Word this week of new vandalism at Mars Hill Church is dismaying. While the recent incidents don’t come close to the level that took place 13 years ago, when the church was burned, they remain unacceptable.
That such incidents take place reflects a basic indifference to the value of sites like Mars Hill. It reflects a coarseness of thought that believes now is all that matters, and entirely fails to grasp how the past brought us to today. To such people, the value of the past lies entirely in what can be plundered in the now.
In some ways it is not so different to what we saw at Ottumwa Cemetery this winter, when someone simply plowed through a section. That act knocked over headstones and damaged the grounds. They share a senselessness, an utter lack of principle.
Those who would engage in such acts are, in the most literal sense, ignorant. They lack an understanding, either through missed opportunities to learn or through a misguided sense of malevolence, of what an area’s history means.
William Faulkner put it well when he said “The past is never dead — It’s not even past.” Events that shape people, the places they live and the lives they spend in those places, echo. We see it every day. Our nation debates what the Constitution means in terms of what its authors intended and what life in the 21st century requires. The effects of our great national sins of slavery and Jim Crow reverberate through today’s protests and politics.
The tone of our politics continues to be shaped by events long past. The protests during the Vietnam War set the pattern for modern civil dissent. Discussion of the modern presidency rarely escapes the shadows of events now more than two decades gone. Don’t think so? Take a look at how impeachment is viewed through a partisan lens and deny that the approaches were crafted by reactions to President Bill Clinton’s impeachment.
To understand where we are today as a society and arrive at where we may be in years to com, we must understand the past. That means preserving places and locations. Mars Hill is such a place. Cemeteries are, by definition, places of the past. Wanton vandalism and disrespect for such locations are not the hallmarks of a society that cares to understand where it comes from.
But such understanding is essential. Without it we talk past one another. We lack an awareness of how our shared history, experienced through myriad lenses and lives, leaves people with different grasps of who we are today. Progress, which can be difficult even with a good will, becomes much more so when those involved can’t even understand where each other are coming from personally.
We are under no illusions that an editorial will change that. Not for society as a whole. But we do hope that you, in reading these words, will consider your own relationship to the past. That you will understand why it remains essential to understand how yesterday became today.
We’re glad the structures at Mars Hill received little damage in this latest incident. A board member said a neighbor called about the damage, and we’re glad that neighbor spoke up.
And we hope, against all evidence, that one day such acts will be part of the past.