As a Roman Catholic for 69 years, 43 of which as a priest, I know a thing or two about statues and images! Hence, it is out of that perspective and the world of sacramental symbolism which is the language of the liturgical life of the church, that I offer ‘my take’ on the present Civil War monuments controversy.
From the earliest centuries of the Church, images of Christ, Mary and the Saints have played an important role in touching the faith life and the imaginations of Christians. Unlike our Jewish and Islamic sisters and brothers who have a prohibition against the use of ‘craven’ images, Christians, and we Catholics in particular, revel in the use of sacred imagery. Whether it’s the gloriously luxuriant imagery in the ceiling of the Baptistery of the Duomo in Florence or the stately statues of Saints Peter and Paul in the Piazza of St. Peter’s in Rome, sacred imagery provides the catalyst for honor and veneration of those Holy Ones that Scripture refers to as ‘that great cloud of witnesses’ before the Lord.
Images of Christ, the Incarnate Son of God, hold an altogether special place in the life of faith, since adoration belongs only to the Lord of life. Mary and the saints are imaged so that honor and veneration may be rendered to these ‘heroes’ in the faith. These are the ones who often walked through the crucible of suffering and even death for their belief in Christ, and are now honored as exemplars of what it means to truly be a disciple of the Lord. Of course, it is not the wood, stone, plaster or mosaic that is rendered honor, but rather what these images ‘symbolize’ – the women and men who lived the Gospel life with extraordinary clarity and conviction.
The raising up of monuments, images and statues of National heroes in our Country is part of the civil liturgy of our land. We too invest great meaning in the symbols that we cherish and venerate in our beloved Country. Whether it is our National Flag or the Statue of Liberty or the monuments to the pioneering heroes that have shaped the history of our country, these images touch our imaginations with the enduring values that have made us to be the people and nation we are today. It would be antithetical for us to honor those who have sullied the character and greatness of our Country. Nowhere would one find in a public place of prominence, a statue or monument to Benedict Arnold!
There is no question that the great scar within our national consciousness was the Civil War that nearly shattered the ideal of our Founders of a ‘United States.’ Volumes have been written on the ‘whys’ and ‘wherefores’ of this devastating conflict that pitched brother against brother. The tension inherent in our foundational documents between Federalism and State’s rights is often pointed to as the originating crux of this sad conflict. However, one would have to be completely obtuse not to admit that the institution of slavery for whom the Southern states held as their prerogative and right, was the cancer that eventually metastasized into armed conflict.
Though the South surrendered and the slaves were emancipated by legal fiat, the ongoing belief that one race of people did not share the dignity and superiority of another, sadly and tragically has persisted down through the decades.
Historians have noted that Robert E. Lee, the commanding General of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, saw the foolishness in memorializing himself after the war and surrender. He realized that the work of reconstruction and healing had to begin. Aside from the understandable and honorable recognition of those who died on behalf of the Confederate cause and the dignified adornment of their gravesides and cemeteries, public and prominent recognition and memorialization of Confederate leaders did not take place, to any great degree, until the period of the ‘Jim Crow’ laws in the latter part of the 19th and early 20th century. (See the following article, The Real Story Behind all those Confederate Statues.) Another spike in public memorializations took place during the early 1950’s as a reaction to the Supreme Court ruling, Brown vs. Board of Education, striking down the specious ‘separate but equal’ accommodation in public schools. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to surmise that such public and prominent memorials to leaders of the Confederate cause who, in all candor, led a treasonous rebellion against United States, was intended as a not so subtle intimidation of African Americans. Though emancipated by the law of the land, they continued to be deprived of the vote, together with the sad litany of degrading and humiliating practices that spoke loud and clear – you are not equal.
Symbols are powerful realities in our world and in our country. To continue to ‘venerate’ in prominent public spaces those who led or participated in a treasonous rebellion against the unity of our Country, predicated on the demonic racist ideology that a whole class of people lacked the dignity and full humanity of another, is abhorrent in the 21st century. Respecting the legal processes that are in place in the various states, these statues and memorials should be relocated to museums and other discrete areas where proper documentation and context can be given. Yes, we can indeed learn from history while not glorifying it. That’s my take.