“A few years ago, I began to realize that the people who enforce the law are shaped by narratives; they are shaped by an understanding of history and their values and their responsiveness,” Stevenson said in an interview. “And with regard to race, I think we have done a very poor job in America of confronting our history.”
Stevenson became enamored with the idea of creating spaces for truth telling. “We don’t have many places in our country where you can have an honest experience with our history of slavery, and there are no spaces where you can have an honest experience with lynchings and racial terror,” he said. (There are outliers in unexpected places, such as a memorial in Duluth, Minnesota, honoring three black members of a traveling circus who were lynched there in 1920.)
So Stevenson decided to make one. Next summer, EJI will unveil a memorial where visitors will be confronted with large tablets hanging from a square structure, visual reminders of more than 800 counties where lynchings took place. The visual—so many markers engraved with so many names—will transform a hill overlooking downtown Montgomery, Alabama, into a place of mourning and remembrance, a place to lament and perhaps even to corporately confess.
The Memorial for Peace and Justice, as it will be called, will also encompass a field spreading next to the main structure. In that field, each hanging tablet will have an identical twin resting on the ground, invoking an eerie similarity to headstones. These markers will be for the counties themselves to collect. Stevenson dreams of groups journeying to Montgomery, collecting their rightful part of lynching history, and displaying it prominently back in their towns and cities. If people from a particular locale choose not to claim their piece, it will sit in stark relief on that Montgomery hilltop, a conspicuous token of unowned sin.
The Bible and Remembrance
For Americans in particular, monuments and memorials are sort of building blocks in a collective memory. Or as University of Pittsburgh historian Kirk Savage puts it, they attempt to “conserve what is worth remembering and discard the rest.”
For Christians, that is also a key function of the Bible—a collection of memories, divinely breathed to be passed down through traditions and communities. So many of the stories, especially in the Old Testament, are not cut-and-dried morality tales or inspirational anecdotes. They are portraits of people who were wrestling with loving God and loving their neighbors, and they are full of both cautionary notes and urgings to be more faithful and righteous. Remember God’s covenants; remember God’s commandments.
Failing to keep God’s commandments, even at the individual level, could inflict deep communal wounds. In Joshua 7, Achan’s decision to steal forbidden treasure from Jericho was not an individual affair for which he privately suffered the consequences—Achan’s family plus some 36 others lost their lives because of it.
In response to communal sins, the prophets modeled the importance of corporate confession. In Daniel 9, Daniel confessed to sins that happened in another location, in another generation—yet he considered it important to include himself in the confession of those corporate sins. “We and our kings, our princes and our ancestors are covered with shame, Lord, because we have sinned against you,” he prayed (v. 8). Similarly, both time and distance meant that Nehemiah was not personally present for the sins of idolatry and oppression that he confessed, but he knew that, for the sake of his people, there needed to be public acknowledgement of those sins.