In a recent blog for my site, The B-Flat Christian https://www.bflatchristian.com/sheep/, I talked about how pictures of sheep had been used in various memes to depict people who are less intelligent, less informed, or less able to think for themselves. I explained that symbols matter, and that, as Christians, we should take back the symbols that are being misused for mean-spirited purposes.
I’ve been thinking a great deal about symbols lately as I’ve watched footage of the famous statues of Confederate military heroes being pulled down on Richmond, Virginia’s stately Monument Avenue. Monument Avenue is a beautiful street, tree-lined and bustling, in the heart of historic Richmond. The statues have been there since 1890 when the first statue of Robert E. Lee was erected. Richmond was the capitol of the Confederacy, after all, and the people who lived there at the time wanted everyone to remember that—forever. The statues stood there through the entire twentieth century, gazing over the horse-drawn carriages, bicycles, and eventually cars that whizzed past.
As a white southerner, I can honestly say (not proudly at all, mind you) that I never thought once about those statues being there until recently. They gave Monument Avenue character, distinction. One might even have said they were “historical” and “attractive.” To me, they were just another statue about a stupid war that happened a long time ago, and that I was happy the North won. I was able to think of those statues as background, not really noticing them that much in the few times I drove or walked on Monument Avenue. Those statues may not have meant anything to me, but they meant quite a bit to the African Americans who live in Richmond, who every day are forced to look at soldiers that fought to keep their forebears enslaved.
Oh, I know, the War wasn’t about slavery, right? It was about states’ rights, the right for a state to have its own laws and not be under the thumb of the national government. Well, I am sorry, but that is not an argument I am willing to hear any more. It is simply not true. That is the tip of a very deep-set, obvious iceberg. While some of the Confederate soldiers may not have believed in “the cause,” many did. Frankly, it doesn’t matter if they believe in the cause or not; they fought to continue the southern way of life, and that, my friends, included owning slaves if you wanted to. That is not what this post is about, however.
This post is about the importance of symbols. Those statues on Monument Avenue are symbols of that war, symbols of what the southern states supported, fought, and died for; symbols of those who led that war. Those statues weren’t about celebrating southern heritage, or remembering our ancestors, or keeping history alive. They were meant to be reminders of those whom some consider to be “heroes,” while today, others consider to be “oppressors.”
Right now, there are people who are tired of those reminders, and I am one of them. I don’t mind if the statues are taken down and put in a museum somewhere so they can be viewed by whoever wants to do so, but I do not believe they should remain lording over Monument Avenue any longer.
You might say, “But you don’t have to look at them. You’re just letting a symbol have power over you. You’re letting it be too important. It’s just bronze and concrete.” My answer is that symbols matter. Whether we know it or not, our brains see those images and imbue them with meaning. Even if we think they’re just in the background and we don’t notice them, someone else does.
A couple of years ago at Creation (a Christian music festival), a few of us had climbed up to the overlook. It was a hot but glorious day, and as my friend Lisa and I rounded the corner, we saw a cross that had been erected. It looked over the side of the mountain serenely, a sentinel of plain hewn wood. Suddenly, I saw a couple of teenagers run up to it and begin hammering something on it. To this day, I can’t even tell you what it was they were hammering on it—it looked like little faces carved into potatoes or something. I immediately stopped. “What are you doing?” I demanded.
They were surprised (probably scared) and said, “We made these and were just going to take a selfie with them.”
I said, “No, you are not. Do you not understand what that is? What that represents for us as Christians? That is not some piece of wood for you to get a selfie in front of, or to put anything on. That is the cross. It reminds us who we are, that Jesus dies for us.” They looked shocked, guilty, but they didn’t move to take down the dolls.
I stopped to breathe and tried to be calm. “Please don’t do that.” They shrugged, but I knew as soon as Lisa and I kept walking that they would probably do it anyway.
Was I wrong to say something? They weren’t my children or in my youth group. It was just a cross, some pieces of wood. No big deal. The teenagers probably got their selfie and shared it on Facebook or Instagram and got hundreds of Likes, smiley face emojis, and comments saying “Awesome!”
I don’t care. That symbol matters. Perhaps the difference is that the cross is a religious symbol that, in this case, was erected at a Christian camp, not on a public thoroughfare like Monument Avenue. But for those teenagers to think that the cross was an opportunity for a selfie really bothered me. The cross is a symbol for God’s continuing rescue mission to set us free.
I realize that I’ve been like one of those clueless teenagers on the side of that mountain. I have seen the statues on Monument Avenue and considered them inanimate works of art, relics from a long-ago history. We are seeing now that history is not as far in the past as we think it is, and something that is not symbolically significant to me may certainly mean something to others. I need to realize that statues—symbols—like that do not need to be on public thoroughfares. They belong somewhere where they can be put in context, discussed, considered. Not erased or eradicated, but not given prominence, either.
I wonder: how do you think the people in Germany would have felt if, after the Nazis lost World War II, the statues of Joseph Goebbel, Adolf Hitler, and Heinrich Himmler were erected on a main thoroughfare? Not all Germans liked Hitler, right? Not all Germans were responsible for the utter destruction and desolation of Europe, right? They’re just statues to commemorate heritage, right?
Friends, symbols matter. It is time for us to deconstruct those symbols that terrorize and belittle so that we can begin the hard work of reconciliation. We must learn to see symbols through others’ eyes. Our future depends upon it. The Civil War may have ended at Appomattox in 1865, but in many ways, we are still continuing to fight it in our own time.