..even if they died two hundred years ago
In life, among friends and acquaintances, we are trained to take the good with the bad — not because we wouldn’t prefer being surrounded by angels, but because only a moron would expect to be.
Years ago, my toddler-daughter ran across the room and bit her grandfather in the leg. She was just learning how to use her teeth, and she didn’t know any better, but she experienced the impact of involuntary muscle reflex, pronto. Grandfather howled, knocked the little girl down, (without meaning too, of course), and we spent the next few minutes drying tears and pursuing a “teaching moment.” Apologies were encouraged. Forgiveness was extended. Life goes on.
Not only do we hurt each other all of our lives, we expect to both cause and endure each other’s injuries. We live and let live. We agree to disagree. We apologize and we seek apologies, and most of us plow right on, unless the behavior is so toxic we send the offender outside the camp for good. (No one really expects a spouse to endure physical abuse or a family to abide the presence of a violent criminal, just because they happen to be kin. Eventually, even morally fluid Hollywood luminaries shun and scold the Harvey Weinsteins of this world.)
Still, the broader pattern in our lives — tolerance for our loved ones’ failures — is born of a Christian virtue that is imperfectly sought but that bears substantial fruit even if only partially realized: love your enemies. It is also tempered by a Christian insight into our character that all true realists understand: we aren’t “good” by nature. We are spiteful little brats who have to be taught how to share, take turns, and play nice.
This virtue, and this insight, seems to be in shorter and shorter supply. Young people want to be protected from both the ideas that impinge on their “safe space” and even from the people who articulate those ideas. We don’t accept the good with the bad anymore. “Christian” counselors tell their patients to “seek distance” instead of reconciliation. “Toxic” people are removed from our lives, to the high praise of all the girls on the pep squad–and it really is just about that adolescent. The further our culture moves from scripture, the more peevish and childish we all become.
Predictably, given the current climate, our relationship to the great titans of history lacks nuance. There was a time when you could admire the military genius of Robert E. Lee or the raw courage of Stonewall Jackson, without endorsing their cause. We once extended charity to former enemies. The iconography of colonial America — with maps, and official documents displaying noble depictions of Native Americans — reflected this tolerance. Eighteenth century Americans recognized the bloody sting of Indian brutality without losing appreciation for their bravery, strength and simplicity. It was a broad reflection of what a Christian age expects of us as individuals: tolerate each other. Balance the measure of your neighbor’s vice with a measure of his virtue.
It is such a painfully obvious expectation that the spectacle of New Yorkers removing a statue of Thomas Jefferson strikes me as a carnival of drooling dunces. Their sanctimony in the matter only makes it worse. Erin Thomas, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, reminds us that the man who wrote the words “all men are created equal” also owned “600 of his fellow humans.”
You mean a noble ideal was not fully achieved? The great men of the past did not live up to our current understanding of social justice??
The irony here. Stunning. Why have we waited so long to claim our moral superiority?
Is it fair to ask the question: do some historical figures deserve extraction from our memorial halls and statuary gardens? Well, yes. I would argue that no one needs three-story murals of chairman Mao, and Seattle doesn’t need that idiotic Lenin statue, but we are talking about evil on such a colossal scale that fair-minded people can’t find any balancing virtue at all. Mao, Hitler, Stalin, and Lenin killed innocent people in the tens of millions. They broke eggs without serving up any omelets. There is literally no good at all to be found in either the men, or their record. Were it not for the antiquity value, I would grind all Nero statues to dust. The man killed his own mother and castrated a boy so as to “marry” him. Some historical figures don’t deserve a memorial toilet, much less a statue.
But are we really saying the same thing about Jefferson, Washington, and Andrew Jackson? All of these men owned slaves at a time when the entire world accommodated slavery–as it had for millennia. The seeds of abolition, spurred on by Christian revival, had been sown for about a century, and it was beginning to take hold. The silent recognition that slavery must someday be eliminated affected the deliberations of both the Continental Congress and the Constitutional convention. They knew a wrong had to be righted, even if they didn’t have the strength to do so immediately. Unlike Hitler, who revived an ancient, but largely conquered vice–anti-Semitism–America’s founders were seeking greater liberty in an age that was fighting off feudal aristocracy. They were titan warriors of light in an age of darkness. George Washington, and many other very wealthy men, risked both their lives and their fortunes to defend freedoms they believed were granted to men by God. They endured deprivation, and loneliness, and enemy fire, when no one else was man enough to take the risk.
Take down their statues?
Go to hell. You are without mercy, and if you don’t repent, you’ll be measured by the very standard you claim to honor. It’s not going to be pretty.Tags: Jackson, Jefferson, Statues, Tolerance, Vice, Virtue, Washington
Categorised in: Farm Journal
This post was written by Jim Riley