By Pamela A. Lewis
It has been nearly three years since a confrontation between white supremacists and counter-protestors took place in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. What had begun as an expression of opposition to the removal of that statue, quickly turned violent and resulted in the death of a young woman. The conflict that ended so tragically on that August day in 2017 ignited sharp debates, numerous editorials, and caustic exchanges on social media about the meaning and place of Confederate statues in America’s public spaces.
In that unsettling realm called déjà vu, the country is again engaged in verbal and written combat with itself (and in at least one instance, a shooting) over whether the statues of figures associated with the Confederacy or other racist systems should remain openly on view, be removed to separate sites, or be destroyed outright. As the debates about Confederate statues were ignited by the deadly riots of August 12, 2017, the current contentions over this issue have also been prompted by a horrible death: that of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who was murdered in Minneapolis on May 25 by Derek Chauvin, a white police officer.
Not only are diverse voices again asking discomfiting questions about whether keeping these statues on public display is still appropriate in a time when the nation is grappling with larger questions concerning race and racism, many have been moved to literally take matters into their own hands by defacing and/or removing what are perceived as symbols of racism and oppression from their long-held positions. The protests over police brutality against African-Americans that erupted in the days after George Floyd died have now morphed into a national movement calling for the toppling of an array of statues representing figures associated with racism.
While Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, and the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, have been the main targets of anti-statue ire, those of Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States and the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, who owned more than 600 slaves, have also been defaced or pulled down in various cities, such as Portland, Oregon.
Statues of Italian navigator Christopher Columbus have also been set upon by outraged protestors. One in Richmond, Virginia was spray-painted, set on fire, and thrown into a lake.
The dramatic monument to Columbus, which has stood since 1906 atop a towering column at the southwest corner of New York City’s Central Park, is a powerful symbol of Italians’ contribution to American history. It has, at various times, come perilously close to removal, as it was three years ago when protestors, citing the 15th-century explorer’s mistreatment of indigenous peoples, demanded that it be taken down. Among those of Italian heritage, however, whose immigrant forbears were often subject to discrimination, Columbus is a source of pride. “I understand the feelings about Christopher Columbus and some of his acts, which nobody would support. But the statue has come to represent and signify appreciation for the Italian-American contribution to New York. So for that reason, I support it,” said New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo, himself of Italian descent.
While the latest arguments about statues and monuments have been fueled by anger over policing in relation to African-Americans, they are also about national identity, and how symbols such as flags or monuments affirm that identity, an understanding embedded in Governor Cuomo’s observation. What for some are symbols of racism and reminders of the systemic oppression whereby the lives non-white people do not matter, are to others affirmations of identity, as well as memorials to great historic figures.
An oft-heard phrase used by opponents of statue removal is “erasing history.” This group argues that such an action constitutes the obliteration of history, or of a particular part of history, and an intention to expunge what has, rightly or wrongly, occurred in that history. Removing that part of history’s various symbols (e.g. the Confederate flag) is to deny and thereby disrespect them, which is the worst kind of “political correctness.”
But the “erasing history” position begs the question: what and whom do we honor with these elaborate monuments and idealized statues? Whose history are we upholding and giving homage? The Confederacy sought to secede from the Union and to perpetuate what the South had called its “peculiar institution.” Even after its defeat in the Civil War, this priority continued in the form of Jim Crow laws and practices.
The Confederacy maintained that theirs was an honorable, although in the end, a “lost cause,” that had advanced the belief that their way of life was the apogee of civilization and worthy of emulation, and that those they had enslaved, deemed as less than human, had no history, no past worthy of regard, much less of noting. Slavery had conspired to utterly erase whatever history black people formerly had. The conqueror’s power is to be emulated, and it is his power to subjugate that should inspire fear and awe. Whether the figure is triumphantly astride a horse or standing upright extending an arm pointing to a glorious future, these are the messages embodied and displayed in the stone and metal effigies that have graced not only America’s public spaces, but her psychological spaces as well.
