As of the writing of this article the rash of statute toppling seems to have abated. They began as part of the demonstrations and protests over the killing of George Floyd. Like the demonstrations themselves, the statue topplings were (are) a mix of semi-justified actions and sinful pride and rash judgments on past generations. For instance, in the frenzied moment of demonstrations a statue of General Ulysses S. Grant was toppled, because for a time after his marriage to a Southern woman, he owned a slave. But in fact he gave that slave his freedom while still poor himself. As Union commander in the Civil War and then president he was a champion of equal rights for African Americans, and directed the suppression of the KKK when it first arose. To single out his temporary slave ownership in contrast to his splendid record on slavery is an awful act of spiritual immaturity and meanness.
To make clear the complex issue of statue toppling let me start with a brief discussion of the biblical view of statues. The Bible unambiguously prohibits “graven images” (i.e. statues) for adoration or veneration (Exod 20:3-5) and indeed it is specifically prohibited by the 2nd Commandment.
Calvin and the Reformed wing of Christianity took this very seriously, mostly in reaction to Roman Catholic practice which had slouched into statue veneration. But Calvin went too far and affirmed that all statues are idolatrous and should be banished from Christendom. It was an unnecessary blow to religious art. Calvin overlooked, or rather brushed off, the God- directed angels that were on top of the ark of the covenant – a plain biblical example of graced religious art. He eliminated these statues out of discussion by calling them “paltry little images.” To be clear, these angel statues were not meant for worship, but for beauty and as a sign of the unseen world.
When it comes to statues and busts of people in a non-religious setting, the Bible is silent. Paul was “provoked” with disgust while at Athens at all the statues (Acts 17:16), but in the context of the time and place, these statues carried a spiritual intention as being images of a god or of a person thought to be deified, as in a Roman Emperor.
The modern world has few such equivalents. The exception has been the “cult of the personality” given to various Communist leaders, such as Lenin and Stalin. The clearest example of statues as idols is now found in North Korea. There the Kim dynasty has been systematically deified and any disrespect to the statue/idols of the Kims is severely punished. More typically, the modern world is filled with statues of heroes who are honored but not deified, as in the statues of Washington, Lincoln or Martin Luther King, Jr. And here is the issue, who is honored and for what virtues or acts of heroism? When are such statues worthy of being torn down?
I volunteered for the Army and served in Vietnam (1968-1969) because I believed, and still do, that the struggle against Communism was every bit as important as the fight against Fascism that our fathers and grandfathers fought. I was grieved when, back in the States, I saw via TV the collapse of the South Vietnamese Army and the Communist takeover of all of South-east Asia. The great Cambodian genocide that immediately followed did not surprise me at all, since I knew something of the history of communism and its hatred and loathing of the “bourgeoisies.” Thus, a decade later, when Communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union began to crumble, I rejoiced. I relished especially hearing the detailed reports from NPR radio of the progress of Communist demise and the toppling of statues of Marx, Lenin and the leaders of various communist secret police apparatus.
The toppling of the statues of the communist leaders, including Stalin, who murdered more people than Hitler, was a righteous judgment and action taken by crowds that could finally voice their opinions. Not only from our limited human judgment but from God’s perspective these statues were idols and worthy of destruction. Similarly, one could view the toppling of statues of Saddam Hussain at the end of the Iraqi War. He was an absolute tyrant, who demanded quasi-worship from his subjects. All of which is to say that some instances of statue toppling are good and justified.
Which leads us to the present moment, where statue toppling is sometimes proper, but more ambiguous, and has at times a deep arrogance and ugliness to it. The toppling of Confederate monuments, as in statues of representative Confederate soldiers found in many Southern towns, may be proper, but more ambiguous than the toppling of one of the great dictators like Stalin of Saddam Hussain of Iraq. Many Southerners cherish the memory of the South’s long struggle against great odds and the overwhelming material superiority of the North in the Civil War. The narrative, written and largely accepted after the Civil War ended, was that the “lost cause” was a war for states’ rights. Thus its skilled generals and splendid fighting men were fighting for a valid political ideal.
We now understand that narrative to be woefully distorted. In short, good scholarship has clarified that the base issue that triggered the Civil War was slavery. The states’ rights issue was a minor issue in the years leading to the War. So yes, Southerners were really fighting to keep their “peculiar institution” of race-based slavery. But many Southerners are unaware of the newer scholarship on this and felt the toppling of their Confederate heroes as a sudden slap in the face. Perhaps they would have been better to have been legislated out rather than suddenly toppled. But that is now a moot point.
Here I should confess my own participation in the error of the states’ rights issue of the Civil War. My older brother was enthralled by Robert E. Lee and the heroic fight of the Army of Northern Virginia. As a boy I accepted his adulation of Lee as my own and had a framed picture of Lee in my room. This was in New York City in the 1950s, an unusual point of view, but not unheard of. When I first came to the South in my first civilian job (1971), I still had that fondness for the “lost cause” though I understood is was much better, and Providentially ordained, for the South to have lost the War, the Union preserved, and the slaves freed. In fact, I taught social studies at a predominantly African-American high school as my first civilian job. Still, at a local reenactment I purchased a Southern soldier’s Kepi (campaign hat). Several years later as a pastor of a Hispanic congregation the Lord nudged me to get rid of it as it was improper. I did so at my next yard sale.
