- Toppled statuary, saints, and presidents
- 3 arguments defending statues
- Arguments for adding statues
- 3 arguments for removing statues
- A threefold approach to the monument debate
- 5 biblical principles on the statues controversy
Frederick Douglass was one of America’s greatest orators, abolitionists, social reformers, and statesmen. After escaping from slavery in Maryland, he became a national leader of the abolitionist movement.
On July 5, 1852, he delivered the address, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” A statue of Douglass was eventually erected in Rochester, New York, where he lived and worked for twenty-five years.
On the 168th anniversary of his most famous speech, the statue was torn from its base and damaged.
Statuary, saints, and presidents
Newton Falls, Ohio, has declared itself a “Statuary Sanctuary City.” Its proclamation welcomes statues rejected by other cities across the United States.
It may not have enough room for them all.
At this writing, a Wikipedia article lists 154 statues or monuments in the US that have been toppled, removed, or scheduled for removal. Among them was a statue of Hans Christian Heg, a Union Army colonel in the Civil War and an abolitionist. A bust of Ulysses S. Grant, who led the Union Army to victory, was toppled by protesters.
The Wikipedia article lists twenty-nine statues or busts of Christopher Columbus that have been decapitated, toppled, or removed. On July 4, protesters pulled down one such statue in Baltimore and threw it into the city’s Inner Harbor. A petition in Cleveland, Ohio, proposes replacing a statue of Columbus in its Little Italy neighborhood with a statue to Chef Boyardee, the Italian chef mascot behind the canned goods company.
Four Confederate statues in Richmond, Virginia, have been removed recently. Statues of Stonewall Jackson, Matthew Fontaine Maury, and J. E. B. Stuart were taken down by the city; a statue of Jefferson Davis was torn down by protesters.
The city of Columbus, Ohio, named for the Italian navigator, removed a statue of Columbus from in front of its City Hall. The decision was hailed by those who say Columbus statues honor the explorer’s genocidal cleansing of the New World and exploitation of Native people. It was opposed by Italian-Americans who say the statues are works of art that forge goodwill and should be preserved.
According to Wikipedia, six statues of Junipero Serra have been toppled or removed. The eighteenth-century Spanish Franciscan friar founded missions across Mexico before arriving in San Diego in 1769 and founding a mission there.
According to San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, “St. Serra made historic sacrifices to protect the indigenous people of California from their Spanish conquerors, especially the soldiers. . . . He walked all the way to Mexico City to obtain special faculties of governance from the Viceroy of Spain in order to discipline the military who were abusing the Indians. And then he walked back to California.”
Serra was canonized as a saint by Pope Francis during a trip to the US in 2015.
However, statues of St. Serra have recently been attacked on the claim that “Native Americans brought into the mission to be evangelized were not allowed to leave the grounds. Many labored for no pay. There is evidence of beatings, imprisonment and other abuse at the hands of the missionaries.” His defenders, however, say that he frequently pleaded for more merciful treatment for the Native Americans under their control. In their view, it is unfair to judge him by twenty-first-century standards.
Lucian K. Truscott IV wrote a New York Times article titled “I’m a Direct Descendant of Thomas Jefferson. Take Down His Memorial.” He states that the memorial “is a shrine to a man who during his lifetime owned more than 600 slaves and had at least six children with one of them, Sally Hemings.”
Stone Mountain, the world’s largest Confederate monument, has come under special scrutiny. The carving of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis is enormous—Lee is the size of a nine-story building; an adult could stand up inside the mouth of one of the horses. The mountain into which the monument was carved hosted the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan in 1915, as well as the Klan’s first recorded cross burning.
Some have proposed blasting the carving from the mountain, filling it in with similar-colored concrete, adding elements such as a bell tower dedicated to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., or halting the cleaning of the carving.
The controversy over the Emancipation Memorial at Lincoln Park in Washington, DC, is especially complicated. Eleven years after President Lincoln was assassinated, this statue was unveiled to honor him. It depicts him standing and holding a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation as an unshackled black man in a loincloth kneels at his feet.