Regardless of on which side they fall, Christians either hold an opinion about this issue or they are struggling to form one. There is always the challenge to perform a tightrope walk between the teachings of our faith and the siren calls of the culture and politics. Inasmuch as I am in favor of removing (but not destroying) the statues and monuments of Confederate and (apparently racist) non-Confederate figures, I strive to avoid becoming too exercised about this issue and adopting an absolutist stance as many of my fellow Americans have done. Bearing in mind that my primary identity is Christian, which means living a Christ-centered life, the question also before me is how to strike a balance between biblical teachings regarding what and whom I am to worship and my obligations as an American citizen.
Israel had a polytheistic history, to which several books of the Old Testament attest. This practice was a source of contention between God and his people, always resulting in their being subjected to God’s wrath and to great suffering:
And the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord, and served Baalim: And they forsook the Lord God of their fathers, which brought them out of the land of Egypt, and followed other gods, of the gods of the people that were round about them, and bowed themselves unto them, and provoked the Lord’s anger. And they forsook the Lord, and served Baal and Ashtaroth. And the anger of the Lord was hot against Israel, and he delivered them into the hands of spoilers that spoiled them, and he sold them into the hands of their enemies round about so that they could not any longer stand before their enemies. (Judg. 2:11-14, KJV)
Periodically, Israel came to her senses: “And they cried unto the Lord, and said, We have sinned because we have forsaken the Lord, and have served Baalim and Ashtaroth: but now deliver us out of the hand of our enemies, and we will serve thee.” (1 Sam. 10, KJV)
The more familiar fourth commandment from among the ten delivered by Moses to the Israelites speaks forcefully against idol worship: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them…” (Ex. 20:4-5a, KJV) And the psalmist also makes reference to Israel’s past transgressions with idol worship: “Israel made a bull-calf at Horeb, and worshiped a molten image.” (Ps. 106:19, KJV)
These statues were undeniably part of Israel’s history, yet the right response to them was to remove them, not keep them on display to avoid erasing history.
Are the statues of Robert E. Lee and other figures we now so passionately fight about the modern-day equivalents of Baal, Ashtaroth, and the Horeb bull-calf? Not quite. But the rhetoric in some commentaries from both sides of this issue teeters dangerously close to idolatry, where the statues have become more important than the larger concerns of justice and equality. The biblical passages cited here are cautionary reminders that we must always be on our guard when it comes to our relationship with objects, which are perishable and not meant for worship or veneration.
However abhorrent these statues are to some, they are nonetheless examples of civic art. As someone who enjoys — and writes about — iconography, I can appreciate some of these monuments and statues as art, and some examples have been beautifully conceived and executed. The Louisiana Memorial is one of the most breathtaking Confederate statue groups I saw during a visit several years ago to the Gettysburg National Memorial Park in Pennsylvania. And that is the proper place for such a statue and for all such statues; while they may be superficially “beautiful,” the message and cause they convey and uphold are offensive and contradictory to what historian Jon Meacham has called the “American experiment in liberty and self-government.”
These works should be removed to a place apart, such as their own museum, privately funded and supported, as a friend has opined. They can be cataloged, have identifying inscriptions, and serve as educational objects for posterity. Nothing more. They will not be “erased” from history, but they will no longer receive either the worshipful gaze they never deserved, or the resentful gaze that they merited. To look at a statue of Baal or Marduk in a museum does not presuppose worship, as would be the expected attitude in a temple. We should not look upon their likeness in public spaces any more than the Germans should see statues of Hitler or Italy those of Mussolini.
As we are poised between remembering that it is five years since nine parishioners of Emanuel A.M.E. Church were gunned down by avowed white supremacist Dylann Roof, and Juneteenth, which celebrates the emancipation of slaves, we are challenged to shift our gaze to more worthy figures.
We have two callings. As Americans, we are called to be responsible and engaged citizens, and people who seek and uphold justice. As Christians, we are called to love and serve the Lord, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. For all other matters, we should assume a dispassionate stance, praying, as in the words of T.S. Eliot’s poem “Ash Wednesday,” “Teach us to care and not to care.” This will not be easy, but is well worth our effort.