Although a historian by profession, my field was not Civil War Studies, and I generally stayed focused on revival history. I was vaguely aware to the scholarly rebuttal of the states’ rights argument of the War, but it was not until the recent excellent mini-episode “Grant,” shown on the History Channel, that I became fully aware of the extent of the distortion of the “lost cause” myth, and how much of a civil right’s protector and advocate President Grant was.
My specific case of “progression by process” brings up a much bigger issue: the intolerance and arrogance of some of the statue topplers and street demonstrators. They show little or no understanding of historical or personal process as people and nations grow out of inherited myths and prejudices to clearer moral visions. A case in point was the outrageous toppling of one of Grant’s statues because he was temporarily a slave owner.
Another example more widely known was what happened in the Democratic primaries earlier this year. In a debate among the candidates, Senator Kamala Harris accused Joe Biden of prejudice and insensitivity because as a young congressman in the 1970’s he opposed school bussing. The issue itself is ambiguous. But the real point is that at the time Biden was still way ahead of most whites on civil rights issues. That he was accused by Harris of not being in sync with the latest thinking of Progressives is a (spiritual) failure of rash judgment by not understanding how people change and grow.
The great fallacy here, common among the present radicals, is judging past generations by current standards. Many of the radicals think there is nothing worthy in the past and wish to “Cancel Culture” and discard any historical eras that do not reflect their current values. There is, for example, a move to remove the teaching of the great Greek philosopher Aristotle from universities because he thought, like most people of his age, that slavery was natural to mankind. Traditionally historians are taught early not to judge the motives and actions of the peoples of the past by current standards, but this has stopped in the current atmosphere of political correctness.
With this type of judging the past by present values the Bible would soon be jettisoned (as it already is among most of the current radicals) because the Old Testament makes various provisions for the fair treatment of slaves, and the New Testament speaks only of treating slaves kindly without mentioning the freeing of slaves. In fact, both cases are a real progression from contemporary standards. Ultimately, the first successful anti-slavery campaign in world history was organized and carried out by Christian Evangelicals in 18th Century England. They understood the Biblical meaning and consequences of the Fatherhood of God over all peoples, and of Paul’s assertion that freedom was the goal of Christian life (Gal 5:1). We should recall, as we have been reminded recently by the multiple programs and celebrations of the life of Congressman John Lewis, that the Civil Rights movement of the 1960, which made such great breakthroughs, was deeply Christian in origins and ideology. Losing touch with this biblical perspective is dangerous.
Recall the history of the 20th Century. Two anti-Christian regimes, Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Germany, recreated slavery under different rationalizations. The Nazi government most notoriously in its work and extermination camps, and the Soviets in its vast gulag of prison camps. All of which is to say, that slavery is just a few steps away from recreation in a society that forsakes its Christian heritage. Of course slavery continues to exist in various Islamic countries, sometimes hidden, sometime openly as in the recent ISIS caliphate.
Personally I have no doubt that the radicals of the Antifa movement, who have already recreated an ideology whereby free speech is identified as a tool for the oppression of minorities, could come up with suitable reasons for putting “fascists” (i.e. the opposition) into concentration camps if they achieve political power.
The present generation of Left radical and Antifa folks share a spiritual deficiency common to radicals since the French Revolution of 1798 – the first widespread political movement in the West to reject Christianity. When Maximilian Robespierre became dictator during the French Revolution, he held several extreme positions. Any disagreement with his views, as for instance, when some Frenchmen wanted a constitutional monarchy as in England, was considered treason and worthy of the guillotine. Even his former allies who slightly disagreed with him were not safe from the guillotine, and a reign of Terror began where there was neither safety nor freedom. He eventually alienated most Frenchmen. The Terror was put to an end, and he was guillotined, and ultimately a new king came to power – Napoleon Bonaparte.
Similarly, we are having a Robespierre movement that is quite widespread, especially in the universities. The Ten Commandments have long been forgotten, and for students there are only three sins: Greed (capitalism) environmental insensitivity, and racism. All the weight of moral development is put on these items. Meanwhile student ethics are in shambles, sexual licentiousness and manipulation (not recognized as problems) cheating and copying on term papers and exams, substance abuse, etc., are rampant. Character development as a goal is a thing of the past. Students can believe themselves morally enlightened and superior if they correctly speak Left-wing egalitarianism and are adamantly anti-racist – regardless of the hatred lodged in their hearts. Marxism has taught them the hatred of the “bourgeois” and this leads to the habit of rash judgment against persons who are businessman or merchants. This is of curse a counterfeit spirituality, finding righteousness in political ideology (i.e., I am NOT a bourgeois”) rather than in Christ.