Much of the money for the project was donated by freed slaves, which is why it is known as the Freedmen’s Memorial. Former congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) argues that the statue should stay: “It’s not just a statue of a man being subservient to Lincoln. We can’t tear down everything. You can’t on the one hand, celebrate Juneteenth . . . and then tear down the statue that marks the event. How much sense does that make?”
Others note that while the $20,000 needed for construction was provided by freed black people, the committee that decided how the statue would look was exclusively white. One critic sees the Black person depicted as “the very archetype of slavery: he is stripped, literally and figuratively, bereft of personal agency, social position, and accoutrements of culture.”
A defender of the statue counters that the figure is “not kneeling on two knees. He’s rising. You look at his hands. . . . He’s pushing off. He’s not shackled to anyone. He’s holding the broken chains of slavery in his hands.”
Frederick Douglass spoke at the 1876 unveiling ceremony. According to one of his biographers, “No African American had ever faced this kind of captive audience, of all the leadership of the federal government in one place; and no such speaker would ever again until Barack Obama was inaugurated president in January 2009.”
Arguments pro and con
A recent poll found that 45 percent of Americans see statues of Confederate war heroes as symbols of Southern pride, while 36 percent view them as symbols of racism. Forty-five percent believe they should not be removed from public property, while 38 percent feel they should be removed. However, 60 percent believe that statues of American presidents who were slaveholders should not be removed.
The survey demonstrates the complexity of this divisive and emotional issue. Approaches can be grouped into three categories.
Arguments defending statues
One: Historical figures should be judged by their times, not by ours.
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R) stated: “We are watching an organized, coordinated campaign to remove and eliminate all references to our nation’s founding and many other points in our history. This approach focuses exclusively on our forefathers’ flaws, but it fails to capitalize on the opportunity to learn from their virtues.” She added, “Make no mistake, this is being done deliberately to discredit America’s founding principles by discrediting the individuals who formed them so that America can be remade into a different political image.”
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson similarly responded to threats against the statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square, calling the statue “a permanent reminder of his achievement in saving this country—and the whole of Europe—from a fascist and racist tyranny.” Johnson noted that Churchill “sometimes expressed opinions that were and are unacceptable to us today, but he was a hero, and he fully deserves his memorial.”
He added: “We cannot now try to edit or censor our past. We cannot pretend to have a different history. The statues in our cities and towns were put up by previous generations.” He notes that earlier generations had different perspectives and claims that to tear the statues down would be to “lie about our history.”
Two: We should preserve controversial statues in order to learn from them.
African American and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice disagrees with tearing down statues honoring slave owners: “When you start wiping out your history, sanitizing your history to make you feel better, it’s a bad thing.” Her position: “I’m a firm believer in ‘keep your history before you.’ And so I don’t actually want to rename things that were named for slave owners. I want us to have to look at the names and recognize what they did, and be able to tell our kids what they did and for them to have a sense of their own history.”
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed a bill last year protecting his state’s Confederate monuments, stating: “It is true that there are monuments in our history that do not reflect our values. We cannot erase them from our history. We must learn from them. These monuments and markers remind us of how far we’ve come not only as a state but as a country.”
Catesby Leigh, a commentator on public art and architecture, writes that many monuments that implicitly enshrine the Confederate “Lost Cause” to vindicate state’s rights ignored the issue of slavery. In his view, “these statues . . . still retain cultural value as part of the historic fabric of American communities. More specifically, most Americans can appreciate that such monuments retain artistic value apart from any ideological baggage they might carry simply because they are of higher quality than the memorials we are apt to produce today.”
Catholic Archbishop Timothy Dolan notes that even the Bible is full of flawed characters. In his view, the destruction of monuments only impoverishes our sense of history:
As a historian by training, I want to remember the good and the bad, and recall with gratitude how even people who have an undeniable dark side can let light prevail and leave the world better. I want to keep bringing classes of schoolchildren to view such monuments, and to explain to them how even such giants in our history had crimes, unjust acts, and plain poor judgment mixed in with the good we honor.
Three: We should resist anarchy and violations of the rule of law.
President Trump signed an executive order in June that calls on the US government to prosecute individuals who damage statues or monuments. The order also limits federal support to states and law-enforcement agencies that do not protect them.
