Months ago, I mentioned a statue in Island Park that impressed me, more for the man it represents than the statue itself (although it is a fine statue). Henrik Wergeland was a poet, who used his words to help liberate Norway from Sweden, and to welcome Jewish people to his country. His short life in the first half of the 19th century left a positive legacy.
I know little about Wergeland, really. Did he mistreat a friend? Was he immoral in some way? I don’t know, but the actions in favor of helping Norway and Jewish people warrant a statue.
We live in an era of purity tests. I’ve seen this movement grow on the right and on the left. I have wearied of churches that make abortion the litmus test for a political candidate. Too many pro-life people fail to offer support for women in this situation; too many fail to care about those who are already born, like the traumatized children, separated from families at the border, similar to those African-American slaves who were stripped of wives and children, because they were considered less than human.
We see current policies where environmental regulations – like clean water and air – are being removed. Companies are free to dump toxins into the water, for instance. We seem to have forgotten the damage done leeching lead in the water of Flint or the tragedy of Cancer Alley in Louisiana and Mississippi.
While the Affordable Care Act is still being attacked, we see millions suffering from cancer, asthma and other maladies, along with the current crisis of COVID-19. Surely, these are “pro-life issues.”
On the left, we see a similar obsession with purity. We do not need to celebrate the symbols of subversion. The Confederacy was a treasonous fight to attack the Union. We don’t need to honor Generals Lee or Stonewall Jackson. We don’t need Confederate, “Rebel” flags. Perhaps include an exhibit in a museum somewhere, but not where many find pain, as NASCAR’s Bubba Wallace rightly noted.
On the other hand, some legacies are more complex. Some wish to topple the statues of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and others. As a black woman, I do not wish to see the broad brush. Jefferson and others created the flawed foundation of this country. But they created the very framework that allows us to fight for increasing levels of freedom and equality of rights. It led to major court battles that produced judicial decisions that allowed school integration, marriage rights, and a woman’s right to vote. Lawyers and judges applied the principles of those flawed Founding Fathers to allow us to speak in the press, in the streets in order to create “a more perfect union.”
American founders created a ladder. And even as Wergeland’s statue looks skyward, upward to a higher level, we should probably remember that those early Americans gave us steps to improve, a foundation for transformation.
We don’t need purity tests, for we would remember we would fail them ourselves.