But in fact all persons, historical or present figures are filled with imperfections and sin. Martin Luther, for instance, brought important reforms in Christian theology that now even Catholics acknowledge. But as a man of his times and his cultural prejudices, he did not shed his medieval anti-Semitism, and unfortunately wrote a virulent pamphlet against the Jews that hundreds of years later the Nazis used in their own propaganda. Because of this there is now some motion among politically correct Christians to downgrade the importance and appreciation that Christians generally give to Luther.
But what of today’s cultural givens and prejudices? One of them is that persons should be sexually free to have intercourse in any way that pleases them without external restraint, and without any consideration about the conjunction of sexuality and procreation. Many universities encourage licentious activities as part of normal growth. But even now there are signs this has been a disastrous mistake. For instance Italy, Japan, Germany, and other industrial nations are experiencing population declines that will have tremendous negative consequences in the future.
Currently there has appeared a form of gonorrhea that is totally immune to any anti-biotic and spreads through any form of sexual contact – genital, oral, etc. It is a spreading killer with a long and painful death.
Let me postulate a future created by this disease, and perhaps other waves of STDs that are equally resistant to treatment. Supposing 50 or 60 years form now, through one STD epidemic and another 60% of the population, mostly young folks, die. This would be something akin to an STD Black Death. History would be rewritten by the survivors who would be horrified by what the 1960s sexual revolution ultimately did. Their key point of judgment on any historical figure would be if he or she abated or resisted the sexual revolution.
Let me invent a historian of the future (2095), a Johannus Jacobs, from the Amish country of Pennsylvania, who writes a best-selling college multi-media text of American history. Sexual fidelity or infidelity is the big thing. Thus for instance, John F. Kennedy is mentioned only for his multiple affairs. Martin Luther King Jr. is lauded for his civil rights work, but two-thirds of the discussion about him is about his sexual infidelity, and how the African American community knew of it, and it was an example to them that sexual purity did not really matter. This contributed to the huge losses among the African American communities during the “death season’ of the 2050s. Statues of King have been removed all through the country by zealots for a sexually reformed America.
Unfair and distorted? of course. But this is the consequence of single track and myopic history where the current generation makes absolute judgments on past generations. This is the problem with many in the present Black Lives Matter movement Antifa and the current statue topplers.
Scripture points to a different way. All persons are sinners, some persons make progress in certain areas of human suffering and injustice, yet have faults that they never overcome. For instance, the book of Judges contains various histories of ‘judges’ i.e. leaders who liberated Israel form the oppression of the Philistines, but they all had character flaws, as Samson who lusted after Philistine women. A good historian, or student of history, instinctively knows this. A person should be judged according to the standards and prejudices of his generation. Did he or she make progress, even small progress, towards freedom, justice and love of neighbor?
Many times the verdict is mixed, and should be seen as that. For instance, Woodrow Wilson as president had a wonderful vision for worldwide cooperation to end war in the future, and sought to get the United States into the League of Nations. From the experience of the current United Nations, we know wars are not avoided by such an organization, but limited good can be forthcoming, as in the cooperative effort to eliminate smallpox. So we can credit Wilson with a good, morally worthy idea. But he was also a Virginian, and a racist. He was born into that and never took steps out of that. So the verdict on him should be mixed, but not cruel, as by some recent commentators.
If we followed the biblical example we would be both careful and generous in our judgments of historical persons in the past, and perhaps our descendants will be merciful in judging our own faults. We should be especially careful in judging statues and memorials of persons who had different cultural assumption and prejudices than we have.
 As a young Catholic lad I remember bowing down and lighting votive candles in front of various statues of saints and Mary. There were several rationalizations given by Catholic theologians as to why this was not a violation of the 2nd Commandant, all of which were biblically unsatisfactory. I believe the Eastern Orthodox churches have it right in allowing icons as aids to worship. These are two dimensional and thus not the forbidden “graven images.” I regularly pray before a icon of Jesus that reflects the image formed on the shroud of Turin.
 Johmn Calvin, Institutes, Bk I, chapt. 11, sect. 8.
 North Korean Communism is an interesting study of how a supposedly antireligious and materialist philosophy morphed into to a (demonic) religion. Many North Koreans talk to and petition the dead Kims as if they were gods.
 On the recent reemergence of anti-free speech ideology see Carl R Truman, Our Marcuse Moment,” First Things. Posted 7/16/20 https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2020/07/our-marcusan-moment
 At a Christian university I know the freshmen are forced to watch a film on homosexual types of sex in order to break any “phobias” that they may have about homosexuality.
 In Italy for instance, the generation-long low birth rate has caused labor shortage that is made up by immigrants from Muslim countries, most of whom consider Italy’s heritage in art idolatrous. Christopher Calswell, “Italy in Crisis,” First Things Posted May 1, 2020. https://www.firstthings.com/article/2020/05/italy-in-crisis
 Seminal article on this is Judging the Judges. PR Lee Roy Martin, Judging the Judges: Searching for Value in these Problematic Characters.,’ Pneuma Review. Posted Oct 13, 2010. http://pneumareview.com/judging-the-judges-searching-for-value-in-these-problematic-characters/