Smashing Statues

Statues are coming down all over America, some in a raging mob amidst political pandering, and others with government-directed construction crews. Few memorials are coming down after calm debates and reasoned decisions. Why do we have such statues in the first place? Which ones is it appropriate to remove? Which not?

The mass killing of Jews and other “undesirables” by Nazi Germany during the Holocaust (1939-1945) was one of the worst crimes in modern history.[1] The Holocaust spilled oceans of blood, and its cruelty was beyond imagination. Concentration camps like Auschwitz in Poland and memorials and museums in places like Berlin and Washington DC educate current and future generations on what happened in the hopes that such an atrocity will never occur again.

Similar museums, memorials, statues, and other items recount multiple wars and countless other events. In the Bible, God commands the Hebrews to implement a Passover ritual to educate future generations about how God delivered them from Egypt (Exodus 13:14). The Israelites set up “stones of remembrance” after crossing the Jordan River to provide an occasion for children to learn about the works of the Lord on their behalf (Joshua 4:1-24).

America is convulsing with iconoclasm.[2] Statues and memorials of the Confederacy in the Civil War have been moved or destroyed, both by legal work crews and by angry mobs, but so have statues and memorials from World Wars I and II, and those portraying people, places, and events that had nothing to do with American slavery. Even Abraham Lincoln, the US President who led the fight to defeat the Confederacy and end slavery forever, has had his memorials attacked.

Monuments are falling with little if any discussion or debate, but it is appropriate to ask the question, if readers do not mind a dangling participle, “what are these monuments for?” Once we address this question, we can ask which monuments should go and which, if any, should stay.

Why we make and maintain monuments

The first reason for erecting and maintaining monuments, and I would suggest the least important, but the one that our fiercest iconoclasts seem to focus on, is to celebrate a person, place, or event. The people who paid for and erected statues of former Congressional leader and US Vice President John C. Calhoun (1782-1850), General Robert E. Lee (1807-1870), and General Stonewall Jackson (1824-1863) may have wanted the contributions of these men to be remembered and even lauded by future generations. One counterargument is that men like John C. Calhoun should not have memorials because they were not heroes but villains: they held slaves, supported slavery, and believed in the supremacy of one race over another. Another counterargument is that people like Lee and Jackson did nothing for America except rebel against it, and therefore are not worthy of memorials.

Destruction of monuments is a time-honored means of expressing disagreement. Statues, for example, are often made of bronze, which can be melted down and recrafted into swords (in ancient times) and cannons (in the medieval and renaissance eras), or into statues of whoever future generations choose to honor. A statue of Gandhi, the nonviolent leader for India’s independence, that stands in Delhi today could be transformed into a statue of Godse, Gandhi’s assassin, tomorrow. Iron and concrete, for all their illusory permanence, also crumble. Bronze, iron, and concrete are not the materials of immortality. American rebels pulled down a lead statue of King George III of Great Britain in New York on 9 July 1776. They made 42,088 musket balls, which were then fired at the British during the American Revolution.[3]

The second reason for monuments is education. Statues, memorials, and other markers proliferate on the battlefields of Gettysburg, Chickamauga, and others to orient visitors to what happened there. One monument may mark the location of the 20th Maine on Little Round Top, and a pile of cannonballs may mark the site of the death of a general. Without such markers, battlefields and other historical sites would be almost unintelligible to visitors. Historical events become difficult to understand and sites fall into disuse. Eliminating history may be the goal of some of today’s statue-haters, but others destroying monuments today may primarily object to certain historical events and particular historical figures being commemorated in public places. Iconoclasm as the destruction of education becomes rewriting history to suit ones’ personal or group historical views. Radicals today are the book burners of yesteryear.

The third reason to build and maintain monuments, which may be considered a precursor to education, is to provide occasion, the opportunity (or occasion) for people to see something, ask about it, later learn about it, and form their own opinions. Imagine a young boy from Michigan visiting Washington DC with his family. As he approaches the Capital from the reflecting pool, he sees a statue of a soldier on a horse and asks his father who that man is. His father replies, “that is Ulysses S. Grant, the general that led Union troops to victory in the Civil War.” The son smiles with his newfound knowledge, and reads about Grant on Wikipedia that night. The next morning, at the boy’s pleading, the family changes their plans and drives sixty-two miles to the Spotsylvania battlefield in Virginia. The statue of Grant gave an occasion for a family that perhaps knew little about the Civil War to learn more about it. Had the statue not been there, the family may have never known about Spotsylvania, or much else about the Civil War, a turning point in American history. Occasion, and subsequently education, is the main reason that statues and other monuments exist. The Bible passages noted in the introduction provide good examples.

While the statue, monument, or memorial provides occasion for learning more about a topic, it does not specify what that education should be. The family learning about Grant could revere him as a great general, revile him as a failed president, or regard him as a man like all other men, a mysterious mix of virtue and vice, ability and idiocy, courage and cowardice, who was struggling to deal with troubled times. A person studying Martin Luther King, Jr. after seeing one of his monuments could see a towering civil rights leader, a philanderer, or a man with all the strengths and weaknesses thereof. The Armenian Genocide memorial in Yerevan, Armenia, certainly does not glorify the events that it recounts.

