A Monumental Crisis: Biblical Response to the Removal of Confederate Monuments

The original version of this article was published in September 2017 when the debate about removing Confederate monuments was in the news on an almost nightly basis. Then two years later (January 2019) as my local community was debating whether or not to remove a statue of a Confederate soldier from in front of the downtown court house, I revised the introduction again and re-published the article. And now here we are in June 2020, and the debate is louder now than ever before. After a weekend of monuments being defaced and/or torn down, I’ve revised the introduction yet again. The core message is the same.

When Monuments Come Down

Over the past few weeks, the centuries-old cry of African Americans against systemic racism grew loud enough it broke the sound barrier, and multitudes of people from diverse ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds HEARD them. For the first time in many of their lives, they feel seen, heard, and understood.

Over the past week, I’ve heard more than one woman of color make the statement: “We’ve been saying it for years, but this time, it’s different. People are actually listening.”

This time is different.

In an article entitled, “‘A long time coming’: Robert E. Lee statue to be removed,” Sarah Rankin and Denise Levoie explain that even though the decision was made last year to remove the Robert E. Lee statue from Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia it still stands . . . but not for long. It’s finally coming down along with at least four other monuments to the Confederacy.

Monuments are coming down not just here in the United States, but worldwide. Over the weekend, protesters in Bristol, United Kingdom forcibly removed the statue of slave trader Edward Colston from a pedestal in the town square to the bottom of a river.

This surprised me, because when I think of chattel slavery, I think of my own country. But the truth is, many Europeans grew filthy rich off the buying and selling of humans from Africa and other countries. Why statues were built in their honor is a mind-boggling fact.

Here in North Carolina, there have been protests for years on both sides of the issues of removing statues honoring Confederate “heroes” from the public square. Some have been removed: Silent Sam (from UNC) and the Confederate statue (from the courthouse in downtown Winston-Salem).There are 100+ public spaces with monuments to the Confederacy here in my home state so the debate rages.

How Should Christians Respond?

The purpose of this article is to help conservative white evangelicals think through a biblical response to the nationwide growing demand to remove and/or relocate Confederate monuments.

But first, a little background on my fondness for history and memorials:

My family loves a good road trip—especially if it takes us across the United States to visit our relatives in California. In the summer of 2016, we drove out for my parents’ 50th anniversary celebration with one slight detour to visit my mother-in-law in Texas on the way out.

For our return trip, we chose a route we had not taken before and drove straight through the middle of the U.S. on Highways 50 & 70. Within the course of a week, we visited seven national parks (including Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park) and six state capitols (including Topeka, Kansas and Charleston, West Virginia).

Nationwide War Memorials

Abraham Lincoln at State Capitol in Topeka, KS
Abraham Lincoln Statue at the State Capitol in Topeka, Kansas

Each state capitol we visited featured some type of war memorial with authentic, battle-worn cannons, long guns, sculptures, statues, and/or monuments—each one created to honor those who lost their lives fighting for our freedom. And nearly every state capitol we visited had some type of memorial to the Civil War—even Denver, Colorado!

While driving through Kansas, thanks to tolls in the middle of nowhere, we stumbled upon “The Birthplace of the Civil War” in Lecompton, Kansas. Since we were currently studying the Civil War in our home school, we decided to stop and check it out.

Trader in Lecompton, Kansas
Civil War Era Trader with His Wares

And much to our benefit, we arrived on a local history day. Middle-school children from neighboring communities enjoyed a dramatic presentation at the theater, a visit to the local museum, a dramatic recitation of an important speech, and a visit with a 19th-century trader at his trading post.

Dramatic Monologue in Lecompton, Kansas
Dramatic Monologue at Constitution Hall

We were invited to participate in all activities, and we sat in on the re-enactment of an anti-slavery speech which was given in the exact same 160-year-old building where it had been given in the 1800s!

It was inside this building, Constitution Hall, that a pro-slavery constitution was drafted and rejected—affecting the upcoming election and igniting what would eventually explode into the Civil War. The room in which we sat had literally witnessed the beginning of the end of slavery in this country.

