By / Jul 9

Charleston, South Carolina, is a place of deep aesthetic beauty, a rich culture, and a complex history shaped by piracy, race-based chattel slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow. The iconography of an era gone by still influences life and culture today. As a history buff and local pastor, it is interesting to see the impact of Charleston on American history. However, there comes a point in time where we have to not only recognize history but also to reckon with it. The current nationwide protests and discourse regarding race and justice is bringing that reckoning with our history to a head.

While the discussion of monuments and symbols is not new, the last five years have been catalytic as we deal with the racialized history of Charleston. Five years ago on June 17, nine people, including the pastor, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, were murdered during a Bible study at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church by a white supremacist. This event forced the state of South Carolina to reconsider the public role and place of the cultural icons of the “Old South.” Then Gov. Nikki Haley had the Confederate Flag removed from the statehouse grounds in Columbia, and concurrently, there were calls to take down other symbols of our racialized past including the statue of John C. Calhoun, the seventh vice president of the United States and staunch defender of slavery. The 115-foot statute was a symbolic yet visible reminder to the Black residents of Charleston that you may be free, but you are still inferior. 

Fast forward to 2020 and the current cultural climate has caused us to reevaluate how the sins of the past continue to affect us today, and how we as a society deal with the tension between the accomplishments of the heroes of our past and the expressions of their moral depravity. Since 1896, the statue of John C. Calhoun stood tall in Marion Square, overlooking Mother Emanuel—until now. Five years to the date of the “Emanuel 9” shooting, the mayor of Charleston called for the removal of the John C. Calhoun statue, and with the unanimous vote by the city council, it came down on June 24. 

Remembering and celebrating

While many are concerned about erasing history, we must consider that there is a difference between what we remember and what we celebrate. Historical lessons must encompass the good as well as the bad to provide a context of what we have become as a nation as well as providing a trajectory for the ideals that we pursue for the common good. So understanding history and remembering our past is important. Institutions like museums and libraries assist us in that regard. 

As Christians think about this moment in time, we need to consider our place as a distinctive people in a specific culture, called to be a reflection of our identity as citizens of the Kingdom of God over our national and ethnic identities. We do not lose our national or ethnic identity, but as followers of Christ, we are to subordinate our national and cultural identity to the authority of Christ. In other words, if we place supremacy in our cultural identity, then we will adopt its idols, and our affections will be drawn to the idols of culture rather than the Lord. 

We do not lose our national or ethnic identity, but as followers of Christ, we are to subordinate our national and cultural identity to the authority of Christ.

The specific issue of Confederate monuments or symbols being debated in our society today is not often about remembering but about reexamining what we celebrate and value as a society. These statues reveal the direction of our affections and loves as a community.

This is not a call to take down every monument or memorial. God uses imperfect people for the common good within a specific time in national history. For example, protesters in San Francisco, California, tore down a statue of General Ulysses S. Grant, who owned a slave then released him, won the Civil War as the commanding general of the Union Army, thereby securing emancipation through military force. He was also president during the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment and used his executive office to take on the Ku Klux Klan. Removing his statue fails to take into account his accomplishments that should be celebrated. I am not advocating for a slippery slope of taking down historical monuments. Instead, this is a call to evaluate what these monuments are memorializing and whether or not they denigrate our fellow human beings. 

Confronting culture

As we examine today’s moment, we have to understand that many of these statues, monuments, and flags have become attachments of the heart that divide not only society, but the body of Christ along racial lines. They become relics that a particular society draws its identity from and subtly lead people to worship at the altar of division and white supremacy. As believers in Jesus Christ, examining our faith in light of these monuments should cause us to reexamine the direction of our deepest affections and loves and repent where needed. 

As followers of Christ, we are called to confront both the idols of our heart and the culture. The gospel of Jesus Christ confronts the idols of culture while the idols of culture confront the gospel. When we revere the iconography of culture, whether it is a statue, a flag, or a name that belittles the inherent dignity of any person, we revere a heritage of idolatry that originated at the fall. Removing statues that are symbols of division, hate, injustice, and ultimately sin is to make a collective call of repentance. The people in these statues and monuments need to be remembered, but they do not need to be celebrated. They need to be examined not just within the scope of regional or national history, but redemptive history as well.

The day the John C. Calhoun statue came down was a day that many Charlestonians have waited so long for and will never forget. It will no longer look over Mother Emanuel AME Church. A few hours after the statue came down, a multiethnic, ecumenical group of pastors, ministry leaders, and fellow believers throughout the city gathered together at Mother Emanuel and neighboring Citadel Square Baptist Church to worship and pray to the Lord in repentance, remembrance, and ultimately rejoice in what he had done and is doing in bringing his people together for his glory and the good of Charleston and abroad.