Security expert Cully Stimson describes five different DC laws that are broken when statues are disfigured or removed apart from the legal process:
- Malicious burning, destruction, or injury of another’s property
- Assault on members of police forces, campus or university special police, or fire departments
- Throwing stones or other missiles
- Disorderly conduct
- Disorderly conduct in public buildings or grounds; injury to or destruction of United States property
Writing in the Federalist, Emily Jashinsky claims that those who are destroying statues are “blowing up American culture because that is the logical conclusion of an ideology that trains adherents to see every institution as soaked in white supremacy. Scorched cultural earth is their only meaningful tool of reform.”
Arguments for adding statues
Frederick Douglass wrote a letter to the National Republican newspaper regarding the Emancipation Memorial:
Sir: Admirable as is the monument by Mr. Ball in Lincoln park, it does not, as it seems to me, tell the whole truth, and perhaps no one monument could be made to tell the whole truth of any subject which it might be designed to illustrate. The mere act of breaking the negro’s chains was the act of Abraham Lincoln and is beautifully expressed in this monument. But the act by which the negro was made a citizen of the United States was preeminently the act of President U. S. Grant, and this is nowhere seen in the Lincoln monument. The negro here, though rising, is still on his knees and nude. What I want to see before I die is a monument representing the negro, not couchant on his knees like a four-footed animal, but erect on his feet like a man. There is room in Lincoln park for another monument, and I throw out this suggestion to the end that it may be taken up and acted upon.
African American writer Kira Davis states: “Our story is intricately and intimately connected to the ‘original sin’ of our nation’s founding. Not only that, our development has been through Western progression. Western history is black history. Black history is American history. We’ll be erasing our own history if we allow the mobs to erase what currently stands.”
Rather, she wants to “acknowledge the glorious story of a race of captives who built a superpower with blood and sweat and deep grief and still went on to become one of the most influential cultures on the planet.”
As a result, she states, “Perhaps we should not be seeking to obliterate problematic monuments from our culture. Maybe instead we should consider leaving them be, and then building new monuments, new statues, new symbols alongside them. Instead of reshaping history, let’s build it out and up. Let’s add the layers that are finally being recognized. Destruction without resurrection is simply empty chaos.”
Arguments for removing statues
One: Slaveholders must not be honored.
New York Times columnist Charles Blow is unequivocal: “Slave owners should not be honored with monuments in public spaces. We have museums for that, which also provide better context. This is not an erasure of history, but rather a better appreciation of the horrible truth of it.”
Blow states, “On the issue of American slavery, I am an absolutist: enslavers were amoral monsters.” He describes the horrors of slave trafficking and the unspeakable suffering Africans endured while being shipped across the Atlantic. He notes that while some say enslavers were people of their time, other men and women of their time found slavery morally reprehensible.
He also notes the claim that some enslavers were kinder than others but replies that “the withholding of another person’s freedom is itself violent.” He states that George Washington enslaved more than one hundred human beings, authorized slavers to stalk runaways even in free states, and pursued one of his escaped slaves “relentlessly, sometimes illegally.”
He concludes, “No person’s honorifics can erase the horror he or she has inflicted on others.”
Two: Confederate memorials must be removed.
Joe Biden believes that Confederate monuments belong in museums rather than public squares but says it is best to remove them peacefully and lawfully.
Philosopher Thomas R. Wells claims that allowing such monuments to stand emboldens white supremacists today: “Erecting statues in honor of white supremacists—not to mention renaming streets and schools after them and flying their flag from state buildings—creates an environment saturated with signals about their political strength and the political weakness of the oppressed. In such an environment the supporters of continued domination can feel confident expressing their views and acting on them without fear of ever being held answerable. Even though they may be an absolute minority of the population they are secure in their position as the political winners” (his emphasis).
Architect and college professor James C. McCrery II claims that mobs destroying Confederate statues are doing what governments should have done long ago. He believes that “the great population of statues being destroyed in protest now were themselves erected in a form of protest: Defiance of Union victory, defiance of the emancipation of slaves, defiance of the resulting economic shifts, and defiance of being made to live out the fact that all men are created equal.”
