Erasing History? A Symposium

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Recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, have raised sharp questions about what ought to be done with old memorials to historical figures and movements now recognized as problematic at best, deeply hurtful at worst. What is to be done about statues and stained-glass windows of Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson, heroes of the Confederacy? What about other kinds of memorials: Confederate soldiers, or British colonialists? Should they all be removed? Or does that amount to erasing history? Where do we draw the line? Is it better to leave them intact but clearly labeled and historically situated, alongside new memorials to faithful witnesses to justice and freedom? As Christian leaders — forgiven sinners, preachers of God’s justice and reconciliation, and members of Christ’s body through time and space — how do we lead our churches and communities as we ask these difficult questions?

Memorials as Symbols

By Kelly Brown Douglas

Since the Charlottesville “Unite the Right Rally,” ostensibly to protest the removal of a statue memorializing Robert E. Lee, one thing has become clear to many for whom it was perhaps not clear before. Confederate monuments are more than markers of history. They are symbols of white supremacy. This is evinced not only by the Charlottesville coalition of white supremacists, who demonstrated with lit torches evocative of Ku Klux Klan rallies and mob lynchings, but also by the historical relationship between racial progress in America and the erection of Confederate monuments. A study by the Southern Poverty Law Center shows that “cities and states — mostly in the South — responded (to racial progress) by erecting such monuments.”

This was the case following the Civil War in an effort to promote a “Lost Cause ideology,” and in response to 1950s-1960s civil rights legislation precipitated by the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. In fact, historian John Coski has pointed out that it was following the 1954 Brown decision that the Confederate flag became a decided symbol for white supremacy. It is fitting, therefore, that preserving public displays of monuments to Confederate generals has become a rallying point for white supremacists. After all, these generals engaged in a treasonous rebellion to preserve the institutionalized economic manifestation of white supremacy: slavery. Inasmuch as these monuments are displayed in public squares, they serve as national symbols suggesting an ugly truth about America: that the ideology and legacy of white supremacy remains an acceptable part of our nation’s cultural, social, and political fabric.

When Confederate memorials or icons are displayed within sacred spaces, their meaning is even more unsettling — they become sacred/religious symbols. They therefore have theological implications, indicating something not only about the people and culture that shelter them, but also something about God. At worst they imply that God is a white supremacist, and at best that not all persons are equal in God’s sight. The display of Confederate symbols within sacred spaces is anathema to a loving and just God for whom there is “neither slave nor free.” At the least, a display of these symbols within sacred spaces insinuates theological legitimacy for white supremacist ideologies and values. Therefore, just as Confederate memorials do not belong in our nation’s public spaces, they belong even less within our sacred spaces.

And so, where do they belong? Whatever else they are, these Confederate monuments are markers of our past. This is a past that should not be forgotten or erased if ever we as a nation are to live into the truth of who we are. For these monuments tell the story of a nation that has consistently struggled to decide if our democratic vision is more rhetoric than reality. Are we going to continue the legacy of being a slaveholding nation? Will we live into the vision of being a nation of liberty and justice for all?

Confederate monuments therefore belong in historical spaces meant to provoke reflection and uncomfortable conversations about the truth of who we are and want to be as a nation and people. Moreover, it is within these spaces that these monuments can be placed in a broader historical context that accounts for the stories that are erased and ignored by their unique displays in public spaces, namely the stories of those who have been victimized by white supremacist ideologies and institutions — “the least of these” to whom God calls our attention.

In the end, the debate about whether Confederate monuments and memorials belong in public or sacred spaces involves more than cultural wars or political correctness. It is about our values as a nation and our beliefs about God.

The Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas is dean of Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary and canon theologian at Washington National Cathedral.

They Still Have a Place

By Brandt L. Montgomery

During the early days of my ordained ministry, I attended a meeting at a church that had recently dissolved its relationship with its rector. Because I had never been to that church before, I took the opportunity to look around. Along one of the halls I walked down were portraits of all the church’s previous rectors, including, to my surprise, one of the immediate past rector.

