History, Hypocrites, and Heroes: What to do with all those statues.

Over the past few years, controversy has erupted over the issue of monuments, statues, named buildings, memorials, and other enshrinements because of the ideas, actions, and causes with which their namesakes engaged. The loudest voices tell us to tear them all down, or to leave them alone. I think there are better ideas than these, but they usually get shouted down by the extremists. Still, I offer the following thoughts and suggestions for navigating this ongoing tension.

1. Our Heroes are Hypocrites.

Yes, your hero and mine. (Except for Jesus, of course)

Whoever it is and whatever they did, they are walking inconsistencies. They say one thing and do another. They don’t always practice what they preach. They did and said stupid things. They compromised, sold out, and have skeletons in their closet. They didn’t always believe their own message.

Because for all of the props we give our heroes, there’s one thing;

THEY. ARE. HUMAN.

They are flesh and blood, imperfect, complicated, contradictory, carbon-based life-forms. They lived with hurts, habits, and hang-ups. While significant, their accomplishments are usually narrated in ways that gloss over some of the less glamorous and often shocking details of their lives. Read the WHOLE story on how Lincoln got the Emancipation Proclamation passed, or Jefferson’s exploits with his slaves, or Teddy Roosevelt’s attitude toward Native Americans, or where Washington’s dentures came from, or what Conquistador, Juan De Onate did to indigenous people – not pretty.

Statue of Juan De Onate at El Paso International Airport. Renamed “The Equestrian” to ease complaints by protestors.

They are people just like you and me. But we put them on pedestals and carve them into mountain sides, which glorifies both the good and bad of their actions. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be on a pedestal. I want to be an example but a down-to-earth example. Being lifted up makes for a harder fall.

There’s a reason the second commandment prohibits creating the likeness of another for the purpose of worship. It’s not that God is jealous he’ll lose a beauty contest, it’s that humans lifted up too high are bound to let us down. Only Jesus can be lifted up and draw people. Every other hero is, in some way, a letdown.

But shouldn’t we have heroes and role models? Yes! As long as we can learn to keep them in perspective.

2. It is Possible Both to Celebrate and to Condemn.

As a pastor, I deliver sermons from the biblical text, by which lessons on righteous living are given through both the good and bad examples of human beings. Except for Jesus himself, every human “saint” is also a sinner. They are a mess because they are a mass of bravery and cowardice (Elijah), fidelity and adultery (David), trust and worry (Martha), wisdom and stupidity (Solomon), obedience and obstinance (Jonah), hope and despair (Naomi), faith and doubt (Thomas). I could go on for pages, but the point is that the stories of these people captured in scripture require us to celebrate what these people did well and condemn those actions that were out of line with God’s standards. So, I can condemn King David’s damnable actions in having one of his men killed to cover up a fling with the man’s wife while commending David’s raw honesty before God in the Psalms.

Would I tell people to be like David? No, I wouldn’t. Nor did I agree with the 90’s fad to “be like Mike.” I don’t think we should “be like” any other person. That’s not who we are, and that’s not who we’ve been put here to be. As Oscar Wilde wrote, “Be yourself, everyone else is already taken.” No, I would say that where King David or Michael Jordan, or Margaret Sanger, or Mother Theresa, MLK, or JFK, Donald Trump or Joe Biden, or anyone else acts in commendable ways, we should learn from their example. Where they act in condemnable ways, we should learn from their example. It’s possible and essential that we develop the nuance to do both.

3. Nuance is Necessary

Germany has faced the complicated dilemma of what to do with monuments, statues, and even buildings erected that point back to Nazi and Communist regimes. Realizing a unilateral approach failed to appreciate their history’s complexity, they adopted a nuanced approach that neither ignores nor celebrates, nor revises, nor hides their past. For example, Auschwitz, a place of unspeakable horrors, was not only left standing but is protected and maintained. It is in no way a celebrated part of Germany’s history but remains as a place of both reverence and revulsion, of horror and hope.

Entrance gate at Auschwitz today. The message over the gate reads, “Work Liberates”

At the same time, the bunker where Hitler committed suicide remains buried under a parking lot. Statues and monuments are displayed in museums, while roads and buildings constructed during the Nazi and Communist regimes are utilized today. However, those buildings and museum exhibits include clear and well-researched descriptions of their history for the reader’s education and benefit. The decisions in how to approach the visible reminders Germany’s past are handled in a manner that considers how best to address the various factors around the objects and allows people to face history rather than erase it.

4. Better to Face History Than to Erase History

Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. I think the visible reminders of our nation’s past should be available and accessible to teach future generations what people and events have brought our country to where we are, for better or worse. Like past civilizations, ours is a checkered history, far from innocent, but not bereft of greatness. Like the “sinful saints” of the Bible, key historical figures from our story are a mixed bag of admirable and abhorrent decisions.

Print of General Robert E. Lee, similar to the one displayed by General Stanley McChrystal for more than 30 years.

When General Stanley McChrystal wrote his book, Leaders: Myth and Reality, he began with a chapter on Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Few figures are more pivotal in the debate over monuments than Lee’s likeness on Monument Avenue in downtown Richmond, VA. Yet, as much as General McChrystal admired General Lee as a battlefield tactician and a leader of soldiers, a prized portrait of Lee he’d hung in his office for over 30 years symbolically captures General McChrystal’s journey in facing Lee’s stance in history, “ A mythology grew around Lee and the cause he served. For many, Lee’s qualities and accomplishments took on godlike proportions. This was the Lee I first came to know: a leader whose flaws and failures were sanded off, the very human figure recast as a two-dimensional hero whose shadow had eclipsed the man from whom it came. But as time passed, the myth was reexamined. The darker side of Lee’s legacy, the picture in my office, now communicated ideas about race and equality with which I sought no association. Down it came (the picture).”

I use this example for two reasons. First, it models the kind of honesty by which we must face our nation’s past. McChrystal embraced the mythical Lee but later reflected on that myth in light of truth. He had the intellectual honesty and emotional fortitude to face his hero’s fallen humanity while acknowledging Lee’s admirable skills and abilities as a leader, skills from which others can learn.

Apotheosis of Washington …
Seriously? Washington, a god?!
This is a problem.

Second, it illustrates why relocating or relabeling statues might be a better idea than removing/destroying them. Rather than General McChrystal disposing of the picture he’d associated with Lee, the myth, what if he moved it from the prominent place in his office to a setting where it could serve as a reminder of Lee, the man? As stated above, Lee was a brilliant tactician and leader. Few would dispute this. However, Lee serves as a cautionary tale against our tendency to whitewash and revise historical figures to mythical proportions. Much like the deification of George Washington captured on the ceiling of the Capitol Rotunda in The Apotheosis of Washington, literally meaning, the “god-making” of Washington!

When we make gods out of humans, we lose objectivity and honesty. While Lee’s monument might be problematic on Monument Avenue, what if it were displayed in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, near the Confederate Soldier’s Memorial, George Pickett’s grave, or in one of several museums in the area, or at Appomattox Courthouse?  Relocating and/or relabeling monuments would allow us to face the ugly realities and the triumphs of our history and learn from them both. To elevate the triumph and obscure the tragedy indoctrinates rather than educates. Facing History in its fullness is better than erasing it. When history is erased, we lose its lessons.

What do you think?

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