Yesterday we talked about why we don’t have statues of Judas Iscariot in Church–and why statues of Confederate soldiers need to be torn down for the same reason.
Serendipitously, a reader writes in reply:
I agree with you about the Confederacy and some statues. I’ve always been a bit of an iconoclast anyway. Unfortunately, our “woke” culture won’t stop with statues. They want to topple historical landmarks. They want to rename streets and cities and states. Do you have any suggestions in mind for your state of Washington? Get ready for it. It may be just a symbolic war but it’s one that will further divide the nation. We Americans love our monuments.
Funny you should ask. Because today I want to discuss why we do have statues of Peter and other sinners in Churches–and why I think statues of certain morally ambiguous figures from our past are worth keeping and honoring in our public squares.
Peter’s sin should not be whitewashed. After specifically promising the one he loved most in the world that he would never deny him even if everybody else did and declaring that he was ready to follow him to death, the Big Fisherman famously denied him three times. One of his denials was to a serving maid, a young girl. He denied him within sight–and very possibly earshot–of the trial where Jesus was condemned to death. We know he was within sight because when the cock crowed Jesus turned and looked at Peter and it killed Peter with shame. It is *the* defining trauma of Peter’s life. Moreover, it is a trauma and betrayal that neither he nor the entire Church would ever be permitted to forget–and that by his own preaching.
It’s remarkable when you think about it. All four gospels go out of their way to preserve the memory of the cowardice of the apostles, but while most of them get off with the quick summary that they all abandoned him, the details of the story of Peter’s betrayal are etched in acid in a way that makes clear that his betrayal, clearly the memories of the trauma victim himself, become part of the Church’s patrimony in a unique way. Peter’s betrayal of Jesus is preserved in the way that the eyewitness to a murder keeps seeing the murder over and over in his memory. There is a clarity and unanimity of detail to it in the four gospels that makes plain that what we are reading is not a story told about Peter by others, but a story told by Peter, again and again and again, that the Church remembers him telling.
That matters, because Peter is the Rock the Church is founded on. But the Church does not remember him in a golden haze of perfection. She is not permitted to, by Peter himself. The gospels are not a Soviet whitewash in which the imperfections of the Dear Leader are airbrushed out. And indeed, John 21 will triple underscore Peter’s shameful behavior by recording the exchange between Peter and the Risen Jesus where the Lord asks him three times “Do you love me?” The point is clear enough: the forgiven Peter is given a penance in which he affirms three times what he denied three times. And he is given not only full pardon, but a mission: “Feed my sheep”. The sin is placed firmly in the past and he is given a future. But the sin is remembered, lest we forget that we are saved by grace and not by our own awesomeness.
In short, precisely why Peter is our first and archetypal pope is to remind us of the fact of our sinful weakness–and of the fact that Christ will forgive any sin, even the sin of abandoning him to crucifixion. Peter is therefore held up to us as an icon and model, not in spite of, but because of, his sins–and because of the still greater mercy of Christ that forgives and redeems him. If he can be forgiven, so can you and I. If he can find redemption and purpose, so can you and I As Chesterton remarks:
“When Christ at a symbolic moment was establishing His great society, He chose for its cornerstone neither the brilliant Paul nor the mystic John, but a shuffler, a snob, a coward – in a word, a man. And upon this rock He has built His Church, and the gates of Hell have not prevailed against it. All the empires and the kingdoms have failed, because of this inherent and continual weakness, that they were founded by strong men and upon strong men. But this one thing, the historic Christian Church, was founded on a weak man, and for that reason it is indestructible. For no chain is stronger than its weakest link.”
Which brings us back to the issue of non-sacred statues.
Statues, as we mentioned yesterday, are one of the ways a civilization declares that someone or something is worthy of being honored. As my reader above notes, there are those arguing for something more or less like a general iconoclasm since it is mighty hard to find any historical figure without sins. In addition to calls for tearing down statues of slaveowners like Washington or Jefferson, there have been pushes in Britain to tear down statues of Gandhi (who voiced bigoted sentiments toward Africans) and Churchill (whose record with respect to colonial subjects–including Gandhi ironically–is, shall we say, not spotless). We can go on and on with this, of course. In the words of Shakespeare (whose unpleasant portrayal of Shylock the moneylender is disquieting in a post-Holocaust world), “Use every man after his desert and who shall ‘scape whipping?” If we are to honor only the sinless, then get used to a world filled only with statues of Jesus and Mary. And then expect protests because the people who carved them were sinners unworthy to do so.
Now I don’t think really think that the problem is some sort of imminent iconoclast movement. I disagree with my reader that the demands to tear down and eliminate all references to Washington et al are likely to gain much traction. Rather, I think the breathless panic in bulletins like this…
Far left extremists tore down the historic statue of Christopher Columbus in Richmond tonight. They set the statue on fire and threw it in the lake in Byrd Park.
How much longer will the people of Virginia tolerate an extreme minority of far left radicals destroying our State’s public monuments and historical sites?
…are largely the hyperventilation of white conservative bullies who perpetually feel themselves to be victims and who are much more worried about some iron slag than they are about the denied screams for justice that have been silenced for 400 years. If a couple of statues wind up in the drink in all the hubbub of seeing to it that that systemic racism of police departments across the US cannot abuse and murder people with impunity, then that’s fine with me. We can fish Columbus out of the lake if need be and he’ll be fine. It just a hunk of metal after all. We’ll never be able get Breonna Taylor or George Floyd back.
