Last weekend, a series of protests erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia. Dubbed “Unite the Right,” the protests drew members of the “alt-right,” including various white nationalists and white supremacist groups. Among the protesters were neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan. The protests turned tragic and deadly when neo-Nazi James Fields crashed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring several others.
At the heart of these protests was a plan by the city of Charlottesville to remove a statue of the Confederate General Robert E. Lee. To many white southerners, this borders on sacrilege, as many of their ancestors died fighting for the Confederacy. However, to African-Americans, Lee and other symbols of the Confederacy represent American chattel slavery, one of the most evil institutions the world has ever known.
Since the protests, many cities quietly removed Confederate monuments, hoping to avoid unrest like that in Charlottesville. This has prompted a social media backlash, with conservatives defending the monuments and protesting their removal.
History is messy business, and the Civil War and the events leading up to it are exceptional in their messiness. The truth behind most history is rarely ever as clear-cut good vs. bad as people want it to be. Slavery was not the only issue behind the Civil War. But it was most definitely an issue. It would be dishonest to ignore that much of the south’s prewar wealth and prosperity came on the backs of slaves and that it stood to lose greatly from slavery’s abolition. Yes, state’s rights were also an issue, and our present runaway federal bureaucracy is proof that this concept has been neglected. But state’s rights are not a good that blots out all evils. Lee was a brilliant military tactician. However, he also fought on the side that sought to deny personhood based on the color of one’s skin. I have written before about the biblical doctrine of the imago dei–that all persons are created in the image of God, and endowed with certain value as a result. Few events in the history of the world more blatantly disregarded this doctrine than American slavery. People were kidnapped from their homes and became property.
To many, Lee and the other heroes of the Confederacy are unimpeachable. They are the side that should have won. To speak ill of them is on par with attacking dear family members or religious figures. Attempts to point out flaws are met with denials or excuses. This is dishonest history. Every historical figure has flaws and blind spots (except one, who died for our flaws and blind spots).
Because historical figures have flaws, we need to be careful of who we choose to defend and honor, because it has implications on the here and now. Imagine as an African-American, hearing that the Confederates were the good guys and should have won. It becomes more than just political theory. They hear that one would prefer that a regime remained in power that would see them as nothing more than animals or property. A regime that would look the other way at their beating, rape, and murder. A regime that clamors for rights while denying many people in its jurisdiction any rights at all. I, for one, do not see that as something we should defend or build statues of. I’m not willing to pay that freight. And I’ll say it–I don’t think anyone else should either. I think the statues should come down.
“But,” people object, “the statues are our history! You’re destroying our history!” Are they? Statues are not the embodiment of history. I don’t recall ever seeing any statues depicting Genghis Khan. They’re probably out there, but nowhere I have been. That doesn’t mean that Genghis Khan never existed, or that I don’t know he existed, or that anyone is attempting to conceal that knowledge from me. If people started burning history books to prevent the story of history from being told, I’d be concerned. I’d be at the front of that protest line with my fire extinguisher. But statues are not history incarnate. Statues honor people. I have a problem with honoring people who died over 100 years ago at the expense of cruelty to my fellow image-bearers of God who are alive now.
“You’re just being politically correct!” some will say. Am I? I would contend that I am trying to follow the biblical example to love my neighbor, even at the expense of what I want.
We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me. (Romans 15:1-3)
Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. (1 Peter 3:8)
For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)
MY history, MY politics, and MY desires are not important. What is important is to live my life as best I can to glorify Christ and proclaim his gospel. To every tribe, tongue, and nation. People are created in God’s image. Statues are cheap imitations. I will not do harm to or revile the former to defend the latter. ♦