In Berlin’s Zehlendorf district, there is a subway station named “Onkel Toms Hütte,” after Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Stowe, an ardent abolitionist, wrote the novel in 1852 as a manifesto against slavery. Twenty-two-year-old Berlin pro basketball player Moses Pölking, son of a Cameroonian mother and German father, reads the novel differently. As a person of color, he finds it downright offensive – at the very least, he considers its title character a product of implicit racism. For Pölking, the book portrays a self-degrading Black man the author carefully crafted for her contemporaries so he wouldn’t appear threatening to a White society of slave owners. Pölking started an online petition to change the station’s name, which soon garnered over thirteen thousand signatures.
“Everything has its time,” says the beginning of the famous third verse of Ecclesiastes. Monuments are erected and monuments are torn down – when the time has come: the monument to slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol, the statue of Cecil Rhodes in front of Oriel College in Cambridge, and in Antwerp the statue of Leopold II, the Belgian king who committed atrocities in the Congo. Those seem clearly justified. But what about the monument to Winston Churchill, who in 1940 maintained the Resistance against Hitler and National Socialist Germany? Should his monument be preserved in remembrance of his fight for free democracy? Or should it be removed from sight because Churchill was also an apologist for British colonialism, and much of what he said reveals his deep-seated racism?
Such conflicting views can hardly be resolved in any clear-cut way. Monuments stand for collective identities, and have the power to shape social identities in turn. For those who build them, monuments affirm the self-representation of a community through its exemplary individuals; for those who tear them down, their toppling represents a marginalized group’s struggle to be seen, heard, and recognized.
Amid this reckoning, aspects of the Christian tradition – which has all too often been misused as an ideology of domination – are also up for debate. On one side, identitarian rhetoric that defends “the Christian West” to draw lines of demarcation is widely on display; in reaction, many voices seeking freedom from oppression reject the Christian message altogether. But the Christian faith can be something else entirely: an important resource for inclusion, liberty, and justice.