“The past is never dead. It's not even past.”
On my desk is a picture of Robert E. Lee. It sits right beside a picture of my great-grandfather. One was a Confederate general—a leader of men, an owner of slaves. The other was a shop steward—a sometime drunken whoremonger, the man I loved most in this world.
As I sit writing, I am but a few miles from the site of the only Civil War battle fought in my home county of Arkansas: the Battle of Longview. It was a short-lived gambit. My forebears lost that battle, and in time they lost the war. But in losing a cause they gained a country. So I am not particularly melancholy about the outcome.
A single stone monument stands on the courthouse lawn in Hamburg, Arkansas, paying tribute to the men who lost their lives in that campaign. Modestly adorned with a plaque of names and dates, that memorial pays homage to a few dozen farmers, trappers, shopkeepers, and tradesmen who died to keep a garrison of Union troops from burning their crops and disturbing the course of daily living. One or two may have been ideologues, but most were just poor, tired, and hungry folk.
When I was five, my great-grandaddy gave me a fifty-dollar Confederate banknote. I still have it in a small box, along with sixty-seven cents in change, a little bottle of nitroglycerine tablets, a wallet, a pair of reading glasses, and a picture of a dead aunt I never knew—all the items that papaw had on his person the day he died. I stuck that fifty-dollar bill in there to keep it safe. His grandfather, who received it as compensation for wounds received at the Battle of Longview, gave it to my papaw when he was just a boy in short britches. Though worthless, it has been a family treasure—part of who I am—for over a hundred and fifty years.
I mention this to remind the reader that when many of us from the South talk about the Civil War, we aren’t speaking about an abstract history of conflicting ideas; we are thinking about the people whose pictures line the hallways of our homes. At some point my mortal remains will be interred just a few yards from the man in the yellowing portrait, the man who took a bullet in a pitiless war fought for a pitiful cause.
Southerners are often accused of being defensive concerning “the recent unpleasantness,” a term still in vogue in my part of the world as late as 1990. Doubtless this is true. Many of us find ourselves in the precarious position of wanting to honor our fathers while also recognizing that they hobbled about on feet of clay. We are compelled to admit that they were party to horrible atrocities committed against their fellows, while simultaneously admitting that they were also sinners redeemed, quietly resting in the good hand of God.
Though the idea that desperately flawed people can still be regarded as decent provokes moral outrage these days, there is not a man alive who isn’t clad in his own garb of tattered gray. And this has ever been the case. Think of Abraham with his doubt and deception; Isaac with his rebellion against the election of grace; Moses, that hot-tempered manslayer; Samson, ruled by his passions; David, murderous and adulterous, whose celebrated statue is nothing short of an apotheosis. These are but a few of those whom Scripture speaks of as “saints,” and without blushing (cf. Hebrews 11–12; 1 Corinthians 1; 2 Corinthians 1). It is for just this reason that outfitting some with white hats and others with black hats is a fool’s errand.
I will grant that statues of Lee, Jackson, Davis, and other Confederate leaders may not have been good ideas. If a society is going to honor a person, it has to account for that person's flaws, as well as his strengths and successes. As David was rebuked by Nathan, and yet still holds an honored place in the community of faith, so too must we denounce the sins of figures we seek to honor for their praiseworthy characteristics and accomplishments. But at present, we are caught in a moment of iconoclastic fervor, and seem incapable of making such distinctions. Given the hysteria induced by cancel culture, I am not sure there is a prophet among us who can correctly discern the difference between a legitimate memorial and an idol.
While we should not idealize our past and perpetuate causes justly lost, we must also beware of the myth of our own moral perfection. If we succumb to this myth, we will lose the ability to see remnants of virtue in the tattered rags of our collective past. For in many ways, we are cut from the same cloth.
Memorialization is a dangerous thing. It has the power to confront us with our own potential for evil. Perhaps this is reason enough to raise a monument or two. Let the stones cry out.
J. Brandon Meeks is theologian-in-residence at his Anglican parish in Arkansas.
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