Monumental Confederate controversy solution might be ancient history

BY JOE SLAY

When Dr. Christine Luckritz Marquis talks church history, she speaks with the easy informality of a storyteller who loves characters and with the rigorous precision of the historian.

Dr. Luckritz Marquis received her M.A. from Yale Divinity and her Ph.D. from Duke. She is now assistant professor of church history at Union Presbyterian Seminary.

The liberal arts school she attended, Illinois Wesleyan University, required courses outside of her pre-med major, so the Episcopalian “PK” (“Preacher’s Kid”) took a course in early Christianity.

“I fell in love with the Gnostic Gospels and the Coptic language,” she said, realizing that, although she knew the traditional narrative that the church told about itself, she was intrigued with voices she had not heard before.

“In my career, I’ve always been about bringing attention to what I consider marginalized voices.”

“Of course, I’m interested in characters who have some profile like the fourth century Roman ascetic Melania the Elder, but I’m also interested in those women whose names we don’t know, but played significant roles.”

She is fascinated by the “mechanisms” that govern what we remember and what we forget…about people and places…what scholars often describe with the evocative phrase “memory sanctions.”

Those words are foundational to a book she is finishing, with an equally evocative title: “The Death of the Desert: Remembering and Forgetting Among Egyptian Ascetics.”

“The phrase ‘memory sanctions’, also referred to by scholars by the Latin damnatio memoriae, is about how we bound and control memories…what is appropriate to remember and what is not. It is about preserving and deleting, but,” she cautioned, “not fully deleting…there is a trace of what is deleted that is retained. So that with memory sanctions, we are being told, in the words of another historian, Charles Hedrick, ‘to remember to forget.’

“The defacing, but not total removal, of a statue of one who has fallen out of favor is an example of this.

“And this is key: memory sanctions are most powerful when they center around a specific place and space.”

In her book, she zeroes in on the northwestern Egyptian desert, in the late fourth and early fifth centuries, a time known as the “golden age” of monasticism in the early Christian church.

“There were, in the ancient world, many paths toward asceticism and monasticism, but this was the ‘place and space’ which came to be seen as the birthplace of all monasticism in the broader world,” she said. “It eclipsed these other forms.”

“Why?” she asked. “What is the mechanism that causes that?

In her book, she explores how memory practices (prayer, liturgy, writings) and understandings of place and space and violence intersect.

“At some point, the peace of those who were drawn to the desert for communion with God, in hope of a paradisiacal life is ruptured by violence brought to the desert from the ‘outside world.’

“Some of these folks flee, and some even stay, but the ‘golden moment’ is over, and it can only exist in looking back, in memory. Because of violence, the desert—that space and place—loses its ability to be the thing that was imagined and sought.”

It is, she said, a pattern that recurs throughout history.

Her hope for the book is for us to think carefully about the relationship of how we use a space for memorialization and the relationship of that space to violence.

Dr. Luckritz Marquis, the historian, can rapidly run through a list of times and places  where the destruction and retention of memory is obvious and profound: the Armenian massacre of 1915, the defeat of Nazism in 1945, Desert Storm and the toppling of a statue of Saddam Hussein, the 2010 Arab Spring and Tahrir Square in Cairo, and, closer to home, the sometimes violent, even deadly, argument over what to do with Confederate statues in Richmond, Virginia, and across the South.

“We are memorializing creatures,” she said. “And memorials are never just aesthetically pleasing sculptures. They are charged with power. They are conduits…for gathering and, potentially, for violence.”

Memory sanctions and Confederate statues

The thoughts of Dr. Luckritz Marquis about “memory sanctions” have an undeniable relevance to the debate underway today in Richmond about what to do with the Confederate statues on the city’s stately Monument Avenue.

“When we put up a marker…a statue…what is going on there? It is not just a conscious decision about part of a community to ‘feel good’ about a certain identity. We need to think carefully about all the things that we’re doing violence to…what we’re ‘misnaming’ and sanctioning away.

Confederate statues across the country often went up during the Jim Crow segregation years of the late 19th and early 20th century, in part to state with great visual power and presence a resistance to emerging racial equity. Blacks then were holding public office. There was a ‘black Wall Street’ in Richmond.

“The statues were meant to memorialize Civil War era figures who did not represent racial equity,” Luckritz Marquis said. “They were meant to sanction, to bound, the possibilities for racial equity.

“When you have a charged location…one that can attract Neo-Nazis and be the conduit, as in Charlottesville, for violence and death, you cannot argue that the place and space is simply art.”

And since antiquity, if you topple a statue, it can result in violence. In ancient Alexandria, the toppling of the statue of Serapis signaled the ascendance of Christianity and the eclipse of paganism.

“Some cheered, some fled,” she said. And, always, there could be violence. It is the same with the Confederate statues.”

So, what should be done with them?

Luckritz Marquis suggests a compromise could see them moved elsewhere, but still in the general Richmond area to a history museum or Hollywood Cemetery where there are other Civil War memorials, and off the avenue and away from the city center.

“When you have a charged location, it has the potential to be spectacle, she said. “The Confederate statues were spectacle when they were put up. They are spectacle while they stand. It will be spectacle if we take them down.”