Speaking with a parishioner I knew well, I mentioned how, considering all that had happened, I was surprised to see the former rector’s portrait hanging in such honorable fashion. The parishioner responded that although some there were not exactly thrilled about it, most saw how important it was to recognize that the former rector still had a place in that parish’s story. By hanging his portrait along with all the others, they recognized the real albeit troubled place in their history he represented. And who knows how to mark the true measure of his place there, and the place they all had in that story? As the Preacher said in Ecclesiastes: “All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return. Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth?” (Eccles. 3:20-21).

The question of removing memorials of Confederate officers and soldiers is a fraught one. Yet I believe we as Anglican Christians have an opportunity to make a powerful witness. Yes, the original intent behind these memorials is now out of sync with a country more racially, ethnically, and politically diverse. Like the unfortunate situation between the former rector and his parishioners, they have caused disagreement and dissension among many. Yet, do not the figures that these memorials depict still have a place in our story? For many, this is a hard concept to grasp, let alone accept. But the fact of the matter is that these individuals, flawed as they were in their motives and actions, compose a part of the American story. As painful as the memory may be, these memorials of Confederate rebels remind us that they, too, played some part in getting us to where we are now.

Let me be clear: as an African-American, I am in no way an admirer of the Confederacy. Yet there is a paradoxical benefit I see in keeping these memorials from bygone years. The Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville and the Alfred Mouton monument in my own Lafayette now overlook cities and churches that have rejected the segregation and enslavement that those men once fought for. They are no longer generals commanding armies, but statues from another time. Might we not see in this both a recognition of the evils of our history and a visible testament of God’s redemptive work and deliverance? They have a place in the great American story, but as they now look out on cities that celebrate a diversity and acceptance they could not have imagined, they remind us that all people have a place, not just them.

Instead of taking these memorials down, let us erect more that represent the rest of the great American story from their time: Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas, standing strong and eye-to-eye with old General Lee, every bit as dignified. Their story is ours too. Let us tell the whole story, not just some. Let us show that it is not the word of the oppressor that stands forever, but only God’s word of love and reconciliation.

The Rev. Brandt L. Montgomery is associate rector of the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Lafayette, Louisiana.

More than Statues Can Say

By David Cox

To paraphrase an insurance ad, we in the church know a thing or two about statues because we’ve seen a thing or two about statues. Consider St. Cuthbert’s Church in Wells, England. A side chapel displays what’s left after ardent Reformers, led by an image-hating bishop around 1550, pulled down every image on the reredos. Unable to yank off the carving of one deceased local luminary above the altar, they chopped it off, lest future generations imperil their souls by worshiping false idols.

They may have had legitimate grievances against medieval excesses. But they did not seem to ponder whose statues they tore down, nor consider why each might have gone up in the first place.

That’s one problem with statues. Why they were built, what they signified in days past, and what they signify in the present all defy easy categorization — or should. Compare statues of Robert E. Lee. In Lexington, Virginia, where I live, a recumbent statue, commissioned by his wife and friends just weeks after Lee died in 1870, shows him asleep in uniform on his battlefield cot (a strange pose for a general). It rests a floor above his tomb, in an addition to the chapel Lee conceived for the college he led (now Washington and Lee University) in striving to rebuild the South and reconcile the nation, after the war he had similarly helped to lead.

Just 75 miles away stands (for the moment) a monumental depiction of Lee, in uniform, riding Traveller as if about to defeat the Yankees yet again. It went up around 1920, when segregation pervaded the nation, not just the South. Most likely, some placed it prominently on public property in yet another act of racial domination and/or of Lost Cause pride. Yet Lee was still then widely honored not only by Virginians and Southerners, but increasingly throughout the nation. And some may well have held multiple motives.

Yet that raises a further problem. Statues are not people. Living beings tend to be so complex that they contradict, or transcend, whatever the statue-makers have in mind. Lee spent four years fighting a war he had doubts about winning, the reasons for which he questioned, and for the institution of slavery he largely scorned: Such paradoxes come through in his statements and letters. Not in statues.