He states that the South “founded and named parks, libraries, schools, and colleges for their defeated heroes. . . . They hired the best artists and spent lavish amounts of then-rare cash to erect magnificent statuary to their heroes.” He disagrees strongly with mobs that are destroying them in violation of civility and legality but believes that “these statues to the defiant South’s heroes should have been removed as responsible acts of rational state legislatures.”
Poet Caroline Randall Williams describes her body as a “Confederate monument,” noting that “the black people I come from were owned and raped by the white people I come from.” She writes: “The dream version of the Old South never existed. Any manufactured monument to that time in that place tells half a truth at best. The ideas and ideals it purports to honor are not real.”
As a result, she says, “the monuments of stone and metal, the monuments of cloth and wood, all the man-made monuments, must come down. I defy any sentimental Southerner to defend our ancestors to me. I am quite literally made of the reasons to strip them of their laurels.”
Three: Offensive statues should be replaced.
Historian Sidney Blumenthal and Princeton professor Sean Wilentz have compiled a list of statues they believe should be erected in place of those being removed. Their list includes civil rights leaders, Black soldiers from the Civil War, and African American political leaders.
In addition, a statue of former KKK leader and Confederate soldier Nathan Bedford Forrest has stood in the Tennessee capitol for over forty years but could be replaced by another famous Tennessean. Lawmakers in Nashville are considering options to replace Forrest; according to reports, Dolly Parton is one candidate.
Russell Moore is an evangelical theologian and ethicist who serves as president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. As usual, his insights on this issue are biblical and relevant.
In a recent newsletter, Dr. Moore suggests a threefold approach to the debate over monuments. One marks a historical event for the education of future generations, such as a marker noting where the Battle of Shiloh took place. A second honors people “in spite of their sins and evils, recognizing some other aspect of their character or service.” A third honors people “for their sins and evils.”
Dr. Moore notes: “The first two are legitimate; the third is not.”
He illustrates by asking whether it would be appropriate to depict King David in a church’s stained glass. If the artwork recognizes David as psalmist, giant-slayer, obedient king, and member of the throne line that led to Jesus, of course it would. If, however, it eulogizes David leering at Bathsheba or arranging the murder of Uriah, it would be wrong.
Dr. Moore’s categorization is most helpful in the current debate.
One: Remember history.
Consider his first category: markers and monuments that remind us of historical events. To remove these because we disagree with what happened at these places would be to remove or change the record of history.
I vividly remember my first visit to the Pearl Harbor memorial in Honolulu. As I stood over the submerged remains of the USS Arizona, I thought of the thousands of brave men who died here and across World War II. In no sense does the memorial glorify Japanese aggression or war itself. Rather, it teaches us what happened in the hope that it will not happen again.
If we are to remove every historical marker or memorial to events with which someone disagrees, it would be difficult to have historical markers at all.
Two: Honor what is honorable.
The same logic applies to Dr. Moore’s second category.
Jesus Christ was the only sinless person who ever lived (Hebrews 4:15; Romans 3:23). A statue memorializing any other figure of history can be interpreted by someone to elevate that person’s perceived or real flaws.
Regarding Thomas Jefferson, attorney Randy Baker notes: “I have yet to read where anyone suggests that memorials to Jefferson were erected to honor him as a slaveholder. Truly, is that the way he should be judged as a historical figure? Nay, we honor him for his contributions to the American founding, the inspiring words he penned as the author of the Declaration of Independence, and his service as the third President of the United States.”
Catholic officials are responding to calls for removing a statue of St. Louis’ namesake by pointing to all he did to help the poor and the sick. The Archdiocese of St. Louis states that King Louis IX is “an example of an imperfect man who strived to live a life modeled after the life of Jesus Christ.” It noted that the saint and ruler of France during the thirteenth century opened hospitals and shared his daily meals with beggars.
Critics say that Louis IX led a violent Crusade against Muslims in the Middle East. The archdiocese responds that those seeking change should focus on policies that will dismantle racism and create a more equal society rather than seeking to “erase history.”
