In an unprecedented move, I’m forced to blog twice in one week. Both yesterday’s post and this one are very much needed and come from a pastor’s heart. Forgive me in advance if I offend you, but if biblical truth offends you, line up with it. It won’t change, and I won’t apologize for it. But I am not the source of biblical truth and am therefore subject to error. The views below which are outside of Scripture are my own, and I don’t presume to speak for anyone else, least of all the Almighty. I debated saying anything at all, but circumstances demand a faithful response.
I’m not sure we qualify to call ourselves the United States of America anymore. We’re states alright, and this is still America, but united, we are not. Right now, we’re divided on everything surrounding our values and our history. Racism, Civil War statues, Nazis . . . I thought these matters were settled.
Let me say two things that absolutely should not be controversial. First, racism is evil. Always. Period. For many reasons. We know from the creation narrative we are all made equally in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27). All human beings bear that stamp of divinity we call the imago Dei irrespective of race, ability, age, or other factors. We further know from Galatians 3:28 race has no bearing on access to God or value in His eyes. Finally, Revelation 7:9 explicitly states people “from every nation, tribe, people, and language” assemble in heaven. No one is less-than in or omitted from the kingdom of God based on race, ethnicity, or other criterion other than relationship to Jesus Christ. And if that’s not enough to convince you, please remember: Jesus isn’t a white man.
Secondly, if racism is evil, which it clearly is, Nazism is as well. It is a militant racism, militant discrimination. The ideology of genetic/racial/religious superiority is so vile, so abhorrent, the world banded together to put a stop to its spread. If your ideology has its roots in the origins of the Holocaust, if it can be directly linked to genocide, if its hero is one of the most evil men to ever walk the face of the planet, then you need a new ideology. Don’t call it “free speech,” and certainly don’t call it “American patriotism.” We, as a country, fought in a world war to put an end to it. The swastika is our enemy, not our greatest good. And when our president fails to denounce it outright until pressured to do so, we have problems. It shouldn’t be that difficult to say Nazis are a bad thing.
Again, those things shouldn’t be controversial. What I’m about to say will be, however, especially in my context.
The matter of the Confederate statues is, well, beyond simple description. The statues that aren’t being moved or removed are being forcibly pulled down by angry mobs. In America. Those people say the statues represent the glorification of the great American evil, slavery. They argue (rightly) we don’t have statues to the losers of the other wars we’ve fought. And the country that would see them as true heroes and patriots, the Confederate States of America, no longer exists. Just as we have no monuments to Benedict Arnold, they say, we should have no statues of other traitors to the United States.
On the flip side, Southerners are notoriously proud of their southern heritage, and they bristle at the things going on the “godless” (I prefer “frozen”) North. The Confederacy, it’s argued, wasn’t about slavery but about the overreach of the federal government impinging upon states’ rights to govern themselves. The men of those statues are heroes who stood against tyranny to preserve a way of life. Tearing them down, they say, is tantamount to rewriting history and ignoring the sins of our own government.
Clearly only one group is correct.
I’m not a historian. It still seems to me, though, that slavery was the rallying point for a laundry list of states’ rights violations. In this way, the debate over slavery was the greatest symptom of a deeper problem, and so it became the public face of the war. I could easily be wrong. Regardless it is undeniable the men on those monuments fought to keep slavery in practice. Period. It was a constitutional right in the CSA, and we cannot pretend otherwise just because popular opinion surrounding slaveholding has changed. To deny this is to be guilty of erasing history — the very charge leveled against those calling for the removal of the statues.
This is a salient point. We must never destroy, whitewash, or deny historical truths. But neither can we diminish or abrogate the force of those truths by comparison to other historic evils. And the prevalence of precisely that is what demanded I write this today.
