Our country has been having this debate for years now. Quietly in the 20th century, but much more extensively in the last few years since 2017. How should we view and understand monuments built to honor Confederate and other controversial figures? Should they be removed? Are they an important way to remember our history, or a hurtful way to prolong racial discrimination? If they are taken down, will we doom ourselves to repeat the mistakes of the past?
It is first crucial to discern why and when these monuments were erected to begin with. If you look at a timeline of Confederate monuments being erected, you’ll notice two big spikes.
You might be surprised to find that the majority of them went up at the turn of the 20th century, several decades after the Civil War. This was a time when Jim Crow, segregation, and racially motivated violence were increasingly high. The statues were intended to be a sign of intimidation to Black Americans and a reinforcement of White supremacy. These images were not meant to be a cautionary tale of the dangers of slavery and division, or even just to honor veterans of an American war. They were part of a systemic movement to silence and control Black communities. This is further evidenced by the second spike in the 1960s. Not the 1860s, but in the 1960s during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. There can only be one reason why cities and towns would choose to erect new Confederate statues at the same time that Black citizens were organizing and demonstrating for equal rights. It was another attempt to intimidate and assert power. For a deep dive into the history and geography of Confederate statues, check out the Southern Poverty Law Center’s analysis.
In light of this I would argue that Confederate statues in particular, as well other monuments honoring racist figures like Columbus and Spanish conquistadors, are not mere historical emblems. They are symbols of idolatry. The idolatry of greed and exploitation that has long held this country captive. They are preventing us from honestly reckoning with our history by perpetuating a false narrative of heroism and honor. Removing them is not what prevents us from learning from the past, leaving them up is what keeps us stuck.
Confederate monument we came across on vacation in Austin, TX
Monument to the Texas Rangers that fought for the Confederacy, Austin TX
When we look at Israel’s relationship with their symbols of idolatry, they display a similar pattern. When they first prepare to move into the land, God commands them in no uncertain terms:
Destroy completely all the places on the high mountains, on the hills and under every spreading tree, where the nations you are dispossessing worship their gods. – Deut. 12:2
Idol worship was performed on the “high places” where it was elevated and revered. God commanded them to rid the land of all traces of idol worship as they entered in for a fresh start and a clean slate. However, God’s people did not remove the high places. This wasn’t out of an abundance of caution. They weren’t concerned with preserving their history to avoid repeating it. These dangerous Idols maintained their grasp on the people’s hearts because the people saw them as a source of power and control. Why put all your faith in God alone when you can hedge your bets and have multiple options for security and prosperity? Not surprisingly, Israel continued to struggle with idolatry for centuries.
If you look through 1-2 Kings a clear pattern will quickly emerge. King after king refuses to tear down the high places. You start to get déjà vu thinking you are reading the same passage over again:
The high places, however, were not removed; the people continued to offer sacrifices and burn incense there. 2 Kings 14:4
The high places, however, were not removed; the people continued to offer sacrifices and burn incense there. 2 Kings 15:4
The high places, however, were not removed; the people continued to offer sacrifices and burn incense there. Jotham rebuilt the Upper Gate of the temple of the Lord. 2 Kings 15:35
Some rare instances emerge when kings tore them down, but the next king would put them right back up. The nation remained locked in a cycle of exploitation and sin because of their refusal to remove the means and symbols of their idolatry.
If you compare Kings with 1-2 Chronicles, you will notice something interesting. Kings was written at the beginning of the Babylonian exile when the people are finally being forced to come to terms with their centuries of violence and greed. The question they are asking themselves is, “How did we get here? Did we get here because God is weak and could not protect us, or because we are sinful?” The answer of course is not that God is weak, but that they had brought it upon themselves. So the theme and tone of Kings is a grim recounting of the moral failures of the kings and the peoples’ unwillingness to repent and change. 1 Kings has 10 references to high places, 2 Kings has 17 (that’s a lot). It is essentially a laundry list of their sin and idolatry. Everything they did wrong that they now had to confront and acknowledge.
By the time we get to Chronicles, the tone changes. These books were written at the end of the exile when their fundamental question had changed. Now they were looking towards returning and rebuilding and were asking, “Is God still with us? Did we burn all our bridges or are God’s promises still for us?” Chronicles answers that question by focusing on the things King David did right in his pursuit of God, and the things the other kings did right to honor Israel’s covenant with the Lord. 2 Chronicles has 15 references to high places, but they are not found in God’s continued warnings but in examples of the few intervals where a king did remove them. These intervals were always followed by periods of obedience in Israel. Chronicles serves as a reminder that Israel was capable of being faithful to the Lord. God’s forgiveness and grace were always there when they turned to Him. Their periods of rest and joy came when they tore down their idolatrous symbols and gave their whole hearts to following God.
And that is the other exhortation Israel’s history offers to our grappling with modern idolatrous symbols. It is not enough just to take them down. Their removal must be accompanied by genuine honesty about our sin and heartfelt repentance. It was only when Israel came face to face with the fruit of their sin that they embraced lasting change. (For a beautiful example of individual and corporate confession, read Daniel’s prayer in Babylon in Daniel 9.) Our society has a similar opportunity during this period of public reckoning. All is not lost; God desires so much more for our society and can and will equip us to change and grow. Our monuments are holding us back with false narratives and misplaced honor. They have not preserved our history; they have rewritten it. Let us remove them with hearts that desire to follow Christ alone, our true and only source of security and power.