<< Front page Commentary May 14, 2004

Walk around the arch during commencement

Since its construction in 1902 to honor Oberlin missionaries killed in the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, the Shansi Memorial Arch has come to take on a variety of meanings among Oberlin students, especially after the practice of walking around the arch first began in the 1970s. The evolution of this practice shows that the arch had become intensely symbolic, though the excellent exhibit in Mudd shows that there have been many different beliefs about what it symbolizes. Those of us in the class of 2004 who are still willing to recognize the arch as a symbol have to make the decision whether to walk through or around it — in other words, whether to symbolically accept or reject the content of the symbol. That decision will be based upon our own individual, personal beliefs of what the arch represents.

I obviously can’t know all of the ways that people read the symbol of the arch; while discussing the issue during my time at Oberlin, however, I’ve come across two major interpretations of the monument. The first is to see the arch as representative of the global spread of Christianity, which is what the missionaries, as missionaries, were committed to. Walking through the arch thus confirms the Christian message to preach the gospel worldwide, while walking around the arch critiques that message and its followers — if not the core of Christianity itself — as a tool of imperialism used to suppress the self-determination of other peoples of the world. I’m sympathetic to this second argument, as I recognize that countless missionaries have spread the gospel in ignorant and barbarous ways, serially destroying cultural knowledges as they traveled. And we should remember that there are still missionaries who do this today.

But the missionaries from Oberlin should not be punished for the sins of these particular missionaries, especially if one believes Professor Carlson’s statement that “the Oberlin missionaries had no similarity with some missionaries in other places who gave missionaries a bad name.” If this is true, then the service of these missionaries — and of other such missionaries in history — should not be wholly dishonored, even if their motivations might have been, in whole or in part, founded on a sense of arrogant paternalism. But if it is likely that even one Oberlin missionary carried out his or her tasks instead in a genuine spirit of friendship and humility as well as a conscious, respectful regard of the power dynamics inherent to the situation, then I, being a Christian myself, would not hesitate to walk through the arch on Commencement Day in memory of that person — if I thought the arch only represented Christian mission work.

Another approach involves secularizing the arch by transforming its religious content into a moral question. There are many at Oberlin who are not Christian, but who still identify — through honest self-examination — with the missionaries and their “good intentions” for the Chinese people. By abstracting away the Christianity of the arch, these people view it as representative of moral action that is necessarily imperfect, due to a limited knowledge of all the implications of that action. The question of walking through or around the arch then becomes, “Are such actions in the past worthy of scorn from our vantage point in history?” Many answer no, partly because of their own desires to “effect change” in communities not their own. Therefore they walk through the arch, because walking around it ultimately would mean that inaction is better than imperfect moral action. Under these terms, I myself would be a hypocrite if I walked around the arch.

To me, however, both these approaches to the symbol are missing something fundamental to the arch itself. To me, the arch does not represent the religious or moral convictions of the missionaries; rather, it represents an objectification of these deaths, wielded in order to support a fragmented historical memory. The arch uses the dead missionaries as fodder for a triumphalist narrative: just read the quotations on the arch to see what I mean. Monumentalizing the missionaries in this way has two consequences. First, it chooses to concentrate on an institutional interpretation of the deaths of the missionaries at the expense of remembering their actual lives. (A form of this critique can be found in reviews of The Passion of the Christ.) Second, it uses these deaths to make an oversimplified political and religious statement of the conflict, demonizing the Chinese Boxers in the process. I am not saying that the Boxers are beyond moral reproach; what I am saying is we should not mistake an accusatory finger pointed at murderers for a monument to the dead. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial — constructed not by the U.S. government but by the families of the dead and survivors — is proof that a better way is possible. The memorial intentionally incorporates no political statement about the actual war.

The Vietnam Memorial’s refusal to superficially interpret the conflict in Vietnam recognizes the fruitlessness of thinking of conflicts in terms of absolute binaries — good vs. evil, martyr vs. persecutor, Christian vs. non-Christian. When we use these binaries as a paradigm for these conflicts, we engage in a selective remembering of history, mourning our dead by howling at their murderers, and forgetting the deaths we ourselves have caused. It is telling that we have an almost exact count of the American missionaries killed in the Boxer Rebellion, yet we have no idea how many Chinese Christians were killed as well — let alone how many innocent Chinese were killed after the “intervention” of six governments, including that of the United States. And it goes without saying that we also do not know the impact of the British and American pursuit of economic imperialist policies in China, which were not consented to by its government and which indirectly created the Boxers. The arch excludes any mention of these memories because they complicate the official interpretation of the missionaries as “martyrs” to an evil and foreign force. This might be naïve, but I think that even some of these missionaries, if they were alive today, would object to such an obviously idealistic construction of the arch.

I do understand the motivation to remember the Oberlin missionaries in a way to offer meaning — despite this approach’s grievous flaws — and I don’t think that the arch should be removed outright. I think individuals at Oberlin should keep the opportunity to make their own choice about the symbol of the arch during this strange little Commencement ritual. As for myself, I’m eager at my own chance to show that the arch is more than just a tasteless and manipulative memorial — it exemplifies the same sort of dangerous historical amnesia that perpetuates conflicts such as that of the Palestinians and Israelis today. I’m walking around the arch.


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