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Reassessing our heroes

What do we do with our heroes from the past when we discover their flaws? What shall we do with the monuments to their achievements when the latter seem overshadowed by their errors?

Like so many Canadians, I was horrified to learn of the discovery of 215 unmarked graves of aboriginal children on the premises of a residential school in Kamloops, B.C. Soon after this grisly discovery, students at Ryerson University in Toronto upended a statue of Egerton Ryerson, a 19th-century Methodist leader who contributed to the formation of common public schools in Upper Canada and of “Indian” residential schools. As I write, Hamiltonians are debating the removal of statues of Queen Victoria and Sir John A. Macdonald in Gore Park downtown, because of the role they played in setting federal policy towards aboriginal Canadians.

What then do we do with our all too fallible heroes from the past? We cannot pretend that Macdonald was not our first prime minister and that he did not do much to create the country we love and to which we are loyal. In this respect, Macdonald is no different from other respected figures from the past who have shaped the world we live in.

For the most part, I am not a big fan of statues. A small midwestern undergraduate university has erected statues of Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Ronald Reagan, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher on its campus. The overall effect is somewhat like a visit to Madame Tussaud’s. I prefer to walk around a campus or park without feeling as though someone is looking over my shoulders through piercing bronze eyes. Perhaps my iconoclastic Reformed upbringing has played a role here, although one might still admire the Reformation Wall in Geneva, with its sculpted portrayals of Calvin, Farel, Beza and Knox.

Nevertheless, if statues are to come down – if we decide an historical figure’s legacy is too tainted for his effigy to remain in place – it is best to strike a committee (my Reformed upbringing again!) to probe the issue more deeply and to make the appropriate recommendations. There is nothing to be said for a mob taking matters into its own hands.

Expanding legacy

Yet I remain uneasy about subjecting our forebears to the moral sensibilities of the current generation. Some people have now decided that Abraham Kuyper was a racist. A google search reveals a statue of the great statesman and polymath in his hometown of Maasluis and his bust at the Free University in Amsterdam. Yet even if Kuyper was typical for his time in failing to affirm racial equality, his quirky notion that “the commingling of blood” is “the physical basis of all higher human development” would scarcely put him in league with one-time segregationists in Mississippi and Alabama.

Yes, some of Kuyper’s statements make us cringe when we read them. By today’s standards he is not politically correct. Yet Kuyper’s achievements were enormous, and he left a legacy that has expanded beyond his homeland into North America, Korea, Brazil and elsewhere. His comprehensive vision for the lordship of Jesus Christ over all of life has inspired many, including yours truly. I have found his work fruitful for my own work in unmasking the ideologies of our day and in charting a way forward in politics and society. Without Kuyper it is difficult to imagine the network of Reformed Christian universities across North America and other countries. The adjective “Kuyperian” has come to designate Christians who are not content to attend church on Sunday while leaving the rest of the week to the spirits of the age.

Most important of all, Kuyper provided powerful tools by which we might critique Kuyper himself. And, if so, we might be able to apply them elsewhere, even to the Macdonalds and Ryersons of Canada’s past, while continuing to respect their positive contributions to this country.

  • David Koyzis is a Global Scholar with Global Scholars Canada. He is the author of the award-winning Political Visions and Illusions (2nd ed., 2019) and We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God (2014). He has written a column for Christian Courier since 1990.

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