Commentator Jonah Goldberg observes: “When people condemn the Founders for keeping slavery intact in slave states, they tend to ignore the context the Founders were living in. The choice they faced wasn’t a Constitution with slavery or a Constitution without it. The choice was a Constitution with slavery—or no Constitution at all.”
He notes that we try not to judge people of other countries and cultures by our standards and adds, “The past is another country, too.”
Three: Dishonor what is dishonorable.
Historian Anton Howes writes: “To the minds of people in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, public art had a very clear purpose . . . Rather than teaching history, or even celebrating the memory of a particular person, so much of the art that still dots our public places was explicitly about inculcating virtue—good morals, and good habits.”
If, over time, we come to believe that statues do not “inculcate the virtues that they were supposed to,” they should be removed and replaced with a statue that “inculcates the virtues that we need.”
In this view, a statue could have been erected for one purpose, such as remembering the Confederate dead or paying tribute to states’ rights. Over time, however, it comes to be viewed as glorifying slavery and rebellion. In this case, it should be removed and replaced.
Princeton professor Sean Wilentz takes a different approach. In his view, “There can be no doubt that statues of Davis, Lee, John C. Calhoun and others are tributes to slavery, secession and racial domination. They were built for precisely those reasons. They have no other possible meaning, apart from transparent euphemisms about states’ rights and federal tyranny. But the same is not true of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., with its paeans to universal enlightenment, equality and religious freedom. It is not true of the Lincoln Memorial, a living monument that for decades has been a touchstone for the nation’s freedom struggles.”
Rather than deciding the merits of statues based on shifting public opinion, he warns: “Unless we can outgrow the conception of history as a simplistic battle between darkness and light—unless we can seek understanding of what those in the past struggled with, as we hope posterity will afford to us—we will be the captives of arrogant self-delusions and false innocence.”
How to know the difference
Given that none of us is without sin, how are we to distinguish between memorials that should be affirmed (category two) and those that should be questioned (category three)?
History professor Jeffrey Collins suggests, “A simple test might ask: What was the purpose of this monument? What was it intended to honor? If that purpose is either historically dead and thus safely inoffensive . . . or historically alive and still valued (Churchill), we should avoid devising rationales of condemnation.”
He notes that the “why” test would doom most statues of Stalin. It might allow Confederate memorials that remember the dead but disallow those celebrating slavery or rebellion. He adds: “Commemorations of Ulysses Grant celebrate him for winning the Civil War, not for waging war on Native Americans. Jefferson is honored for writing the Declaration of Independence, not for holding slaves.”
He adds: “Monuments aren’t erected in a spirit of blind idolatry. They commemorate particular achievements of imperfect people. There are other mechanisms—schools, documentaries, museums—that instruct us on the flaws of our forebears.”
However, he states that society today prefers the “me” question over the “why” question: How does this monument offend my community or me? What imperfection of its subject makes me feel unwelcome or unsafe?
He concludes: “If the public space is shaped by an ever-escalating tide of affront, little will survive except passing embodiments of our current sensibilities. A culture of ceaseless contestation would result, a narcissistic society unable to imagine past times—or future ones—that don’t accept all of our orthodoxies.”
Five biblical principles
The word of God has much to say about statues and the controversy we’re discussing in this paper. Consider five biblical principles:
One: Idolatry is sin.
The second commandment is clear: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God” (Exodus 20:4–5).
This prohibition applied to the golden calf that Aaron constructed and Moses destroyed (Exodus 32). It applied to statues of Baal, the Canaanite deity whose worship would later ensnare the people and threaten their future (cf. 1 Kings 18). It applied as well to Molech, a god worshiped through child sacrifice (Leviticus 18:21).
Idolatry is worshiping or venerating anything or anyone in violation of God’s sovereignty and will. We commit idolatry when we honor people and behavior that defies and disobeys his word.
In the context of our paper, venerating racism and slavery are examples of idolatry. Racism is sin. The God who made us all (Genesis 1:27) as descendants from the same parents (Genesis 3:20) loves each of us unconditionally (John 3:16) and sacrificially (Romans 5:8). Since he “shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34), we are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).
