A Reflection on the Removal of Controversial Statues

Statues can remind us of where we once stood. More important than any statue, however, is where we now stand.

Destruction of the Cheapside Cross, 1647
Destruction of the Cheapside Cross, 1647 (photo: Register Files)

Understanding our story is a critical aspect of the life of every Christian. We all have a story, a narrative of how God brought us to birth and has interacted with us. It is filled with successes and struggles, virtues and vices. Knowing that story is crucial to testifying and being a witness to others of God’s grace, mercy, and truth. On a collective level, Israel, the Church and nations have stories of how God has interacted with and led them. Just as with those of individuals, the histories of these collectives are also marked with both wondrous and horrifying moments.

In the United States, we are currently locked in a great battle over our history: what to remember, how to remember it, and how to interpret it. The battle has been going on for quite some time regarding what is taught in our schools, but recently statues and monuments have become the focus.

As a Catholic priest trying to stay within my bounds, I will try to steer clear of making merely political observations. Instead, I would like to reflect on “remembering” in the context of faith. Remembering, of course, is not simply retrieving stored facts from our mind. For a Christian, it also involves interpreting and understanding memories in the light of God’s revealed truth; it is the same with our national memories.

Permit from me an initial disclaimer about the Civil War and then a written hope that we can apply our faith to remembering.

Like any great human conflict, the Civil War was complex and multifaceted. Yes, it was about slavery, but also conflicting cultures, and the respective powers of federal and state governments.

Although the issue of slavery is settled, the other conflicts continue to this day. Those who claim that the Civil War had little to do with slavery itself but rather with states’ rights remind me of those who say that the issue of abortion is one of “choice.” The issue isn’t really choice itself, but what that choice involves. In the case of abortion, the choice made is to end the life of an unborn child for any reason at any time during pregnancy. “Choice” is too general; specificity is needed. All sorts of “choices” are forbidden by law (e.g., rape, murder). In the case of the Civil War, the rights of the states were a concern—but the right of the states to do what? The greatest dispute was over the right of the states to permit and uphold slavery. Especially after the Emancipation Proclamation (January 1, 1863), slavery was the focal issue of the Civil War.

The Civil War was complex and so are the memories of it. Was it the “War to Preserve the Union,” the “War of the Southern Rebellion,” the “War to Make Men Free”? Or was it the “War Between the States,” the “War of Northern Aggression”? Yes! All of these contain some truth.

What was in the heart and mind of each soldier, each general? Only God knows. What was in the hearts and minds of those who honored the Confederate dead in state cemeteries or by erecting statues in public venues? Only God knows. Perhaps there were many motives, some noble, some sinful.

The word “statue” comes from the Latin status, the past participle stem of stare, which means “to stand or be firm.” As such, a statue represents someone who once stood and was firm but is now gone. In terms of issues, a statue can represent where we once stood. Thus, in one sense a statue is merely a representation of history. For many today, however, a statue is less about history than about honor. To them, a statue conveys respect, not just a nod to history or memory.

Should controversial statues be removed today? That is not for me to say; it would be imprudent for me as a priest to “take sides.” It is a prudential decision best left to local communities to resolve after discussion and debate. I will note that I have served African-American Catholics for many years and realize the pain that such things often cause, but I also understand the fear engendered in others by the removal of statues in the middle of the night at the direction of government officials who are rather suddenly reacting to national political pressures rather than local and community-based concerns. Further, there seems to be no end in sight to this escalating issue. I would remind people on both sides that pain is a part of life and that we cannot have everything as we want.

Writing as a Catholic and a priest, I do wish to offer an insight from faith about the need for and purpose of remembering. To remember is to assemble the often-fragmented stories of our past into an intelligible narrative with self-understanding. To honestly remember yields the sober insight that, though gifted, each of us is flawed; our nation is flawed and all of our heroes were flawed, sometimes significantly so. Human nature is wounded and prone to sin. Each of us is a mixed bag of virtue and vice. Pray God that we are moving steadily away from vice and toward virtue, but people need time to repent and to grow. It is the same with nations, peoples, and cultures.

Recognizing our flawed nature should lead us to humility and mercy, and the resolve to live up to the ideals to which we are summoned. The journey can be long, both individually and collectively, but God stays with us.

