community must be allowed to change, and we should allow the monuments and statues in its parks and public squares to change, too. To cast this in a theological light: Pilate’s soldiers, traditionally minded Israelites, and Paul’s churches in the Mediterranean world would all agree on the history that ‘Jesus was crucified.’ But their public memory would vary widely: only one of those groups would erect a stone cross commemorating Jesus.
Second, as we saw with the example of Caesar Augustus’s statue in the forum, a community’s public memory can be so one-sided that it alienates many of the very folks who live there. Rome’s public memory of divinely favored victory and justice is, to the Jewish slaves and their descendants, a perpetual reminder of suffering and oppression. Jewish folks living in Rome were not just seeing a statue of an oppressor; they were seeing their oppressor celebrated, as evidenced by the statue’s nobility and close physical proximity to Rome’s religious architecture. Likewise, when our cities display monuments to Confederate leaders portrayed nobly and prominently in town squares and parks, we have to ask if we are publicly celebrating or mourning our neighbor’s oppressor.
A word of caution is necessary here, particularly in an environment as divided as ours. None of us belongs to only one community: none of us is only black or only white, only Texan or only American. We belong to different groups simultaneously. For Christians, we are always residents of a particular city, state and country, and are also members of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.
Because of this complexity, movements seeking to reshape public memory cannot presume uncritically or unilaterally to apply the same principles in the same way everywhere. What is life-giving in one community is not necessarily so in another. Without this caution, any movement, however virtuous in its genesis and stated values, risks becoming an ideological empire of its own. For example, Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez recently suggested that a statue of St. Damien of Molokai in the U.S. Capitol might be better replaced by a statue of a native Hawaiian. This is certainly possible, and there are worthy principles that might give rise to such a suggestion. However, surely the public memory of native Hawaiians is theirs to tell. If native Hawaiians choose to embrace a Roman Catholic saint who dedicated his life to caring for lepers, we can hardly blame them.
Finally, and most important, if we take our cue from Paul, then the figures we hold up as focal points for our public memory should be ones whose significance increases belonging. Paul’s choice of Abraham is not accidental. Remember, one of the pastoral issues Paul is addressing in his letter to the Romans is conflict between Jewish-Christians and Gentile-Christians. In choosing Abraham as the storied ancestor, Paul chooses a figure of fundamental importance to Israelites: the patriarch by whom God begins to set apart a people for Himself. The Israelites believed God’s call to Abraham was a call for the patriarch to leave Gentile idolatry behind. Abraham would also therefore resonate as a storied ancestor for Gentiles joining the Church, believers who would be quite literally leaving idolatry behind. Furthermore, in Abraham, Paul chooses a figure whose life predates the giving of the Law, the keeping of which was a point of contention for Christians in Rome.
We see, then, how Paul creates a sense of belonging for the whole Roman church by resituating their diverse experiences into a shared public memory focused on Abraham. The ancestral Abraham anchors the Roman believers in a shared past, thereby providing a foundation on which they can constructed a shared present. Through Abraham, their histories are retold as a shared story. Thus, the diverse believers of the Roman church are better able understand themselves as one people.
As communities cross our country continue to raise monuments and to tear others down, we could do worse than follow Paul’s example as we discern whom and what to celebrate, mourn, and repent of.
Thank you for reading.