Jesus taught that sin is to be confronted, not excused or honored: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault” (Matthew 18:15). He exposed the hypocrisy of the religious leaders (Matthew 23) and called Simon Peter to repentance (John 21:15–19).
To honor racism and its related sins is to dishonor God and his word.
Two: Remembering our history is vital.
When God prepared his people to be freed from Egyptian slavery, he instituted “the Lord’s Passover” as a perpetual reminder of their exodus and his love (Exodus 12:11).
After the Jews passed through the flooded Jordan River on their way into the Promised Land, the Lord commanded them to “take twelve stones from here out of the midst of the Jordan, from the very place where the priests’ feet stood firmly, and bring them over with you and lay them down in the place where you lodge tonight” (Joshua 4:3).
For this purpose: “When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do these stones mean to you?’ then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it passed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the people of Israel a memorial forever” (vv. 6–7).
Their ark contained “a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron’s staff that budded, and the tablets of the covenant” (Hebrews 9:4). The night Jesus was betrayed, he instituted the Lord’s Supper and taught us to keep it “in remembrance of me” (1 Corinthians 11:25). These were just some of the physical means by which God’s people were to remember our history and his grace.
By extension, monuments and memorials constructed for the purpose of marking, remembering, and teaching history are valuable means of preserving our past and preparing our future.
Three: There has been only one perfect person.
As we noted early, Jesus is the only perfect person who has ever lived. Even the best of our historical figures had flaws and failures (cf. Romans 3:23).
For example, Paul the Apostle said of himself, “Formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent” (1 Timothy 1:13) and called himself the “foremost” of sinners” (v. 15). Abraham lied about his wife to protect himself (Genesis 20:1–13); Moses murdered an Egyptian (Exodus 2:11–12); David’s sin with Bathsheba was horrific (2 Samuel 11); Peter denied Jesus three times (Matthew 26:69–75).
Should statues and artwork depicting them be removed?
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich writes: “President Franklin Delano Roosevelt worked with segregationists, refused to rescue Jews seeking to flee Germany, and locked up Japanese Americans in camps which later led to the United States paying compensation for such a clear injustice. Should we remove the FDR Memorial on the Mall?“
Columnist Elle Reynolds notes that Margaret Sanger, lauded by Planned Parenthood as a “woman of heroic accomplishments” and a “trailblazer in the fight for reproductive rights,” was also a “vocal eugenics activist” who targeted minority populations in her attempts at population control. She also spoke at a Ku Klux Klan rally in 1926. Reynolds also points to reports that Lyndon Johnson was a racist who routinely used the N-word.
Historian David Greenberg responded last year to newly revealed FBI records about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that make very unfavorable allegations. Greenberg notes:
Even if the ugliest charges against King are bolstered by additional evidence, that doesn’t mean we should talk about renaming Martin Luther King Day, tearing down statues of him, or stripping him of his Nobel Prize. In recent years, we’ve had altogether too much wrecking-ball history—history that takes public or private flaws or failings as reason to cast extraordinary men and women out of our political or artistic pantheons. Historians know that even the most admirable figures from our past were flawed, mortal beings—bad parents or bad spouses, capable of violence or cruelty, beholden to sexist or racist ideas, venal or megalomaniac, dishonest or predatory. Awareness of these qualities doesn’t mean despising figures once held up as heroes. Rather, it gives us a more complete and nuanced picture of the people who shaped our world.
Four: What inspires some people offends others.
In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul addressed the issue of eating meat offered to idols. Pagan temples of the day offered parts of animals in sacrifice to their gods, then sold this meat in the marketplace or used it in meals and gatherings.
The apostle noted that “an idol has no real existence” (v. 4). However, “some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled” (v. 7). Paul knew, by contrast, that “food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do” (v. 8).
What, then, should be done? “Take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak” (v. 9). He concluded, “If food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble” (v. 13).
This response would suggest that statues which offend some should be taken down. For example, if some African Americans see Confederate statues as glorifying slavery and racism, we should defer to them and remove these monuments.