Why am I sharing all this?

When I hear the arguments for and against removal of certain memorials, I take them seriously because I’ve stopped. I’ve learned. I’ve listened. I’ve touched. I’ve photographed. I’ve remembered. I’ve held my breath in gratitude. 

I get it!

In 2015 when a young white supremacist killed nine African American men and women at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, the cry for the removal of Confederate symbols hit an all-time high. It began with a debate over flying the Confederate flag on state property, and it soon spiraled out to include the removal of Confederate monuments.

I was wholeheartedly against that decision. My reasoning sounded something like this:

The statues are preserving our history and honoring those who fought in the War between the States. Removing them is like erasing history, and I’m against that. We need to learn from our mistakes, and showing our kids historical monuments is memorable and important. Besides, they honor real people who lost their lives fighting for what they believed in, and their sacrifice deserves to be honored.

I held that position for many years, but I was ignorant. Over time and as a result of re-educating myself about racism in America, I have come to believe that even though monuments and memorials are powerful reminders of our shared history, our shared future is WAY more important.

Monuments are powerful reminders of our shared history, but our shared FUTURE is WAY more important. #memorials #monuments #civilwar Share on X

why Keep the Monuments?

When it all comes down, every argument in favor of keeping the monuments in place is based on at least one of three wobbly pillars: (1) outdated information; (2) “white-titlement”; (3) and idolatry. 

Let’s analyze each one of these pillars in more detail:

Wobbly Pillar #1: Outdated Information

In ancient times, an enemy could influence the historical record simply by defacing monuments (e.g., the Sphinx) or destroying documents and artifacts (e.g., the library at Alexandria). As Winston Churchill so profoundly remarked: “History is written by the victors.”

Well, that was then.

This is now.

We live, eat, and breathe in the twenty-first century.

To think that relocating a few hundred statues and memorials will somehow change the historical record is pure nonsense. Removing monuments from the public square will no more erase history than removing Nixon from the White House erased Watergate or removing Donald Trump’s Twitter account will erase his tweets.

Thanks to advanced technology, high-speed internet, and physical storage of data, preserving information has never been easier. Add to this the wide availability of access to audio and video recording devices and software, erasing history or modifying it for personal gain has become—for all intents and purposes—impossible. In other words, crowd-sourced history is here to stay, and it is instantly accessible 24/7/365 from your smart watch.

Crowd-sourced history is here to stay, and it is instantly accessible 24/7/365 from your smart watch.#monuments #memorials #civilwar Share on X

Wobbly Pillar #2: “White-titlement”

“White-titlement” is a term I’ve coined to refer to the sense of entitlement some white people feel when confronted with a request (or even a demand) from people of color that makes them feel uncomfortable. It comes out in phrases like, “What’s the big deal?” and “It doesn’t bother me!” and “Why can’t they just get over it? Nobody I know has ever owned slaves.”

White citizens of the United States will never have the same experience that African Americans have when viewing Confederate memorials and statues, BUT we can try by using our imaginations. So, imagine this: 

You are an African American citizen of the United States of America, and though you were born and raised here, there is slavery in your family tree.

Your great, great grandparents were kidnapped from their homes/friends/family/culture, transported in horrific conditions across the ocean, and then sold to the highest bidder for a lifetime of servitude.

They lost everything while being denied any opportunity for gain. Many years later, when some lobbied to abolish slavery, others fought against it.

And when you see monuments on public display honoring those who fought to defend the right to own slaves—whether they owned slaves or not—is worse than pouring lemon juice on a paper cut.

It’s a constant reminder that your origins in this country began with kidnapping, humiliation, and enslavement and that some of your fellow citizens will never accept you as equals.

When it all comes down, there is no way a white person will never experience a Confederate monument the same way an African American person does: It’s impossible. Our recent ancestors were not enslaved!

Are you still reading?

I hope so, because at this point, all I’ve done is stir the pot, right? My arguments are probably less than convincing, and you’d like to counter each observation—plus make a few more points of your own which I haven’t addressed.

