So it happened today. As I was driving home from work this evening, I heard on the news station that the demolition crew had finally been given the green light to take down a statue of Robert E. Lee at at a park here in Dallas. But of course this has been at the forefront of news these days. While there has been a small movement to remove Confederate statues from public places for several years, until recently, it has largely gone under the radar. However, the unfortunate advent of Charlottesville has heightened the demand to remove this stain of American history. Across the country, city council meetings, town forums and petitions are forwarding this push so that no public place would be honored by the cause of the confederacy, which by and large is focused on chattel slavery.
I have been chewing on this on this issue a bit especially in light of the seemingly sudden attention this it has received. What am I to think? The answer might seem obvious. But please indulge me as I do a bit of reflection.
My gut reaction is to join the chorus of removal demands. After all, it would seem to make sense considering my ancestors were counted among those who were brought in chains and defended as a southern way of life. I can appreciate the sentiment that these statues represent a stain on the history of this country and memorializes a wretched disposition that endorsed enslavement of a segment of society. I do sympathize with expressions that says we must not endorse any kind of memorialization to the subjugation of a segment of society for no other reason than it was deemed acceptable to do so.
However, I find it interesting that these statues have been up for decades yet now they represent an impediment to progress. It doesn’t take much research to know that the vast majority of these statues were erected during the Jim Crow era with the implicit communication to non-white citizens to know their place. Yet, in spite of the proliferation of these statues, people of African descent pushed through the mood and discriminatory practices so entrenched in the fabric of society to forge through the barriers. I could be mistaken but I don’t recall any writings advocating for the equity of black people that put so much attention on statues as what exists today. Rather, the push for civil rights focused on laws, cultural practices, and societal attitudes that sought to impede progress. This is what people were actually concerned about.
This reality makes me realize that the significance of actual thriving and the affirmation of the dignity of all people made in the image of God is what truly matters. I can appreciate the argument that says removal of Confederate monuments communicates that American society will not tolerate this continued endorsement of white supremacy, as is the cries of many. To be honest, I am much more concerned about actual impediments to progress. I’m sorry but I have a hard time understanding how statues of dead white men whose defeat was secured over 150 years suddenly has become a barrier to progress. I also think we should be careful to ascribe a monolithic concern that these statues are somehow injurious to every black psyche.
Yet, I’m also struck by the resistance for their removal. In fact, this is exactly what prompted the events at Charlottesville. Pretty much every effort that has prompted a call for removal has met with an equal but opposite reaction for their preservation. It’s like the confederate 3rd law of physics! Here in Dallas, the statue’s removal was actually granted last week but a restraining order prevented it’s immediate demise. A lot of folks aren’t happy about the removal of monuments and putting forth effort to see it doesn’t happen.
All this fuss over statues. We would be naive to think that Christians aren’t involved in this dispute and call to action on both sides of the fence. Now, I certainly don’t ascribe to a Gnostic laced existence that discounts or repudiates earthly concerns while focusing on spiritual matters. As Christians, we are called to be salt and light and demonstrate the love of Christ to our neighbor. That does require a fair amount of attention to concerns of this life especially when it impacts the well being of others. But then, I’m cautioned by Paul’s words to Timothy, “No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him.” (2 Tim. 2:4). Again, this doesn’t mean don’t be involved or don’t care. Rather, it’s don’t get so ensnared with earthly concerns that that you forget the main focus of this life.
As a Christian and citizen of another kingdom, I’m left to ask in the grand scheme of things, what difference do statues make. My reflection further takes me to the presence of statues in the New Testament, and particularly as the gospel begins infiltrating Gentile territory with the charge to proclaim equal heirship of Jew and Gentile as the mystery now revealed under the resurrected Christ. Paul and company were assaulted by Gentile supremacy reflected in the plethora of statues and temples that littered these areas they traveled. These statues communicated to residents that their well being was contingent upon their presence of these god-like representatives. Yet how often do we see any reference to them?
Oh but we do see an exception in Acts 17:16-34 where Paul specifically points to them to leverage a greater message.
Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. (Acts 17:16-17)
For Paul, these statues represented something greater than sociological infractions but the persistent presence of spiritual oppression from dead gods who could not give life. This is what grieved him. Did Paul demand for their removal? No, he pointed to these statues to preach Jesus and resurrection (vs. 18). He furthered his statue campaign in the Areopagus to tell others that whatever they found in these statues could not provide the satisfaction they craved in this life (see vv. 22-31). He understood that the physical material of personified blocks meant nothing nor whatever relief people experienced because of their presence (or absence as today’s case may be). There is a greater reality at stake with eternal consequences.
Now, I don’t fault anyone for being concerned over the presence of confederate statues. I personally think they would be better off in a museum. But Paul’s gestures make me realize that in the grand scheme of all things concerning Christ’s kingdom, whether a statue remains or goes is far less significant than if hearts and minds are turned to Christ, than if brothers and sisters in Christ turn towards one another in love to reflect his kingdom, than if Christ is honored and glorified above all.