However, Paul sometimes confronted people without fear that he might offend them. In responding to the Corinthian church’s toleration of a man who “has his father’s wife” (1 Corinthians 5:1), he demanded that the church “purge the evil person from among you” (v. 13). When he found Peter deferring to the Judaizers rather than supporting Gentile Christians, he “opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned” (Galatians 2:11).
He said of a person who was preaching a false gospel, “let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:9) and asked, “Am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man?” (v. 10).
In other words, deciding what to do about statues is not as simple as removing them if someone is offended by them. Catholic statues venerating Mary offend some Protestants. Statues of Jesus offend some Muslims. A single person’s response could veto an entire community’s wishes.
Earlier, I noted with approval Dr. Moore’s distinction between monuments intended to honor that which is honorable (category two) and those which were erected to honor that which is dishonorable (category three). Now comes the challenge: knowing which is which. We cited historian Jeffrey Collins’ “simple test” that asks, “What was the purpose of this monument?” Here is the problem: who is to answer his question?
Consider the example of Gen. Robert E. Lee.
His father fought with George Washington in the Revolutionary War. Lee graduated second in his class at West Point; Gen. Winfield Scott said of his service during the Mexican-American War that he was “the very best soldier I ever saw in the field.”
He opposed the secession of his native Virginia but refused an invitation to command the Union army, stating he “could take no part in an invasion of the Southern states.” He led the Confederate army until surrendering to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. He then became president of Washington College (later Washington and Lee University) in Lexington, Virginia, where he served to his death in 1870.
He wrote to his wife in 1856, “In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country.” However, Lee also stated that slavery was “a greater evil to the white man than to the black race.”
In his view, “The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence. Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild & melting influence of Christianity, than the storms & tempests of fiery Controversy.”
He and his wife inherited slaves from her father, who apparently intended that they be freed at his death. In 1862, Lee filed a deed of manumission to free these slaves, individually naming more than 150 of them. Three years earlier, however, when some tried to escape but were caught, one said that Gen. Lee gave orders that they be lashed.
Gen. Lee reportedly did not support rights for black citizens and was largely silent about violence perpetrated by white supremacists during Reconstruction. However, he was also opposed to erecting Confederate monuments, writing in 1869 that it would be wiser “not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife.”
All this to say, some see statues of Gen. Lee as tributes to the best of the South. His reputation as a Christian and a defender of states’ rights and the “Lost Cause” leads them to see him as an example worthy of honor. Others view him as a leader and example of the Confederate rebellion against our nation and a perpetrator of prejudice and slavery.
Whose opinion should prevail?
Five: We should make communal decisions in community
Public statues, by definition, affect the public. This paper is not concerned with private artwork viewed only by a few but with memorials intended to be seen by the communities where it is displayed.
As a result, decisions regarding public art should be made by the public.
Scripture teaches, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For these is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1). In our context, this principle endorses the rule of law in its local and national expressions.
To be specific: when a statue is viewed by some as “category two” (honoring that which is honorable) but others as “category three” (honoring that which is dishonorable), we should decide how to respond by utilizing our governing principles and processes. Some communities would defer to their elected officials; others would hold elections, petition drives, or referendums; others would find other means of gauging and following the community’s wishes.
Some communities might remove statues found to be offensive. Others might reframe them by adding other figures (as Frederick Douglass suggested) or installing plaques or other means of educating those who view them. Others might relocate them to museums for this purpose. Still others might replace them with figures considered to be worthier of honor.
After Constantine legalized Christianity in the fourth century, Christians took down idolatrous statues across Athens. During the Reformation, many icons and other devotional images were removed.
In today’s context, when statues are erected by the public to be viewed by the public, the public should decide how best to respond to questions about their enduring value and significance.
The question of removing statues has obviously become extremely emotional and divisive. Whatever your position on this issue, you should engage those with whom you disagree with respect: “Do not speak evil against one another, brothers” (James 4:11).
We are “to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people” (Titus 3:2). We are to “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).
And we are to seek and speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). We love our neighbor by standing for truth, and we stand for truth by loving our neighbor.
How is the issue of removing statues relevant to you where you live?
How can you respond by loving your neighbor in practical, compassionate ways?
What difference can you make that advances the kingdom of God and the public good?
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was right: “Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.”