"Remember the past and be blind in one eye. Forget the past and be blind in both eyes" - Russian proverb.
At the top of a mountain in Norway is a cairn with an iron plaque on it. Described in the guidebook as being of "cultural historical interest," it reads (loosely translated): "This cairn....welcomes each true Norwegian, who loves their people and their Fatherland, and witnesses that this land is ours alone, and wishes all foreign interference away" (The Norwegian word for "interference" could also be translated, "intermixing").
In the current climate of far-right extremism and neo-Nazism in Europe and America (even in such an otherwise friendly, welcoming and multicultural country as Norway), you could be forgiven for thinking that this plaque was telling all the foreign tourists who read this plaque to get back on the boat and clear off home. As a half-Norwegian, half-Brit, I found this particularly amusing.
If this plaque was on top of a mountain in the UK, would there already be cries to tear it down or replace it with a more inclusive message? There have been similar demands for the removal of statues celebrating "heroes" of British Colonialism.
The problem with this regarding the Norwegian plaque is that it dates from 1893, the time of the Union between Norway and Sweden. Rather than a Nazi call for racial purity, it's a plea for national independence and sovereignty. Granted, it's from a time of rising nationalism, and nationalism can always take on an extreme, hostile and xenophobic nature, but a plaque from a people who basically feel they're being occupied by a foreign power doesn't necessarily mean it's promoting racial hatred.
Understanding this plaque in its proper context demands a well-developed sense of history. It requires a little research, a quick browsing of a few Wikipedia pages, and it means that we can't just import all of the current social and political problems into something from our past.
I'll admit that some of the statues that cause such debate celebrate politicians and people with a mixed personal history, to say the least. For all that certain people may have helped to make Britain "Great", they were involved in the domination and oppression of native peoples. For all that might be celebrated about them, there's much about which we should be ashamed.
I'm sure there are some statues which could be replaced. I'm sure there are some where alternative statutes or plaques could be raised to give a little context, or remind us of these "heroes'" feet of clay, but each of us needs to make sure we develop a strong sense of history. I worry that some of the demands to remove every symbol and sign of our colonial past will only serve to help us forget - and to judge thoughtlessly the people of a bygone age by values that were alien to them.
This is equally true when it comes to the Christian Church. There are certain periods of history we would rather we could forget - think of the Crusades; think of the historical oppression and violence towards Jewish people; think of the violence of the Reformation, and the Wars of Religion which followed it; think of the acceptance and justification of African Slavery by many Christians; think of the abuses of indigenous people that accompanied some missionary work; think of the German Church's acceptance of the Nazis; think of the South African Church's acceptance of Apartheid - There's a lot to regret, and these are just a few things off the top of my head.
It's a very true saying that, "Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it."
We need to develop a strong sense of history - a strong sense of national history, with all the mistakes and failures as well as the successes - and a strong sense of Church History. Sometimes, we can learn from the things our ancestors got right - and sometimes we can learn from what they did wrong. Hindsight can be a wonderful thing - where we're able to trace through history the results of certain actions, trends and decisions.
Make sure you know a little of the context, and before you're too quick to pass judgment, try to recognize why people in the past thought and acted as they did. We might not be able to excuse them, but we can at least attempt to understand them. Remember that we too, are living in a period of history, and will be judged for our own mistakes.
As Jesus said, "Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you." (Matthew 7:1-2)
Perhaps the statues we put up today will face the same angry cries to be torn down in 100 years' time? Perhaps the political decisions that meet with so much approval will prove to be mistakes which our descendants will curse us for? Perhaps changes we bring about in our churches will prove to be disastrous?
Every generation has been certain they're the wisest and most enlightened ever to have been born. Let's be a little chronologically humble, and develop a wise sense of history.