I’ve seen many people argue in favor of the South by saying African-Americans cannot speak about slavery from a special position since whites and other races have been slaves at various points in history as well. I personally refer to this as “illegitimizing of anger”: you can’t be angry because I deny the reason for you to be so is valid. In this specific example, it’s frankly outrageous. American enslavement of Africans has been widely recognized as one of (if not the) cruelest forms of slavery on record. But even if that were not true, why can’t we say it was evil and call other forms of the institution evil, too, and just stop there? Why not cry out against all forms of slavery, including current ones, instead of saying everyone was a slave so get over it? It’s infuriating we are unable to accept the realities of evil.
But wait, the common objection goes, no one alive in the U.S. today was ever a slave; they have nothing to complain about. The men on those statues did have slaves or at the very least fought for others to keep theirs; there’s your necessary historical component. By way of analogy, would you want a statue of your great-great-great-grandmother’s serial rapist and murderer on display in the town square as the local hero — because, after all, nothing ever happened to you personally? I thought not. I can agree this sort of argument can seem out of hand at times (you can’t use “my ancestor was a slave” as an excuse for everything), but it doesn’t make it less true on the whole for the discussion at hand.
A second disturbing comparison I’ve been seeing lately is likening the display of Confederate statues to Jews keeping Auschwitz in existence — because, as we all know, the Confederate battle cry was “Arbeit macht frei.” This comparison states we keep the one around as a reminder to ensure such evil never happens again, and so we should keep the other for the same reason. Remind me, though: what large, vocal minority of the German people wave swastikas around and treat concentration camps as places of hero worship? Oh, right, they can’t; it’s illegal in Germany. We, however, treat those statues, those graven images, as idols and elevate them as ideals; similar idolatry of Buchenwald is unthinkable. The comparison fails since we simply don’t see the generals of the CSA as villainous, as evils which should never recur.
Suppose, then, you still personally attribute positive meaning to the CSA monuments and maintain your stance as the historically-correct view of them. That’s what they stood for when erect, in other words, and that’s their only true meaning: champions of states’ rights against a government who only served some of her people. Original intent is all that matters, you say. I’m afraid this argument won’t hold up, either. Statues are symbols, and the meanings of symbols change over time. There are countless crosses worn by Christians, for example, because the naked cross represents atonement accomplished, salvation, and resurrection in our religion. Its original meaning, of course, was the torturous death of criminals and political dissidents. Wearing a cross around your neck in the time of the Roman Empire is unfathomable; it’d be like wearing a pendant of an electric chair today. The meaning has shifted.
Or let’s borrow an analogy from language. If I saw you laughing, smiling, and in a generally good mood around a century ago, I may easily remark to you, “You’re gay today.” If I did that to certain people in our own time, I wouldn’t escape the encounter with all of my teeth still in my head. “Gay” no longer refers to “happy.” It refers to homosexuality. The term can no longer be used even as it was a century ago — and many words change meaning more than once across the years. Now you can say we just need to educate the public and reclaim the original intent, but history shows us it doesn’t work that way; what has passed is past. Simply put, the meanings of symbols change over time, be it right or wrong, and we must live in those present realities.
In our current society, with our current problems with racism, discrimination, and neo-Nazis, maybe the loving response is to remove icons which have come to represent those evils, evils the figures in the monuments valued for themselves, regardless of other earlier meanings. The Civil War itself will never be forgotten; that’s guaranteed. It won’t be removed from our history books or cultural memory regardless of how many statues we don’t have around. (And the historiography argument cuts both ways, anyway). Again, it’s just not going anywhere. It won’t be forgotten, but it needn’t be glorified, either — war never should be.
As a Southerner and an Appalachian — and a fairly conservative one at that — let me close with an appeal to you to truly love your neighbor as yourself and to frame this issue in those terms. If the reason we insist on keeping those statues is “I’m culturally vindicated” and not “I love you,” they need to come down. Likewise, if the reason to tear them down is “We’re historically vindicated” and not “We love you,” they need to stay up. I personally say it may be time for their removal — not because of political correctness or pressure, not even out of concerns of historiography, but out of love for my brothers and sisters.
And remember: old soldiers never die. They just . . .
. . . fade . . .
. . . away . . .