Confederate monuments and constructive revisionism
We’re taking a look at history. What should we think when schools, military bases, and other public institutions change names or remove monuments to distance themselves from a Confederate past?
KELSEY REED: Hello, welcome to Concurrently: The News Coach Podcast from WORLD Radio and God’s WORLD News. Our mission is to come alongside you, learning and laboring with you as you disciple children and teens through culture and current events. My name is Kelsey Reed. I’m here with Jonathan Boes.
JONATHAN BOES: Hello!
KELSEY: Together we want to model a conversation you might have with your teens and students at home or in the classroom. But before we dive in, we want to invite you to write or record your questions for us to address in future episodes. Please send your questions to us at email@example.com.
JONATHAN: Yes, it’s always so good to receive questions from you. It helps us shape our discussions.
So today we’re talking about a subject that recently came to my attention, at least, because we covered this on WORLDteen back in May in one of our daily news articles. It was called “The U.S. Army Renames Base.” And this is a story about how the U.S. Army has changed the name of Fort Polk, named after Confederate Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk, to Fort Johnson, now named after the black World War I hero Sergeant William Henry Johnson. And this is one of a number of similar stories we saw recently; also the name of Fort Bragg, named after another Confederate general, was changed to Fort liberty. We also see this happening with schools. And it reminds me of how, a few years ago, there was so much discussion around the removal of Confederate statues.
But what really brought it to mind for me right now is that I’m looking at this WORLDteen article. And at the moment of this recording, we have a comment section on our WORLDteen website where our teen readership can write in with their thoughts. And I just noticed on this particular article, it garnered more comments than the usual WORLDteen story. And a lot of these comments—I could see that there are some strong feelings among our teen readers about this subject, strong feelings and maybe even confusion exactly about how to handle this particular issue. And so that really got me thinking that maybe this is a good subject also to explore for us as parents and educators, because we want to equip our kids to deal with this well, and with a biblical perspective.
So, broadly speaking, we’re looking at: What do we think, how do we respond to this issue of institutions changing their names, or removing memorials—specifically to Confederate figures, but to any figure whom we might believe to have an unsavory past or associations we’re no longer proud of?
KELSEY: Probably good. I think it’s going to help to categorize our observations, when we think of some of the important terms that come up in stories like this. And some of what guides me, as I think through this in academic or in discipleship terms, is I think about those criteria that help us to understand, or those tools that help us to understand, the course of history and even the cultural context, alongside of the definition of those important terms. So you might already have your ears kind of attuned to what I’m starting to refer to as one of our major tools, which is the Big Five, the adaptation that we are using of Aristotle’s Five Common Topics. So I want to start with some definition of a term: “revisionism” or “historical revision.”
JONATHAN: Because that’s a term you hear come up quite a bit in the discussion of this issue. You hear, on one side, people are worried about the way we might be revising history by removing a monument or changing the name of a fort or a school.
KELSEY: So to even understand that term, we have to understand some of the cause and effect of history. And that goes into this category of relationship, as we think again through those five common topics of invention. So embedding this term, “revision” or “revisionism,” into historical process—when we look at that term well and define it carefully, we realize that when we look back over the course of history, there are reasons why we would come from a different perspective that is generated from data observed. Now that we know more about what we know, we’ve had a chance to plumb the depths of the reasons for different wars or the character or the purposes or the goals of certain individuals, we can now look back over history—not quite 20/20 hindsight, but bringing the wisdom and discernment of the now into a perspective on the past.
JONATHAN: So the idea of revising history, I think, immediately has this negative connotation. It sounds like what you’re saying is, yes, there can be a negative sense of, “We’re going back and revising history with some sort of agenda.” But there can also be a legitimate time to say, “We know more now; we have more data; we have some distance from a situation.” And we can look and see, okay, what actually happened? How should we feel about this?
KELSEY: As with anything over the course of human history, or in human institutions, there’s always going to be—and this is where our Christian worldview helps us—there’s always going to be something that is beautiful and reflective of the image of God, something that even in a faint echo, echoes something of justice of mercy, the imprint of the Father, the Creator on our lives. But we are still under the curse. And so there will be something that is negative, that is broken, that needs a growth mindset—that we, with humility, point out those flaws that are very much embedded in human history, and that we acknowledge them for the sake of growth, that growth mindset. So true revisionism, or the kind that has its best effect, includes both the negative and the positive in its aspect, even though we recognize as well that when we erase things of history, there, unfortunately, will still be negative impact as well. So we’re dealing with a fairly complex topic, when we talk about looking at something, deciding this needs to be renamed, or maybe even this monument needs to be taken down.