By / Jun 26

What just happened?

Recent protests centered around racial injustice and the killing of African American, like George Floyd and many others, have led to a renewed debate over the meaning and significance of historical monuments. Over the past three weeks, over 100 monuments across the United States have been torn down or scheduled for removal. 

Which monuments are involved?

The removal efforts fall into two broad categories. The first category includes the use of legal and legislative means of removing statuary, and has focused primarily on Civil War-era figures (such as Confederate generals and the Emancipation Statue in Washington, D.C.) and Christopher Columbus (19 memorials to the Italian explorer have been removed so far).

The second category includes the vandalism or use of illegal means to remove memorials, often done spontaneously as part of protests. The targets of these efforts have been more haphazard and include anti-slavery activists, feminist iconography, and Christian missionaries

Why are Confederate statues the primary focus?

In 2015, Dylann Roof murdered nine Black congregants at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. That mass shooting sparked renewed efforts—both legal and illegal—to remove Confederate memorials around the country. For example, the New Orleans’s city council voted to remove the city’s four Confederate monuments, and in Durham, North Carolina, protestors smashed a statue of a Confederate soldier that stood outside the county’s courthouse.

These statues have mainly been focused upon because of their connection to white supremacy and racial injustice. The majority of Confederate monuments were erected in the immediate aftermath of the Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), when many state laws began reestablishing racial segregation, and from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, during the peak of the civil rights movement. As David A. Graham says, “In other words, the erection of Confederate monuments has been a way to perform cultural resistance to black equality.”

What prevents the illegal removal of monuments?

The Veterans’ Memorial Preservation and Recognition Act of 2003, makes it a federal crime to willfully injure or destroy, or attempt to injure or destroy, any “structure, plaque, statue, or other monument on public property commemorating the service of any person or persons in the armed forces of the United States.” Similarly, vandalism and destruction of monuments on federal property is also already a federal crime.

To enforce the laws, about 400 unarmed D.C. National Guardsmen were put on standby at the Washington, D.C. Armory to provide backup to National Park Police to help prevent damage at key monuments in the city. An email has also been sent to U.S. marshals notifying them that they should prepare to help protect national monuments. Marshals Service Assistant Director Andrew C. Smith wrote that the agency “has been asked to immediately prepare to provide federal law enforcement support to protect national monuments (throughout the country).”

Why do we not immediately remove all controversial monuments?

The process of removing public monuments is often hindered by legal restrictions. Public monuments are protected by an interlocking web of international-, federal-, and state-level law intended to protect cultural property. As E. Perot Bissell V notes in the Yale Law Journal, modern cultural-property law emerged in the wake of the destruction and looting that followed World War II. “Because cultural-property law’s original purpose was to address the potential for wartime destruction of the world’s Treasures,” says Bissell, “its organizing principle is the preservation of historically or aesthetically significant heritage.”

Since cultural-property law developed in response to widely deplored acts of destruction, it is focused on preservation of existing monuments. This can make it difficult to remove statues and memorials even when the society’s values have changed and the subject is no longer considered worthy of honor.

Take, for example, the Nathan Bedford Forrest Monument, which was removed from a park in Memphis, Tennessee, in 2017. The monument to the founder of the Ku Klux Klan was protected by the 1954 Hague Convention, the Veterans’ Memorial Preservation and Recognition Act of 2003, and a state law forbidding the removal of any statue from state property. According to Bissell, “Memphis ultimately removed its Forrest Monument through a clever work-around, transferring the park in which it stood to a nonprofit.”

How should Christians think about the removal of monuments?

A useful starting point might be to consider the historical circumstances of the monument’s erection and determine whether the motivation or cause for remembrance is a value that a Christian would consider worthy of memorializing. 

For example, Confederate statues are obvious candidates for removal from public spaces, since their purpose is to venerate a cause that celebrated slavery, segregationism, and white supremacy. In contrast, monuments related to the Founding Fathers were not typically erected to remember their accomplishments as slave-holders, but for their more noble accomplishments. 

The context and location of the monument should also be given consideration. Christians might ask if this exact monument didn’t exist, how likely is it that we would support making a new monument to this person in this way at this location?

For example, Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently called for the removal of 11 Confederate statues from the U.S. Capitol. Two of the statues include Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens, the president and vice president of the Confederate States of America. Whatever else we might think about remembrances of the Confederacy, it seems unlikely that we’d choose today to honor traitors to our nation in the halls of our legislature. 

Monuments are more than mere historical reminders. They become part of our historical memory, showing what we think is worthy of being honored and revered. As we become more honest with ourselves as a nation about the darker areas of our history, we should consider what is worth celebrating.  As Christians, we are called to “do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31), which might require rethinking how we memorialize our past.