Lots of things provide occasion, from advertisements to books to toys to statues and other monuments to national parks. Statues and monuments have certain advantages over the others mentioned. They are long lasting, public, easily visible, and artistic. Tourists specifically travel to see monuments and memorials, while they may encounter an advertisement or toy only by happenstance. A northerner visiting San Antonio may have no thought of visiting Eastern Tennessee until he sees a statue of Davy Crockett at the Alamo.[4]

Beware our own sanctimony

In the New York Times article “What does it mean to tear down a statue?” Jonah Engel Bromwich interviewed art historian Erin L. Thompson. Asked how current monument destroying in the US compares to the Islamic State destroying secular Roman artifacts in Palmyra, Thompson replied: “ISIS was destroying monuments of a tolerant past in order to achieve a future of violence and hate. These protesters are attacking symbols of a hateful past as part of fighting for a peaceful future. So I think that they are exactly opposite actions.” [5] Unfortunately for Ms. Thompson and her eager interlocutor, ISIS members would not agree that they are working for a future of “violence and hate.” Traditional Islamic thought argues that Allah gave Islam to mankind through Muhammad as the only hope for a truly just society. The subjugation of all nations under Allah through Islam would therefore bring justice on earth to all people, whether Muslims or non-Muslims (dhimmi). Sculptures or images of any kind are an affront to Allah, an “enormity.”[6] Insofar as ISIS members followed traditional Islamic jurisprudence, and many did, they probably felt that they were working for “peaceful future” at least as much as Ms. Thompson’s lauded protesters are.[7] The word “Islam” refers to submission to Allah and the peace that results from such submission. The Afghani Taliban who destroyed the statues of the Buddha in Bamiyan Valley in 2001 may have argued the same way.[8] In reality, ISIS and the Taliban are no less convinced of the virtue of their position than Ms. Thompson and those like-minded are of theirs. Someday they may fight over it, or even die.

We like to envision our enemies planning robberies while hunched over tables piled with their ill-gotten gain, slaughtering women and children like Tolkien’s gruesome orcs, or blowing up planets like Lucas’ faceless storm troopers. We cannot admit that our targets are anything more than the sum of their sins, while shouting from the housetops that we are the sum of our virtues. We justify tearing down statues of those we don’t like and raising statues of those that we do. What do we do then, with a man like John Newton (1725-1807), who began his career as a most despicable slave trader, found Christ, and later became a priest, an abolitionist, a community benefactor, and composer of the hymn “Amazing Grace?” Perhaps the best monuments reflect stories of redemption, because each of us has much to be redeemed from.

Conclusion

We have discussed the three main reasons for erecting and maintaining statues and other memorials – to celebrate, to educate, and to provide occasion. We have reminded ourselves to beware demonizing our adversaries, even when, as in the case of hatred based solely on skin color, some people are clearly wrong. But for grace of God, so would we be.

The last question is, “should these monuments come down?” On public property, that is a decision for the local voters. On private property, that is the decision of the landowner. I hope that this article has provided perspective for both voters and landowners to make the best decisions in this controversial topic. I also hope that this article will help us avoid a greater sin: personal self-righteousness that makes us unwilling or unable to see those with whom we disagree as people, appreciate them, and work together to make America and the world better than it was before.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Along with Stalin’s purges and the Ukrainian genocide in the former Soviet Union, Mao’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and Great Leap Forward (1958-1962) and the Armenian genocide, in which the Ottoman Turks massacred one to 1.5 million Armenians.

[2] Iconoclasm is the action of attacking or assertively rejecting cherished beliefs and institutions or established values and practices. In this context, iconoclasm is the destruction of statues, memorials, monuments, and other items which reflect historical persons, places, and events.

[3] Dan Sivilich, “Melted Majesty” Musket Ball Discovered at Monmouth Battlefield to be Displayed at Museum for July 9 Anniversary, last modified 6 July 2017, Museum of the American Revolution, https://www.amrevmuseum.org/press-room/press-releases/“melted-majesty”-musket-ball-discovered-monmouth-battlefield-be-displayed.

[4] Six stunning bronze sculptures added to the Alamo, last modified 2 may 2019, https://medium.com/the-alamo-messenger/six-stunning-bronze-sculptures-added-to-the-alamo-42d31a3fe2e9.

[5] Jonah Engel Bromwich, What Does It Mean to Tear Down a Statue? Last modified 11 June 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/11/style/confederate-statue-columbus-analysis.html.

[6] Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri, Nur Ha Mim Keller. Reliance of the Traveler, A Classic Manual of Islamic Sacred Law, (Beltsville MD: Amana Publications, 1991), w50.0-50.1

[7] Grahme Wood, What ISIS Really Wants, The Atlantic, last modified March 2015, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/03/what-isis-really-wants/384980/.

[8] Kallie Szczepanski The History of Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Buddhas, last modified 23 May 2018, https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-the-bamiyan-buddhas-195108.

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