Desecrating our statues

Equality and religious freedom

One of the disappointing outcomes of last summer’s national reckoning of racial injustices has been the destruction of statues of religious figures. Following the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky., and other people of color, some protestors took out their frustration on religious statues.

The movement seemingly began with the toppling of statues of historic political and civic leaders with ties to slavery and racism. It continued with the desecration of religious statues, including St. Junipero Serra, who was known for spreading the Gospel in the New World during the 18th century. 

The Franciscan priest from Spain landed in Mexico and made his way to California, where he established a chain of missions from San Diego to San Francisco. When Fr. Serra was declared a saint in 2015, some people objected, saying he had mistreated the native people. Some historians, however, say the abuse happened long after his death.

On June 19, a statue of the saint in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park was toppled and desecrated. On July 4, another statue, located on the grounds of the California Capitol in Sacramento, was torn down by a group of demonstrators.

When another statue of St. Serra was desecrated at a Catholic mission on Oct. 12 (Columbus Day), the archbishop of San Francisco led a public exorcism at the site and called for an investigation. 

The incident at Mission San Rafael in San Rafael was caught on videotape and, on Nov. 13, Marin County District Attorney Lori Frugoli filed charges of felony vandalism against five people for the incident. (See story on page 8.)

Many of California’s bishops have voiced alarm at the destruction of these statues, especially those on church property. At the same time, they support the need for the church and the state to reconcile historic wrongs done to Blacks and other minorities.

“I understand the deep pain being expressed by some native peoples in California. But I also believe Fray Junipero is a saint for our times,” Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles said in a letter published in his archdiocesan newspaper June 29.

Archbishop Gomez said he has “come to understand how the image of Fr. Serra and the missions evoke painful memories for some people.” 

“Historical memory is the soul of every nation,” he said. “What we remember about our past and how we remember it defines our national identity.”

However, historical memory must be based on facts, said the archbishop. “We cannot learn history’s lessons or heal old wounds unless we understand what really happened, how it happened and why.”

The collective outrage that fueled a movement to end racism is part of the “good and necessary trouble” that the late Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights leader, encouraged. But, like his friend and mentor, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Lewis would discourage the desecration of religious statues.

“Allowing the free expression of public opinion is important,” said Archbishop Gomez. “So is upholding the rule of law and ensuring that decisions we reach as a society are based on genuine dialogue and the search for truth and the common good.”

The fight for equality and the freedom to honor our religious ancestors should not be on opposing sides. Let all of us continue to pray and work for a nation that values people of all races while respecting the images and practices of other religious traditions.