Ah! But should we fish ol’ Chris out of the drink? Or to put it more simply, given that sinners are the only kinds of human we can honor as a general rule (especially in the public square as distinct from St. Peter’s Square) what sort of sinners should we honor and which ones can get along without a statue in their honor?
Let’s return for a moment to the question of Confederate statues. As I argued yesterday, the reason they should not be honored is that the entire raison d’etre of the Confederacy was, root and branch, devoted to the preservation of slavery and to the doctrine of white supremacy.
That’s not me talking. That’s Alexander Stephens, the Vice President of the Confederate States of America:
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.
Pay very close attention to the first ten words of that paragraph. What precisely is Stephens opposing here?
He is opposing the great founding document of the American Revolution and its creedal claim:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
The Confederacy, with malice aforethought and clear eyes, set out to deny with blood and violence that claim and to assert the direct opposite: that whites were the Master Race and that they had the perfect right to subject black human beings to slavery, degradation, and murder whenever and however they pleased. That and no other was the reason the Confederacy existed. It was not a good thing with some flaws. It was a bad thing with no redeeming value.
Now here’s the thing: the author of the Declaration of Independence was Thomas Jefferson, Virginia statesman, Sage, Natural Historian, Third President, Passionate Advocate of Equality–and Slaveowning Hypocrite. So should we tear down his statues too?
I would argue not. Not because his sinful hypocrisy was not gravely evil, but because what is being honored by the statue is not the slave-owning or the hypocrisy, but the fact that the overall trajectory of his life was a drive toward, not away from, the advancement of human dignity and the common good. In short, Jefferson–given where he started and what he was handed by the structures of sin into which he was born–advanced the ball down the field in the right direction. He did not do so sinlessly any more than St. Peter did. But he tried, on the whole, to move in the right direction. That is worthy of honor. And one of the measures of that is precisely that the Confederacy, which is worthy of nothing but contempt, gauged its own goals precisely by their defiance to Jefferson.
“How far did he advance the ball down the field?” seems to me to be a very good way of looking at figures born in times and cultures very different from our own. It is easy to see where our ancestors erred. And the easier it is, the harder it often is to see where we err. The wise thing is to see both where they erred and where they were wise. The biblical tradition does this, both commanding us to “Honor your father and your mother” but also warning Israel of the fact that “we have sinned like our fathers”. Indeed, Old Testament literature is unique in antiquity by the excoriating stance it takes toward the “sins of the fathers.”
So scripture, for instance conserves both praise for biblical figures who “advanced the ball down the field” while in no way pretending they were sinless. All you have to do is read the stories of the patriarchs–Abraham the coward, Jacob the liar, Moses the murderer, the horror show of Israel under the Judges, David the adulterer and murderer and on and on–and you see the story of a people whose only boast is that God keeps saving them no matter how often they fail. And yet those figures are not simply sinners. That is not all they are. And so scripture does not indulge in the single most odious moral habit of the Righteous these days. It does not “cancel” them, focusing on some sin of theirs and writing off everything else they ever did. At the heart of the biblical narrative is the desire for (and promise of) redemption.
Which brings us back to statuary. There are different ways redemption can happen, and our attempts can have varying mileage since the meaning of such attempts can vary with different ages. Case in point: Christopher Columbus.
Here is a snapshot of American bigotry c 1888:
A century and a half ago and well into the 20th century, the MAGA morons who now hate Latinos as foreign invaders were spending their white rage on Italians instead. They were brown. They were papists. They spoke a funny language. They were taking our jobs. They were bringing drugs known as “alcohol”. They were bringing crime know as the Mob. The usual argle-bargle of American nativism spoken by the usual American bigots who now constitute the backbone of our current Racist-in-Chief’s base.
Meanwhile, decent Americans who opposed this nativist bigotry were trying to figure out ways to welcome Italian immigrants as they are trying to figure out ways to welcome Latino immigrants today. They sought some point of commonality by which Italians could claim a toehold in an American tradition chockablock with English, Dutch, French, and related northern Europeans, but pretty sparse on Schiaparellis at Plymouth Rock or or DiNunzios at the signing of the Declaration, Yorktown, or Independence Hall.
Solution: Christopher Columbus! And so, suddenly in the late 19th century, Columbus Day, and the Knights of Columbus and Columbus statues busted out everywhere.
And it worked so well that now the white MAGA morons cheering for caging Honduran kids are shrieking that the “liberals” (who set up the statues to fight the anti-Italian bigotry of MAGA morons a century ago) are “attacking America”.
(It is a curious fact all it takes to make MAGA morons venerate the work of liberals is to do that work before they were born.)
The point is that the original purpose of the Columbus statues was not really about Columbus, but about welcoming Italian immigrants in a time when bigotry was directed against them.
So why the hostility to them now? And is it justified? To answer that, we need to look at the way in which the Universe of Discourse in the United States has widened since those statues went up. Because now questions are being asked that never occurred to the people who erected them in good faith and out of an honorable desire to welcome Italians to our shores.
And thereby hangs a tale. Of which more tomorrow.