Traditions, Tombs and Tomes

There’s a great ongoing debate on the value and propriety of preserving selective manmade reminders of our national heritage. In a diverse society such as our own, there are bound to be some major differences of opinion on this subject – so whose opinion should win out? Should the offended segment of our society always rule the day – in the name of assuring total peace and harmony within our ranks? I’m convinced that every statue, monument or symbol that instills pride in one segment of society is going to be hurtful and distasteful to another segment. Some argue that there is intrinsic value in the preservation of every tradition, tomb and tome – if for no other reason than to learn from mankind’s past – both the good and the evil.

This is not a new debate confined to American history. It’s one that’s been going on from time immemorial. But the practice of seeking out and preserving the relics of by-gone eras that provide us with snapshots of where we have come from as a species, is actually fairly new in earth-time. In fact, the father of archaeological excavation was William Cunnington (1754–1810). In ancient times it was common practice for a conquering people to destroy all religious and political symbols of the conquered – so as to demoralize and control them. Also, in past centuries, the primary concern was survival, not intellectual understanding or moral maturity – so historical markers were often destroyed – new civilizations were built on top of older decaying ones, re-using whatever retrieved materials could be salvaged for the new construction.

Even in modern times a former American President seemed to discount the importance of the symbols of our heritage. In the heat of his first campaign, he constantly criticized his opponent’s supporters as “bitter clingers.” He saw them as stubbornly clinging to their traditions, clinging to their patriotism, clinging to the symbols that adorn their public buildings, monuments and money, clinging to the Constitution and the rule of law, clinging to their Christian faith and its demands on their private and public lives, and clinging to the principle of American exceptionalism which justifies every person’s right to life, liberty and happiness.

While it may seem that this characteristic of “clinging” to our traditions and our past is more typical of modern social and religious conservatives, I believe that it’s innate to every culture to search out the relics, objects and symbols of by-gone eras that define humanity’s history. A desire to understand and retain a part of one’s past does not presume adherence to or agreement with the creed represented by the objects our predecessors created. That’s why even non-believing explorers enter remote and dangerous terrain, from ice-covered Mount Ararat to the arid deserts and militarized zones of the Middle East, Africa and Asia seeking the “lost” articles referenced in ancient “Sacred” documents. That’s why societies build churches, temples and shrines over the supposed sites of significance, like the grave of Christ, or where Jacob wrestled with the Angel of the Lord or where Mohammed received a message from his god. That’s why some encapsulate and venerate artifacts and relics of supposed holy men and women and why artists of every era and culture have sculptured marble statues of their “saints” and enshrined them within their local worship centers or captured their likenesses in paintings and in stained glass. And that’s why even those humans less “spiritual” over the ages have bonded with and sought to honor their nationalistic and ethnic heroes by erecting museums and statues and set aside monuments and battle sites for future generations to study and appreciate those who came before them and their values and belief systems.

But every age also has some misguided souls who, in the name of political or social or religious correctness attempt to erase from history the evidence of our past. Fortunately most of the world stands up and puts a damper on such destructive efforts when they occur. At the beginning of the new Millennium the world was outraged when the Taliban (Islamic fundamentalists) blew up two giant 1700 year-old statues of Buddha at the foot of the Hindu Kush mountains of central Afghanistan and destroyed all Buddha statues in the Kabul Museum. And fourteen years later there was similar outrage when the Islamic State began to destroy and steal much of the cultural heritage of Iraq, Syria, and Libya, including Christian, Hindu and other places of worship and historical artifacts. And when in “civilized” North America, a PC culture at the highest levels of government, educational institutions and the media sought to erase all memory of many of the early explorers of the New World, of others who tamed the West, and of course, the leaders of the former Confederacy, men and women on both sides of the political spectrum rose up to limit the damage that others sought to impose. Mankind as a species seems to understand that preservation of its history in no way constitutes universal agreement with our ancestors’ politics, mores or religions.

Since at least the 18th Century, some of the most influential people of their time have taken pride in and used their personal and governmental resources to preserve these memories for future generations. While it may be human nature to value and protect a civilization’s traditions, tombs and tomes – is it always appropriate? Traditions, symbols, places where historical events occurred, articles used in those events, and written discussions of the same, all take their value from the object of their focus

As a Christian, my first instinct is to search God’s written Word for guidance on this topic.  And I find that God’s people were encouraged, sometimes even directed to memorialize events that typified His divine intervention in their world. Moses and his sister memorialized in song God’s defense of the Israelites at the crossing of the Red Sea. Forty years later when their children crossed the Jordon on dry ground opposite Jericho, Joshua directed each of the leaders of the twelve tribes to carry a large stone from the middle of the Jordon, and to transport a corresponding 12 large stones from the Promised Land and pile them in the middle of the crossing point as a memorial to God’s power and faithfulness to His promises. Samuel, Jacob, and other men of God established pillars and anointed them as reminders of situations in which God intervened on behalf of His people. Furthermore, God sanctioned the celebration of festivals and various accompanying traditions as constant reminders of His work in His people’s lives. And of course the celebration of communion was established by the Son of God to be performed frequently by His people in remembrance of our Lord’s shed Body and Blood for their salvation.

I’m convinced though that some evidence of past Truth is lost or hidden forever – specifically to test mankind’s willingness to accept and believe in God’s love, grace and mercy toward His primary creation. I appreciate the efforts that so many archaeologists of every faith put into a constant search for such “lost” evidence of God’s intervention in men’s lives, or in trying to prove what may be unprovable. But I wonder if the discovery of Noah’s ark or other such sought after relics of history would actually advance Judeo-Christianity in the eyes of the world, or lead souls into the Kingdom of God. I think the Bible is clear that memorials sanctioned by The Almighty are intended to increase the faith of the People of God, not to draw unbelievers into the Kingdom.

In one of our Lord’s stories, Jesus told of an unrighteous rich man who found himself in an after-life of torment in Hades. Realizing he could no longer change his own plight, he sought to save his living brothers from a similar destiny. He begged Father Abraham to send Lazarus back from Paradise to warn his brothers. The Patriarch explained that the rich man’s living brothers had the writings of Moses and the Prophets; that if they didn’t pay attention to the sacred words, not even a person sent back from the dead would be sufficient to convince them to change their lifestyles. We see this principle demonstrated in the last hours of Jesus’ life, as the very people who had witnessed miracle after miracle performed by Jesus, still joined in the chant “crucify Him.” If a witnessed miracle does not change a hardened heart, neither will any statue or monument or church building or relic of a saint.

No! Traditions, Tombs and Tomes don’t “prove” anything to the man or woman who has no interest in pursuing and knowing Truth – whether that’s religious truth, social justice truth, or whatever. Still, all memorabilia have some value to both the adherent of the principles that it represents and to all who seek to understand his/her past. On the other hand spiritual memorabilia are specifically for the comfort of the believer and follower – to provide a firm foundation, to cement their confidence and to provide that assurance of the revelation they’ve already received and in the One they already Love and in Whom they already have expressed their faith.