Moreover, people change. Stone doesn’t, nor what stone represents. Lee moved past war even before its end. On the eve of surrendering at Appomattox, Lee dismissed his subordinates’ notion to let his soldiers slip off to wage guerrilla war. He said that would amount to an equivalent of “domestic terrorism” that would be bloody, fruitless, and pointless.

There was another concern. A firm believer in providence, he concluded that God had ordained who won the war. He, therefore, had to deal with the fact that the cause was lost, demanding that he, and all those of good will, should reconcile, rebuild, and create a lasting peace. With a sense of mission, he chose in leading that forsaken college to train the young in the ways of righteousness. And he became, I believe, not only the paramount moral voice of the South but arguably the entire nation.

The window in Washington Cathedral illustrated that metanoia. It showed Lee the general, but also Lee the educator. It’s gone now, but removing it may say as much about our days than his. Rather like those blank niches at St. Cuthbert’s, Wells.

Our public squares, like family attics, deserve a good housecleaning. But let us be judicious about it, pondering perhaps what people might think in, say, 500 years.

The Rev. David Cox is professor of history at Southern Virginia University in Buena Vista, Virginia, and author of The Religious Life of Robert E. Lee (Eerdmans, 2017).

Heads of Gold, Feet of Clay

By Peter Doll

During its more than 900 years of history, much has happened at Norwich Cathedral of which we have reason to be ashamed. Our most lamentable story is that of a child still known to many as “little St. William of Norwich.” On Good Friday 1144, the mutilated corpse of William, a 13-year-old tanner’s apprentice, was found on a heath outside the city. Members of his family accused the Jews of Norwich of having crucified William. The monastic community of the cathedral priory received his body and encouraged the development of the cult of William as a child martyr. This cathedral carries the sorry burden of being the source of what has come to be known as the blood libel, an accusation against Jews repeated in many places and at many times across the centuries.

Until the last 20 years or so, the cathedral tried to ignore or silently pass over this part of its history. Since 1997, however, William has been publicly and liturgically remembered in a chapel close to the place of his original shrine and dedicated in the presence of Jewish representatives to the Holy Innocents, to be a place for remembering the sufferings of all innocent victims, particularly the young. It is also a place of prayer for reconciliation between people of different faiths, remembering especially all victims of Christian-Jewish persecution. To remember, to use this sad history as a basis for truth-telling, penitence, and reconciliation, has been far more fruitful than leaving a void and seeking to obliterate unpleasant memories.

Even though William died almost 900 years ago and the Confederate generals only 150 years ago, their cases are worth remembering together, for anti-Semitism is just as much a part of the contemporary agenda in our societies as racial discrimination. Any object or idea that can prick the deep-seated wounds in our humanity can have a significant role to play. It’s arguable that the statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville was doing a good job of reminding people of a shameful chapter of America’s national story, of soaking up anger, and of inspiring a desire for change. If you threaten to take the statue away, arguably you bring in its place the Ku Klux Klan and personal violence, injury, and death.

Both British and American societies are too wedded to simplistic accounts of their national stories, clinging to myths of heroes beyond reproach prevailing over the most sinister villains. As one who grew up in the nation’s capital and was formed spiritually at Washington National Cathedral, I am deeply conscious of the way in which the cathedral was created to be a place, like Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral, in which the nation’s story and its heroes are enshrined. It should be incumbent on the Christian Church, however, to remind our societies that there is no such thing as an unsullied hero.

Even the greatest of the saints of the Church are humanly flawed and have feet of clay. St. Peter, the rock on which Christ built his Church, repeatedly betrayed his Lord. He was the rock who ran away. All human beings other than our Lord are compromised. None of us is in a position to cast the first stone or to stand in ultimate judgment over our fellow sinners. There is a danger that statue and window removal can become a Pelagian project, a mistaken and vain assumption that we are capable of eradicating evil and cleansing our own sinfulness. We need reminders of our historical follies to prompt penitence, dialogue, reconciliation and, by God’s grace, forgiveness.

The Rev. Peter Doll is canon librarian at Norwich Cathedral.


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