by Pastor Doug Kings
“The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.” It’s one of the most famous lines of William Faulkner. I suspect the quotation is famous because its truth is so obvious, playing out regularly in world news stories and our personal lives. The latest outbreak of violence and suffering in the Middle East is just one of countless examples.
As we prepare to return to New Mexico, I have been paying closer attention to the news of Santa Fe, the state capital, where we will be living. Doing so, I have been reminded again that New Mexico’s past is neither dead nor past. It is deep and visible wherever you look.
Recently, fossilized footprints discovered in White Sands National Park have been declared to be the oldest in the Americas, dating back over 20,000 years, much later than previous estimates of human presence in the Western Hemisphere. Plant and animal fossils millions of years old are regularly discovered across the state and extinct volcanoes dot the landscape. We walk our dogs in dry stream beds called arroyos. It’s easy to take them for granted until you ponder how their ocean sand bottoms came to be 7,000 feet above sea level.
The arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century began a long and often violent struggle between Europeans and their descendants and the region’s indigenous populations. Today New Mexico has the country’s largest Indian population, comprised of dozens of tribes. The Navajo/Diné is the largest tribe in the US and its reservation, straddling the New Mexico/Arizona border, is the size of Connecticut.
That the native peoples have survived and retained their identities and cultures is almost a miracle, given the centuries of attempts to wipe them out or force them to assimilate. Their stories are now better known and respected. But those stories often conflict with the stories of other people in the state and resolving that conflict is no easy task.
Like the Civil War statues of the South, Santa Fe has had its share of statues celebrated by some and offensive to others. Many honor the Spanish conquistadors who settled the region but also had native blood on their hands. Others honored those who participated in the 19th century Indian wars. Gradually these monuments are being moved or removed, but it’s not a clean operation.
Two weeks ago, a removed conquistador statue was about to be reset in a “safer” location in a neighboring county. It was, in fact, obvious pandering by local politicians. The planned rededication ceremony was called off due to feared violence, but it happened anyway. Shots rang out and a protestor was seriously wounded.
A few weeks earlier, a statue of Kit Carson in front of Santa Fe’s federal building was torn down during the night. This despite a wall of plywood erected in 2020 to protect it from vandalism. Carson was instrumental in the forced, disastrous relocation of Navajo known as the Long Walk.
The plywood had gone up after another Santa Fe statue, an obelisk on the city’s plaza commemorating New Mexico’s war dead, had been pulled down by protestors. On the base (now also encased in plywood) had been a sentence honoring those who fought local “savages.” It had been chiseled out earlier but was obviously still remembered.
The obelisks’ high visibility in Santa Fe’s center (seen by countless tourists) led to a three-year debate about how or whether to return or replace it. A few days ago, a local columnist declared that the recent shooting showed it just can’t be done. According to Phil Causas, writing in the Santa Fe New Mexican:
In 21st century America, 19th century monuments are the equivalent of road rage, standing still…. The damn things bring out the worst of New Mexico, a state with far too much anger, far too many guns — and evidently, far too little sense…. It’s why the Santa Fe City Council and [Mayor] Webber should quit dawdling about what’s next for the Plaza. There is no next for the Plaza…. Simply admit the wood-encased stump of the obelisk is an eyesore — or more accurately, an ugly tattoo. Remove it, plant a few perennials, and move on.
“The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.” The past is preserved in the stories we tell about it. But stories are never just a recitation of “facts.” They always have a purpose, usually lifting some things up and putting other things down. Stories are usually told within a community: a family, tribe, ethnic group, nation, religion. They often help bond members of a community together.
But what happens when those stories—sometimes memorialized in statues—disparage other groups, or are at least dishonest about them? In our shrinking world, where formerly separate groups must now live and work together, it’s nothing good. How can we honor our past yet, at the same time, be honest about it?
We begin by acknowledging that our ancestors, including our heroes, all had clay feet, an image from of Daniel, chapter 2. As Paul reminds us, “All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory.” Everyone makes mistakes, has their faults, has their prejudices, even as they do great things. Southerners can honor the courage and sacrifice of their Civil War ancestors but still admit “the cause” was horribly flawed. We can honor the stamina and determination of European settlers but still admit colonialism stole native lands and, directly or indirectly, killed millions of the “new world’s” indigenous people.
The ability to do that begins with our willingness to recognize our own conflicted selves. We may want to live in a black-and-white world of good guys and bad guys. Looking within ourselves, however, quickly dispels such a fantasy. But the even bigger fantasy is the past itself. As Eckhart Tolle says (our current book group author), the past does not really exist. It’s all in our heads. Our memory is just thoughts, and highly selective ones, at that. And Tolle is echoing generations of spiritual teachers.
The only reality is here and now. Honor the events and heroes of the past but it’s our life now that matters. We can’t let stories of the past obstruct relationships with people we live with now. As Paul tells the Philippians, “Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others.”
Can a statue honestly represent our heroes’ checkered past? Probably not. In that case, planting “a few perennials,” as Causas suggests, may be the wise and loving thing to do. We need to find what together we can honor and celebrate, and a nice garden may be just the trick.
Blessings in your life and ministry.