Monday, September 14, 2009

Who's on First

While mucking around in my files of undergraduate papers today, I found a reflection I'd written for a course I took on Oberlin College's memorial arch (which structure commemorates the Oberlin missionaries killed during the Boxer Rebellion).
I actually ended up hopping between two of the arch's columns, rather than walking through it, as I said I'd do here. But I rather liked what I'd written:

(Rebecca Levi, 2007)

I’m walking through the arch.

I should state up-front that this isn’t at all to discount its deeply problematic nature. And I do, despite all my talk about the complicated nature of the issue and my disdain for symbolic gesture in favor of action, find it problematic. While I believe that the Oberlin Band had none but charitable intentions, I also believe that missionary work is at its core a fundamentally destructive enterprise, and cannot, by its very nature, ever completely free itself from its associations with racism and cultural triumphalism. Additionally, there’s no denying that, well-intentioned as the Oberlin missionaries may have been, that their very presence in the Shanxi Province of China directly rode the coattails of Western Imperialism. And the exclusion of the scores of Chinese people also killed in the Boxer Rebellion—even those directly connected with the Oberlin mission—is inexcusable. The addition of the plaques is too little, too late. In this sense the arch is at worst a paean to cultural Imperialism, and at best a monument to liberal naiveté.

So my decision to walk through the arch is not a dismissal of the concerns raised by King’s (then-college president Henry Churchill King, who commissioned the arch) folly. On the contrary, it is a shouldering of their burden. After all, I am heir and subscriber to that same liberal mindset of the Oberlin Band, that mindset that says that one can go out into the world and make it better for one’s having cared enough to act; that mindset that led to our late, lamented motto: “Think one person can change the world? So do we.” Since 1900, our understanding of just what it is that changes the world for the better has evolved, but the belief that we can and must be the agents of that change, I think, endures. With the desire to change the world must come the willingness to examine all the consequences of (and the motivations behind) the change we wish to effect. When I walk through the arch this May, it will warn me of the price of not fully and objectively examining one’s aims.

And a word about the structure itself. When it was built, and even years after that, it may well have been what I characterized it as earlier, “at worst a paean to cultural Imperialism, and at best a monument to liberal naiveté.” But that was a century ago. Since then the arch has generated years worth of controversy and dialogue. Can the reaction to a symbol change the meaning of that symbol? I believe it can. Ironically, one reason I have decided to walk through it is that so many people
have walked around.

Two summers ago I visited Israel for the first time in my life. When I found myself at the Kotel—the Western Wall, the last remnant of the Jerusalem Temple, and the holiest site in Judaism—I realized I didn’t quite know what to make of it.The wall represented the last gasp of the Temple cult, whose demise marked Judaism’s shift from a hierarchal, priestly creed to a religion based on study, knowledge, and disputation—in my opinion, the best thing that ever happened to it. So I wondered why I should be praying at a structure that represented longing for a past that was better left in the recesses of history—where we came from, but where we were surely far beyond.

Then I saw the branches growing out of the cracks in it, and a pigeon sitting far above my head in a little nook. I felt the stones—dented and worn now, not smooth and uniform as they must have been in Herod’s day—and I saw different people praying their own prayers, and I realized that monuments take on new meaning as they experience history and people imbue them with their own interpretations and stories.

I understood, then, that even old stones can change.


  1. "I realized that monuments take on new meaning as they experience history and people imbue them with their own interpretations and stories."

    Do you think the same is true of missionary work? I have to believe it is. I am, for all intents and purposes, a missionary now. The people I met in the Moravian church reassured me that new life grows in the cracks of this greatest of ambiguous enterprises. I also walked in between the columns. I wonder if I would make the same choice now.

    Thank you for your thoughts!

  2. "Since 1900, our understanding of just what it is that changes the world for the better has evolved..."

    Has it really? And, if it has, in whose minds?

    Can it be said, for example, that awakened consciousness, which places responsibility for world change directly on itself, has in some way evolved?

    Are political ideologues substantially different from their 1900 counterparts?

    Is the concept of "better" not what it was in 1900? Or are you saying that someone, somewhere, knows more how to create said improvement than what was known a century ago?

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  4. Frankly, I see little evidence of it, except in what might be considered limited regional fronts, if not strictly local actions. For example, it is now accepted, at least in scientific circles, that animals have more complex minds, and are capable of more complex emotions and mental manipulations than we had previously recognized. And we are coming, slowly, to realize that we are all interconnected. Still, I don't see a concomitant general movement toward, say, vegetarianism, or even much of a cessation of war.

  5. Kathryn-- I suppose I'd ask how you define missionary work, of the kind you're doing? I'm unclear as to how much it actually involves evangelizing native people. My concern, as I think I may have mentioned before, is cultural erosion.
    Of course, as I think of it, I consider cultural erosion an acceptable casualty of sustainability measures (though I'd obviously prefer it didn't happen that way), so I'm not exactly a "pure" player here. Perhaps this is the germ of a post (or somewhere down the line, a term paper!)