A Biblical Case for the Removal of Racist Monuments

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.

BE0E6565-121D-4626-88FE-BD0DDD936293

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.

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.

 

 

All the Feels – The Psalms

I’m a person of strong emotions. Our culture largely values rationalism and logic, and it’s easy for me to think that I need to ignore or overcome my emotions. The Psalms present a different narrative. This book of the Bible is a compilation of prayers, and was in many ways the prayer book for the Jewish people. In it is expressed every human emotion and type of experience. The psalms give us permission to be human and to experience deep emotions, and they offer a guide for how to bring these emotions to God.

happy_musical_notes

Psalms of Praise – Believe the hype

When we think about praising God, we often presume an element of happiness and joy. We praise God in response to something good that happened or that we observe in the world. This is not a bad thing and we should certainly offer songs of praise and gratitude when we are reminded of God’s goodness and power to work in our lives. At the same time, it is also deeply necessary to praise God when we are in the midst of darkness and struggle. When we are most overwhelmed by fear and despair, we need to remind ourselves and others of what is true: The earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord (Ps. 33:5). The Psalms employ many metaphors and beautiful language to describe God’s traits and the way He interacts with the world. But keep in mind that the psalmist is not merely speaking in hyperbole to puff God up. When we extol the goodness of the Lord, we state the facts about the truth of the universe.

From heaven the Lord looks down
and sees all mankind;
 from his dwelling place he watches
all who live on earth – Psalm 33:13-14

This means that to praise God while in the throes of trouble does not mean putting on a happy face to pretend everything is great. It is to silence lies of hopelessness through telling the truth about the God we serve. To praise God is to offer gratitude and joy, and also to reorder our focus and understanding of how the world works.

Cursing

Psalms of Cursing – You mad, bro?

The imprecatory psalms can be very difficult to process and often make us uncomfortable with the harshness of their language. Should we really be praying for our enemy’s children to wander as homeless orphans (Ps. 109)? Aren’t we supposed to forgive and turn the other cheek? First of all, the psalms of cursing show us that we should be upset when evil seems to have the upper hand and that we are allowed to desire the punishment of unrighteousness and injustice. We are required to be honest about what is wrong in our world and to name those things before God. Secondly, we are assured that God hears the cries of His children. These psalms show us that even if no one knows the ways that we have been injured by others, God knows and we expect Him to care. Imagine how comforting these psalms could be to a young girl kidnapped by Boko Haram, or to brothers and sisters constantly threatened by ISIS, or to a child who is being abused and is afraid to tell anyone. God sees every wound inflicted within His creation, and even if human advocates don’t arise, we know that God will bring justice in the end.

Also, take time to turn the psalm on yourself. In our thoughtlessness and selfishness we have all acted as an enemy towards someone else. It could be through obvious offenses that cause us guilt and regret, or cursing at a driver that aggravated you on the highway. On a regular basis we malign and injure other image-bearers. We have also all been enemies of God.

Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation – Colossians 1:21-22

Because we all fit the category of “enemy”, Christ turned the cursing psalms on Himself to bear the curse that we deserve. He stood condemned in our place and drank the Cup of Wrath that we couldn’t have survived. Next time you feel uncomfortable with one of these psalms, think of Jesus enduring that punishment so that you might be spared. And give thanks.

Bottles of Tears

Psalms of lament – You can cry if you want to

A seemingly obvious but important truth of the psalms of lament is that they assume the followers of God will suffer. Sorrow is not inherently a sign of failure or punishment, but an expected part of life. They again show us that when we cry out to God in our distress, we can expect Him to hear and to care.

You have kept count of my tossings;
put my tears in your bottle.
Are they not in your book? – Psalm 56:8

Our tears are precious to God. He doesn’t just tell us to buck up and get over it, but keeps close record of our weeping. These psalms also show us that something happens when we are honest about our sorrow before God. Depression and anxiety can be very isolating and cause us to withdraw. But God invites us to come forward and bring our thoughts and feelings into the light of His presence. The psalms never describe a tidy resolution to the psalmist’s distress (“I told God and then I got everything I ever wanted”), but they always shift in tone by the end. Not because the situation has changed, but because our hearts are changed when we know we have been heard. It may take days, months, years for us to know that we have been changed. It took me two years of crying out to God during a season of grief and darkness before my heart was healed. But it was this continual process of honesty and rawness in prayer that moved me down the road of healing. Silence, isolation, or a mask of happiness will not bring renewal to a hurting heart. Full and authentic expression of sorrow in the presence of Christ is what will bring the balm of healing and restoration.

If you would like to study the psalms in more depth, please feel free to utilize my three-part Bible study series. My thoughts in this post and in our study guides have been significantly influenced by Ellen Davis’s book Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, a work which I highly recommend.

Getting Involved with God