The Story: Over the past two weeks, numerous efforts have been introduced across the United States to remove Confederate flags, statues, and memorabilia.
The Background: Some examples of monuments and memorials being removed include:
• The U.S. Marine Corps ordered the removal of all public displays of the Confederate flag—including from things like mugs, bumper stickers, and posters—from Marine installations. The U.S. Navy is adopting a similar policy, and the U.S. Army is reportedly expected to soon make a decision about such displays.
• Bipartisan proposals were introduced in Congress that would form a commission to make recommendations for renaming bases and Defense Department property that honors Confederate leaders. (President Trump responded on Twitter, “[M]y Administration will not even consider the renaming of these Magnificent and Fabled Military Installations. Our history as the Greatest Nation in the World will not be tampered with.”)
• House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called for the removal of nearly a dozen statues in the U.S. Capitol depicting Confederate leaders.
• NASCAR announced that, effective immediately, displays of the Confederate flag would be prohibited from all events and properties.
• The president of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, announced that a gavel named for a slaveholder would be retired. “Southern Baptists, I think it is time to retire the Broadus gavel,” J. D. Greear said in a statement. “While we do not want to, nor could we, erase our history, it is time for this gavel to go back into the display case at the Executive Committee offices.”
Why It Matters: Washington, D.C., is a city of remembrance. Within its 68 square miles, America’s capital city hosts more than 160 monuments and memorials. Many of them, such as the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial, honor the country’s leaders. But throughout the city are smaller memorials to lesser-known figures, such as the statue celebrating José Artigas, the “father of Uruguayan independence,” and the one honoring those men who remained on the Titanic in order to save the women and children on board.
Whether dedicated to the famous or the obscure, each memorial sends the same message: Don’t forget—remember this person or this cause. Rather than leave the events and people to the fragile pages of history books, their remembrance is entrusted to cloth, granite, marble, and steel. But what if the cause represented is not worthy of commemoration? How do we know when public memorials cause should be torn down?
In 2017, pastor-theologian John Piper offered three questions we should ask when deciding if a public memorial is good for a community or a nation. To his list, I’d add a couple more.
What is our intention in desiring to keep/remove a memorial? — Paul tells us to “do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). Our ultimate decision about memorials should be determined by which course of action we truly believe would bring the most glory to God. While not every Christian will agree on what that means, it should be our guiding principle.
What reality is being memorialized? — Because history is overseen by our sovereign God, Christians should agree that reality is objective. We do not have the same access to historical knowledge as God, though, so our interpretations of history are often subjective. However, subjectivity should not be confused with willful ignorance or concession to historical propaganda. Christians should strive to uncover historical truth.
A prime example is the historical truth about the Confederate flag. It’s shocking how many Americans are willing to defend the flag and yet don’t know basic facts about the symbol, such as that it was never the official flag of the Confederate States of America and that it only became popular in the mid-20th century when it was adopted as a symbol by several segregationist and white supremacists groups.
It is also baffling how Christians can claim the Civil War was about “state’s rights” despite the fact that the Confederacy made it clear the primary right the states wanted was to protect the institution of slavery. We should be honest about history and strive to understand the reality we’re memorializing.
Is this reality worthy of public admiration and emulation? — For certain memorials, particularly those celebrating a cause, this question is easy enough to answer. The Confederate flag was a symbol adopted by white supremacists because it celebrated the “heritage” of those who betrayed their country and fought to defend the enslavement of black Americans. That is not a cause worthy of admiration or emulation.
When the memorial is of a person, though, the issue becomes more complex, which is why we need to consider the next question.
Is the person who is symbolically embodying this reality so compromised with evil that regardless of the reality being memorialized, the person is too tarnished even to be used to memorialize something worthy? — In answering this question, we should consider both the person’s character and the reason they are being memorialized. Consider, for example, two military leaders, George Washington and Robert E. Lee. Both men are frequently remembered for being of noble character. And yet both men owned enslaved people. Does that make them equally tarnished?
While reasonable Christians may disagree, I don’t think the memorials of the two men are equivalent. Washington is remembered despite his support of the evil cause of slavery, while Lee is primarily known only because he fought to defend slavery. Washington helped to establish the flawed U.S. Constitution (a document that would later outlaw slavery when amended) while Lee broke his oath to defend that Constitution to support the cause of keeping black Americans forever in chains. Washington’s legacy is compromised by his support of slavery, but Lee’s is inexplicably linked with this racist sin.
What criteria should we use as a limiting factor? — Unless we become iconoclasts and support the removal of all memorials, we will need to define a limiting factor in determining what should be removed. From Jonathan Edwards to Margaret Sanger, American history is filled with men and women who endorsed the white supremacy of their day. How do we decide what memorials to them must be discarded?
It’s not an easy question to answer, and the decision will require negotiating with our fellow citizens. For example, some of us may be willing to discard all public displays commemorating the traitorous Confederacy or their evil stepchildren in the era of Jim Crow, and yet would not be eager to toss aside all displays related to the slave-owning Founding Fathers. Where we draw the line of “too tarnished, too compromised” may be based more on emotion than reason. But we need to be willing to set a standard and defend others who are willing to agree to the same terms. This will likely result in unusual alliances. (For example, even those who oppose Martin Luther King may feel the need to defend his statue when the LGBT activists eventually seek to remove it because of his views on homosexuality.)
Ultimately, though, we must always return to the initial question: What will bring the most glory to God? We should be willing to tear down any monument in America if it becomes an idol for us, and to leave every memorial standing if our actions required to remove them would bring dishonor to God. All we do should be done, as Joshua told the Israelites, so that “all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the LORD is powerful” and so that we “might always fear the LORD your God” (Josh. 4:24)