The news has been filled lately with unrest and violence over racial strife. Part of the action taken has been the tearing down of statues across the country. A statue of Christopher Columbus was thrown in the lake after being torn down in Richmond, VA and Robert E. Lee was taken down outside of a high school in Alabama. Tearing down statues is not a new thing. I remember seeing triumphant Iraqi citizens tear down statues of Saddam Hussein. Hungarians toppled a statue of Joseph Stalin in 1956. Across the world it continues to happen in light of recent protest. A statue of slave trader Edward Colston was toppled in Bristol, a monument to King Leopold was torn down in Belgium, among many others. If history is written by the victors, this is often a way to change that narrative to more accurately reflect actual events of history.
Several SBC leaders have spoken out in agreement with the removal of the statues in the US. Steve Gaines was part of dozens of pastors in the Memphis area that advocated for the removal of a statue honoring Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest in 2017. Current SBC first vice-president of the SBC Marshal Ausberry said removal of the Lee statue was “130 years overdue.” All that and more can be read in a recent article from Baptist Press.
When the article was posted on the BP Facebook page it quickly gathered a flurry of comments. To me it was disappointing but not surprising that many Baptists were opposed to the removal of confederate statues. People have very strong opinions about the removal of history. Most of the time it’s framed as “erasing history” or “caving to current trends.” The problem with that argument is that most of those monuments were not set up as a remembrance, but as a celebration. And there is a big difference between remembering and celebrating.
If you have ever been to a war memorial like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the New England Holocaust Memorial, or the WW II Memorial in Hawaii, you know the sobering feeling that they bring. Those names on the black granite wall or numbers etched in glass in Boston are a reminder of the tragedy and cruelty of war. These things stand as a memorial, literally in memory of those who lost their life. We want to remember those who unfairly lost their lives to genocide or war. These monuments are not celebrating the events that led to their erection but serve to make sure that we don’t forget.
Up the road from me in OKC sits the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. One of its most iconic pieces is the statue titled “The End of the Trail.” A Native American sits on his horse, both of them looking tired in weary and body. It is supposed to signify the end of the Trail of Tears, the forced removal of Native Americans from their homeland. In no way could this sculpture be said to be celebrating the Trail of Tears. It serves as a reminder of a terrible part of US history. Everyone who sees it will be driven to learn about the history that it represents.
These stand in contrast to the larger than life sculptures like the ones Lee or Columbus. Those statues are often lifted up and elevated, meant to attract our gaze and wonder. Think of the Lincoln Monument or Mount Rushmore. We are meant to think that these people are important, more important than the common folk who sit in their shadow. These men are lifted up for us to look to, learn from, and admire.
This practice is literally as old as the pyramids themselves. Throughout history great leaders have sought to be remembered or worshipped as gods. Even Britain’s King George had a gilded statue in Manhattan before American independence. Soldiers and citizens later tore it down and made musket balls from the lead of the sculpture.
The pages of the Bible seem to show both sides of this coin. The Tower of Babel was built to celebrate the ingenuity of man. The Israelites were commanded to build towers to remind themselves and their children of how God had worked among them. Jacob laid a stone of remembrance where he had a vision in the desert. Nebuchadnezzar built monuments to himself only to be torn apart by the power of God.
Celebrating and remembering are not the same thing. But many of these monuments seem to blur the line. As someone who loves history I’m never in favor or erasing it, or pretending that it doesn’t exist. Southern Baptists should be people who aren’t afraid to acknowledge the mistakes of the past. Claiming that symbols from the past merely represent a heritage and not hate ignores the very real power that symbols have, a power that Scripture supports as we see the Israelites carrying 12 stones to the middle of the Jordan. Those rocks were a symbol to the work of God among them.
I will always remember being in the room when the SBC debated the renouncing of the display of the Confederate Flag. James Merritt stated that all “the Confederate flags in the world are not worth one soul of any race.” The same should be said of statues and memorials.
I don’t know of any Southern Baptist Statues that have been torn down. But I do know that our own Southern Baptist Convention has a history that we would like to forget, as does the United States. How can we walk the line between celebrating and remembering?
We walk that line by being honest about the past. This means we don’t try to hide the past, but we don’t lift it up and exalt it on a pedestal either. We teach a complete history, not just the one written by the “victors.” We realize that the victory gained was often gained at the expense and tribulation of others. We work hard to bring in different voices, to promote diversity, and listen to the experiences of those different from us. We strive to be a denomination that reflects the multitude before the throne of God, with every tribe and tongue worshipping the Savior.
We can remember the past without celebrating. And we can learn to celebrate the right things, the people and events that bring honor and glory to God. This means we don’t cling to the past, but hold it loosely knowing that while our past is not always everything that we wished it could be, our future in Christ is greater than we can ever imagine.
Luke Holmes is pastor of FBC Tishomingo, Oklahoma, and contributor to For the Church, LifeWay Pastors, and Facts and Trends.