Every day on my way to work I drive by a white cross with plastic flowers on the side of I-35. The name “Jane Doe” is hand-painted in almost childlike script on it. I see it, but don’t give it much thought. The other day I decided to stop and take a look. As I got closer, I noticed a placard with a faded photograph I couldn’t make out. Underneath was the story (quoted from Donna Fielder of the DRC) of a woman who died in a hit and run accident in 1996. According to the news report, eleven years later, her fingerprints were finally recognized to be those of Patsy Lee Ross of Minnesota. The Denton County Sherriff’s Department hand delivered her ashes to her daughter in 2008.
I drive by it every day. I see it, but ignore it. It had no context until now. Context makes all the difference. The little memorial, placed there by some kind soul, now is infused with meaning and sentiment.
Until I broke it washing dishes one sad day, my favorite mug for morning coffee pictured the Gonzales Battle Flag. You know the image: A cannon with the words emblazoned underneath “Come and Take It!” Folks from 49 other states probably have no idea of its significance. You and I know that it is a memorial of the initial conflict in the Texas Revolution. It symbolizes the Texas spirit. It symbolizes the Lone Star State. It is the context that gives the image meaning and bolsters pride.
In Joshua chapter three, God miraculously stopped the flow of the Jordan River allowing the entire nation of Israel to cross over into the Promised Land. He instructed twelve men, one from each of the Hebrew tribes, to drag out large stones from the now dry riverbed. They were to carry these stones to the Promised Land and stack them into a cairn.
It would be a monument for years to come of God’s faithfulness. Just as God had dried the Red Sea for one generation, He had dried the Jordan for the next. Joshua instructed the people: “…In the future, when your children ask you, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever (Joshua 4:6-7).”
Some forty years before, when Israel was hurriedly preparing for the tenth plague visited upon her oppressors in Egypt, each Hebrew family had a final meal in their slave-quarters. They ate roasted lamb and bitter herbs. Their bags were packed, their walking staffs in hand…they were ready to depart. Moses told them: “This is a day you are to commemorate; for the generations to come you shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord—a lasting ordinance (Exodus 12:14).” We call it Passover.
The connection of these disparate accounts? Context. Context gives meaning to each.
The lonely highway memorial has no meaning until you know the story behind it. So, too, the old flag with the cannon. People who happened upon the heap of rocks in Palestine only understood its significance because the story behind it had been passed down to them. The Passover Seder is meaningful — more than strange foods on a platter — only when you remember the bitter slavery and the joy of newfound freedom.
In our own fair burg, we have a committee of fifteen citizens meeting to decide the fate of the Confederate memorial on the town square. The committee is led by my friend John Baines (a worthy leader of this endeavor). There are two options on the table: 1) to remove and relocate the statue, or; 2) according to the DRC, to add “context around the statue’s existing location.”
I’m not a member of the committee and don’t have a vote. But here’s my two cents. This statue, a young man holding a rifle with the words “Our Confederate Soldiers” underneath, represents the young men from our county who fought and sacrificed when called upon. It is not about whether they understood all the ramifications of the fight. They were summoned and they answered, many with their lives. The statue is no Jim Crow monument to slavery or white supremacy.
It is a memorial that has stood sentinel over the square for 100 years. It is a memorial of the lives lost in the great tragedy of the civil war, a nation torn apart and fighting itself. It was paid for by mothers who lost their sons. But we cannot forget that it is also a memorial of slavery: the incredulous idea that one man can own another. I have said here before, the word “memorial” means just that: belonging to memory. This is our past. It is heroic. It is ugly.
The Passover Seder still includes bitter herbs.
We should never forget sacrifice. Nor should we ever forget one human subjugating another. May we never see either repeated in our nation! We should never forget history.
So, had I a vote come February 1, 2018 on the Confederate Memorial on the Denton square, I would vote for context.
Context gives meaning.