Tearing down idols

Judging history symbolizes rejection of racism

Sep 11, 2017 by

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On a 1986 trip to the Soviet Union, students from Tabor and Bethel colleges could count on seeing two things in every city: a monument to the Great Patriotic War (World War II) and a statue of Vladimir Lenin with an outstretched arm pointing the way to a glorious Communist future.

Soviet life didn’t turn out to be glorious, and some of those statues wouldn’t stand in their places of honor much longer. Only five years later, people throughout the Soviet Union tore down the idols. No other act so powerfully symbolized their disillusion with Communism and rejection of the cult of Lenin.

Did they destroy history? No, but they passed judgment on it. More than a quarter of a century later, the people of Russia and other former Soviet nations have not forgotten Lenin. Some are still reckoning with his legacy. Thousands of Lenin statues still stand across the former Soviet empire. But more than 1,000 have come down in Ukraine since the removal of a pro-Russian president there in 2014.

Freedom-loving people around the world cheered when Russians and others celebrated throwing off the yoke of Communism by rejecting its symbols. Today, it ought to be no different when icons of the American Confederacy fall from places of honor. When the image of a Civil War general is taken off its pedestal, art is not desecrated nor heritage destroyed. History books and museums will still tell the story of slavery, war and segregation. Americans will remember but no longer glorify those who led a war for slavery and fought to divide the nation. Confederate statues, erected as cultural anchors of white supremacy, belong in museums that promote an honest understanding of the nation’s history.

When the planned removal of a Robert E. Lee statue became the flashpoint of violence in Charlottesville, Va., last month, the question of what the Confederate statues mean became an integral part of the debate over how to fight resurgent demonstrations of racism. The swastika-wavers who paraded through the streets left no doubt that, to them, the monuments stood for white supremacy. When the defense of a Confederate statue stirs overtly racist passion, prejudice cannot hide behind claims of preserving Southern heritage. Racial pride has become an idol and white superiority a false gospel.

In Charlottesville, racism crawled out of the shadows and marched boldly, confident its message would resonate amid a nationwide far-right resurgence. At a time when white supremacists feel the political winds blowing in their favor, communities of faith must provide the moral voice lacking in the nation’s highest office. For peacemaking Christians, our response includes answering the hateful chants of “blood and soil” with inclusive words and nonviolent actions — and, in our everyday lives, becoming more aware of subtle white privilege.

Though a powerful symbolic act, removing Confederate monuments cannot destroy the bigotry and prejudice that persist in white America. To heal a deeply polarized nation, people of faith must move beyond symbols to substance, embracing racial diversity as boldly as white supremacists defend their idols.


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