I am aware.

You want me to do some research so that I understand the “real” cause of the Civil War and how it was about taxes and other issues. You want me to appreciate the fact that these were real people who gave their lives, and believe they should be honored for their sacrifice. You want to point out that Yankees also owned slaves, and that slavery was not the main reason for the War. Oh, wait, I already said that.

You want to point out that tearing down statues is anarchy, and we cannot acquiesce to mob rule. Destroying monuments is a crime and they should be punished. So, we should leave the monuments there to prove a point.

I know.

What if I told you that NONE of what I’ve written so far addresses the root cause of this emotionally-charged, extremely divisive dilemma?

What if I told you that as FOLLOWERS of JESUS CHRIST, we should have NO issue with the removal of Confederate statues, memorials, or monuments?

What if I told you that UNDERNEATH the rhetoric and racism lurks a different, more SINISTER problem as old as the world itself?

It’s true.

The problem is idolatry, plain and simple. It’s the third wobbly pillar and the most damning of all: idolatry.

Wobbly Pillar #3: Idolatry

Although no one believes the statue of Stonewall Jackson is representative of a god, and nobody was worshiping the Robert E. Lee statue prior to the events in Charlottesville, idolatry exists just the same.

According to Merriam-Webster, idolatry is the “immoderate attachment or devotion to something,” and Random House defines it as “excessive or blind adoration, reverence, devotion, etc.”

Just let that sink in for a moment.

There’s no denying the fact that there exists “immoderate attachment and devotion” to our Confederate memorials—even among Christians—and this “excessive reverence” for works of bronze, metal, clay, and stone is, in fact, idolatry.

"The fruit of idolatry is conflict, pride, self-reliance, and division—all undeniable qualities of this monumental conflict."#monuments #civilwar #memorials Share on X

The fruit of idolatry is conflict, pride, self-reliance, and division—all undeniable qualities of this monumental conflict.

Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” 1 Peter 5:8

Do not be deceived: The fight over monuments is nothing more than one of satan’s tactics to divide and conquer.

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Ephesians 6:12

As long as our eyes are fixed on each other and not on the Lord, we risk turning people away from hope and salvation that can only be found in Him.

The Christian Response

What’s our mission here? What have we been called to? To fight the relocation of historical artifacts, because we don’t want them moved? Or is our mission to win people over to the saving grace of Jesus Christ? Jesus said,

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Matthew 28:19-20

What are we, as Christians, to be known for?

Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind.” 1 Peter 3:8

Are we willing to sacrifice our own handiwork for the sake of unity and peace?

The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” James 3:17-18

Are we willing to step out of our comfort zones in order to reach those who otherwise might not be reached?

I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.” 1 Corinthians 9:22b-23

Have we placed the love of things above the love of people?

Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.” 1 John 2:15-17

I’d like to leave you with a few questions to ponder as you examine your own heart and evaluate your response to this monumental crisis:

  1. If I knew that my attitude against removing Confederate monuments was a stumbling block to another person’s coming to know the Lord, would I be willing to stand down?
  2. Is preservation of a temporal monument more important than an eternal soul?
  3. Is the adversary using my words and/or actions to make another person feel oppressed, unheard, and hostile to the gospel message?
  4. Is my heart being hardened towards protesters? People of color? Liberals?
  5. What does Scripture say about this type of conflict?
  6. Based on what I know about Jesus, how do I think He would respond to this crisis?
  7. And, finally, how would He have me respond to the crisis? To my neighbor? To those seeking light in a dark world?

As you do a little soul searching and self-examen, I encourage you to open the Scriptures with a friend. Dig for the truth. Be teachable. Journal. Allow the Holy Spirit to speak truth into your soul. As Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans:

Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God;for it is written,

‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.’

So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.

Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.”

Romans 14:10-13

After much consideration, I have come to agree that monuments honoring soldiers who fought for the Confederacy should be moved to museums or venues specifically designed to educate people about the Civil War. There really is no need to have them in the public square. It’s time to move on.