Confederate monuments and controversy

June 19th, 2017

A tale of two monuments

On Memorial Day of this year, my small Virginia town dedicated a new monument honoring those who died in military service during the major wars of the 20th century — the World Wars, Korea and Vietnam. Atop the monument is a color photo of a young marine named Jerry Clark Burkhead. Burkhead was 20 years old in 1968 when he died fighting for control of a hill in the Vietnamese countryside.

Flags for all the branches of the armed services surround the black granite monument. An empty chair reminds visitors of those who never returned and remain unaccounted for. “We honor them with the memory of their sacrifice,” says a quote on the memorial. “May it never be forgotten.”

Across the street stands another monument to another war. This monument is much taller, with a stylized solider standing sentry like many other such monuments that were erected around the same time. It, too, is a reminder of sacrifice, but it’s also more.

Whereas the new memorial emphasizes the costs and virtue of military service, this other monument, like many others across the South, is a memorial to the Confederate cause. “They fought for conscience sake and died for right,” is inscribed upon its stone base. “They died for the principles upon which all true republics are founded.”

In New Orleans and throughout the South, city governments are removing Confederate monuments. They argue that the version of history represented by these monuments no longer reflects the community’s consensus about how to remember the Civil War. What does Christian faith have to say about how we remember such things?

Why are there no slave ship monuments?

On May 11 in the early morning darkness of New Orleans, workers clad in tactical vests and face masks dismantled a monument to Confederate president Jefferson Davis that had stood atop its pedestal for 106 years. As the removal took place, police stood nearby separating groups with opposing views on the removal. The removal had been delayed by legal wrangling since 2015, following a city council vote to remove four public monuments. Three of the monuments celebrated Confederate figures like Davis. The fourth was an obelisk remembering the Battle of Liberty Place, an insurrection led by the Crescent City White League against the Reconstruction-era state government.

In a speech explaining the city’s actions, New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu stated, “These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.” Landrieu went on to question “why there are no slave ship monuments, no prominent markers on public land to remember the lynchings or the slave blocks; nothing to remember this long chapter of our lives; the pain, the sacrifice, the shame — all of it happening on the soil of New Orleans.”

Backlash to the removal

Other city and state governments have taken similar actions to remove Confederate monuments and symbols from public areas. Following the June 2015 shooting at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston committed by a white supremacist, the state of South Carolina removed the Confederate flag from the State House grounds.

However, there has also been backlash to these efforts. In Charlottesville, Virginia, a plan to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee spurred a torchlit rally to save the monument. B. Frank Earnest Sr., the heritage defense coordinator for the Sons of Confederate Veterans in Virginia, said, “We should really honor the fact that we have statues of Robert E. Lee — who gave everything he owned to defend Virginia.” Glenn Davis, a candidate for lieutenant governor in Virginia, then said that Lee “was one of the most passionate Virginians that our commonwealth has ever had, and if someone wants to start taking down his monuments they need to start with his statue in the old House of Delegates chamber. And God help the person that tries.”

More memory, not less

Those who advocate for keeping the monuments often point to heritage and the sacrifice of the fallen as their defense, but there are other arguments for keeping at least some of these monuments. The first is practical — removing the monuments is expensive. According to USA Today, Louisville spent $400,000 to move a seven-story Confederate memorial out of the city.

Another argument poses more philosophical questions about society’s historical progress. Does the simple removal of stones really move us to a new level of discussion and engagement? That’s the easy part, but it’s also functionally destructive. Where’s the constructive counterpart? Who’ll build the new monuments that we need to tell new stories about our past as Mayor Landrieu asked? Don’t we need more memory rather than less?

In an article for The Atlantic, historian David Blight writes, “It is difficult for historians to favor monument destruction or removal. We worry endlessly about historical erasure or purposeful ignorance of any kind. We favor debate however conflicted, and new memorials that augment or change the narratives told on our public landscapes.”

Nevertheless, Blight says he welcomes the conversation that the removal controversy initiates. “If this process makes Americans learn and think about our history more knowingly and reflectively, if painfully, it is all for the good.”

A plural history in Scripture

The Bible emphasizes the importance of memory. It also acknowledges that our history can be reclaimed in different ways. For instance, Exodus 20:8-11 explains the Sabbath commandment as a means to recall how God rested on the seventh day after Creation. Then, in Deuteronomy 5:12-15, the same commandment is grounded in the desire to remember Israel’s slavery in Egypt.

Additionally, the Bible often offers differing views of history. The narratives of 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings provide honest portraits of both Saul and David, warts and all, to emphasize what God can do even with fallible instruments. However, 1 and 2 Chronicles cover the same historical ground and highlight themes of faithfulness. They leave out more difficult scenes such as David’s sin with Bathsheba. Both versions of the story are useful in proper context.

But God also knows we have a tendency to manipulate old stories to suit our ends. John the Baptist warned those who came out to the wilderness not to rely on their family lineage as a source of salvation. “I tell you that God is able to raise up Abraham’s children from these stones,” he said in Matthew 3:9, emphasizing that God can always begin new stories.

No finished history

There’s one final feature of biblical history and narrative that sheds light on how Christians might view the Confederate memorial controversies: The story of the Bible, the story of God in history, is incomplete. All the stories of Scripture are placed within the larger timeline of God’s redemption through Christ and the final redemption of all things. There are no finished histories, even when we try to inscribe those histories in stone.

Wrestling with our history, particularly in the case of the Confederacy and slavery, is painful precisely because the monuments attempt to give meaning to that sad chapter of our story, but there’s also so much left unsaid. These monuments neglect the ugly things: the horrors of war, the senseless suffering of slavery and the continuing ideology of white supremacy.

A movement is underway in my county to erect another monument. This one would memorialize the black residents who fought for the North in the Civil War. It will make an interesting contrast to the other two memorials on our main street. No doubt it will be an uncomfortable tension. After all, the Confederate memorial says, “They — died for right.” If the new monument says the same, then we’ve got to have a discussion.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

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