Image of the sculpture by Mark Scott Abeln.
This meditation flowed through me in one continuous stream between 2 and 3 in the morning on June 2, 2015, as I wrestled with Saint Louis University’s decision to remove the De Smet statuary from campus and put it in a museum. The words of the critique that provoked the move were stinging: colonialism, white supremacy, racism…native Americans not welcome here except in submission to our culture. Could there be a more twisted misreading of this work? Did the critique perhaps arise from another agenda, another culture that ultimately wishes to annihilate something of the original native culture of Saint Louis University? SLU has its own indigenous people too, its own ancestors, its own ways, its own understandings and expressions of itself, its own historical events and stories and rituals and symbols. Was this critique working in cahoots with a secular progressivism that ultimately wants to severe all ties with the past, dump religion and tradition, and self-righteously cast off all the claims of certain “indigenous communities” with whose visions they stand in conflict?
Or was it part of the perennial, nearly universal adolescent dynamic that says that the generation that made us follow rules and that held up ideals to us is not so good after all. Look at their shortcomings! Look at what white Europeans did to native Americans! (Never mind that the native Americans were not all saints, were not innocent of torture and war and slavery and oppression and invasion and deception and acts of brutality and domination. Never mind that the Europeans were also sometimes good and beneficent and hoping for peaceful mutually beneficial co-existence. Never mind that the story is sometimes told in skewed and tendentious ways by academics with their own atom bombs to explode.)
Or was the critique simply a tone-deaf response to Catholic religious sculpture using traditional means to express a point: the Lord uses some great personalities to mediate grace. These figures that seem heroic to us stand on a slightly higher platform and, in humility of heart and religious passion and self-sacrificing service, they point us—all of us— to a higher and better way.
For the first time in my acquaintance with this statuary group I began to really appreciate it. There is a beautiful sweep from the seated American native to the cross that makes us look up and think about its meaning. How brave to carry this message. I become grateful for all the laborers who have brought me the greatest message ever received on earth, despite its vast unpopularity. (Is this really what is feared? Is this what is being removed?)
Liberal education is ultimately about defining, with some particularity, and extending, with some felt understanding, the meaning of the pronoun “We.” And it is about the deepening and broadening of the soul that goes on in that process. The project opens upon the religious realm in which we all recognize our kinship, our oneness, our vocation to compassion and community. It is a mystery that surrounds us and lifts us up. Let us learn to love it.