In the Scriptures, consider that most of the greatest heroes were deeply flawed, and yet God worked with them and led them a mighty long way:

  • Abraham followed God’s call to Canaan but then strayed to Egypt, trusting Pharaoh more than God to feed him. In Egypt he placed his own wife in Pharaoh’s harem. Later, he committed adultery with Hagar and in so doing abused her. Only at the end did Abraham faithfully resolve to trust God.
  • Moses was a murderer; at age 40 he was too strong and proud for God to use. Only much later, at age eighty and stammering, was he finally humble enough for God to use him.
  • Jacob was a liar and conspired with his mother to defraud his brother Esau of the birthright, yet God said He loved him, and through him came the Twelve Tribes of Israel.
  • David was an adulterer and plotted to have Uriah the Hittite killed. He was a great King of Israel, but his own household was in disarray due to his polygamy and his favoritism of Amnon over Tamar and Absalom. One of his own sons went to war against him.
  • Peter denied Jesus.
  • Paul was set against the faith and conspired or participated in the death of many Christians.

Many of the saints of the Church had less-than-spotless pasts. A large number of them held views that, from a 21st century point of view, are “unenlightened.” Some of the saints encouraged and even preached the crusades. Others had very harsh views of the Jewish people.

The point is that God used flawed people with checkered pasts to accomplish great things. He did not affirm their wickedness or weaknesses; remember, God can write straight with crooked lines and make a way out of no way. God looks beyond our faults and sees our needs. He works with sinners. One day He will draw the faithful to perfection in Heaven, but the earthly reality is that we have fallen natures and live in a fallen world, governed by a fallen angel.

Individuals, cultures, the Church, and nations all have pasts. There we will find both the glory and what is gory, virtue and vice, what is ennobling and what is embarrassing. We’ve got some nuts in our family tree; in our American family, some of our heroes could also be heathens. Flawed men led ancient Israel and the Church. Flawed men wrote the Scriptures under divine inspiration. Flawed men led our country in its early years. Flawed men wrote the Constitution. Flawed people lead our country today.

Perhaps the best stance is to accept (though not approve of) this fact, learning to imitate the virtues of the past while avoiding the vices. This is honest and sober remembering. Further, we should ponder with amazement what God can do, even with the mess of this human family of ours.

Should statues of civil war generals be removed? Should statues of supreme court justices who wrote embarrassing or foolish decision be removed? Again, it is not for me to say. I leave that to local communities to decide. However, I do have a concern that we not forget our story as a nation any more than our biblical past. If statues were erected only of the sinless, the only ones in existence would be those of Our Lord and Our Lady.

Expunging the painful and even embarrassing moments of our past can too easily lead to the proverbial warning coming to pass: “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Yes, we need to remember that as a nation we were once horribly wrong about a moral issue: slavery. Public opinion polls of those times showing support for slavery did not yield the truth. That memory is important today in the great battle against abortion and other moral evils. I pray that one day we will be as embarrassed that we ever legalized and supported abortion as we are today that we permitted slavery. How could we have been so wrong then? How can we be so wrong now? Where were our heart then? Where are they now? The honest and complete recounting of history provides a framework for this sort of reflection; expunged history leaves us without that context in which to reason.

We need to remember Roger B. Taney (statue or not) and the Dred Scott decision. Just because the Supreme Court makes a ruling doesn’t mean that it is moral or true or that it is “settled law.” The lesson of the Dred Scott case is that just because something is legal does not make it right or even just. An unjust law is no law at all.

Perhaps a few Confederate generals (statues or not) should be in our national memory to remind us all that we don’t always win what we fight for, that we’re not always right. Further, even the good things we fight for aren’t always unambiguously pure or good. Even our best intentions are often admixed with less admirable and even sinful motives. I’m sure that a few Union generals would admit to mixed motives for what they did.

Yes, honest remembering is important. We have a great nation, one with many virtues and blessings; but serious flaws are also part of our story.

A stance of patience, gratitude, and admitting our flaws, current and historical, is better than one of angry discourse or violence. Selective outrage is also a problem today. Sin comes in a lot of flavors. What does not offend us says as much about us as what does. Too often today there seems to arise a sudden indignation over a particular “sin du jour”; it sweeps through like a tsunami, leaving no time for thoughtful reflection. In its wake is left a lot of fear, anger, and damage. The result is not real reform, just an undercurrent of simmering anger waiting for an opportune moment to explode.

God is so very patient with us, but His patience is directed toward our salvation. For us, too, patience and acceptance of our past are important. Remember, this does not mean approval. God shows us patience in order to get us somewhere, but He never stops summoning us to the truth and to holiness. Whatever patience we can show one another should have the same purpose: summoning one another to what is true and what is best in our country.

Statues can remind us of where we once stood. More important than any statue, however, is where we now stand. Do we stand with God? Are we near Him or far off?