JONATHAN: And so you use that phrase, the “erasure of history.” And that’s something I want to zero in on, because I think that’s the other thing I hear most often when people are upset about, again, the removal of a monument, the renaming of Fort Bragg—it’s, “We’re erasing history.” But as we’re moving into some analysis here already, I want to draw some ideas from an article, what I’ve honestly found to be one of the most helpful things for me in parsing out this issue, looking at it with new eyes, with kind of a clearer perspective. It’s an article on the Federalist by a woman whom I actually went to school with back at Patrick Henry College, Gracy Olmstead. Brilliant writer. She wrote this article called “There Are Good Reasons To Consider Removing Confederate Memorials from Our Public Squares.”
And now, I’m going to pause there, because it sounds like we’re already getting to kind of a conclusion. I’m just kind of using this article to pull out some points, not necessarily to draw a conclusion yet, because I want to bring out some of the distinctions that Gracy brings out in this piece, which is—she raises the question of the difference between what we remember in history, and what we celebrate or memorialize in history. Because I think both of us on this podcast would agree that there is a danger in erasing history—that would be a negative revision. But on the flip side of that, if we are going to remember our history, preserve our history, is there a difference between remembering something and celebrating it? And what does that difference look like?
KELSEY: So we’ve already tracked through a number of observations of the different ways that things are occurring in renaming and even taking down statues. Those are some of the things that we were observing. But we’ve added color to our observations in saying there are a number of different emotional responses to those ideas. And they come from a number of different cultural, contextualized reasons for that. And they add complexity to the observations, which propels us very quickly into that realm of analysis. So as we’re sitting in that realm of analysis, we’re using a particular set of criteria to determine the answer to this question. And we’re going to talk a little bit more about the criteria, but we’re starting with this question of, “What is worth remembering, and what is worthy of memorialization or celebration?” And I’m going to add a layer from scripture to this, because we have recently just enjoyed using Philippians 4:8, particularly, as another wonderful analytical tool that lends to this particular conversation beautifully: Whatever is true, whatever is commendable, whatever is lovely. If there is anything worthy of praise, think on these things.
So as we ask that question—what is worthy of remembering, and what is worthy of even celebration?—we’re going to run it a little bit through that, along with running the what is worthy of remembering through the paradigm of the Redemptive Narrative. Again, we use the Redemptive Narrative to draw out our Christian worldview response to anything, not just so that we’re responding to it, but so that we’re cultivating a heart that acknowledges sin, acknowledges need for redemption, acknowledges that there is one Creator who has the good authority over us all. And we use this, then, as well, as another analytical tool for engaging with the things of the world, and for developing discipleship in our children and students.
JONATHAN: Another tool that I bring to a story like this, when I look at it, is our emotional intelligence tool. I try to put myself in the shoes of the different—we’ve used the term stakeholders in stories like this.
So personally, I am a Northerner and grew up in Pennsylvania. I do not have a foot in Southern history. I do not have a foot in the history of slavery. I am very disconnected from what are some of the primary historical touchpoints of this issue and the reasons it’s so contentious. And so, you know, I try to put myself in the shoes of the different people involved here.
And I think, on the one hand, you have some people in the South who want to hold on to a cultural heritage, to a history. To them, maybe it’s not even primarily an issue of slavery or non-slavery, but it’s—they see the figures being memorialized here, these Confederate generals, as people who fought for their homes, who may have had—whatever service they put these traits into, some of those generals probably had traits that are worthy of celebration: bravery, loyalty, things like that. And there’s that, you know, that pain after the loss of the Civil War. It was really reading Pat Conroy’s My Reading Life that opened my eyes to the pain a lot of people in the South felt after the Civil War, and the way their culture—you can talk about the roots of that culture and if it was built on sinful foundations—but the way that culture was really decimated by the war, and the pain and sense of loss that caused for a lot of people in the South. You can start to understand, maybe, a reopening of wounds when somebody is removing a statue of a general from the South or because—again, another thing to remember is, just to add a little more nuance to this discussion: Some of these statues, forts, schools, whatever, the names are commemorating Confederate generals. A lot of those people weren’t just Confederate generals. They had lives and accomplishments outside of the Civil War.
But then the flip side. I think of, you know, somebody who is a black person, who maybe comes from a family where they were enslaved back in the time of the Civil War. And I try to put myself in those shoes and think about, if I’m going to a place like a school or a courthouse, and I see that this institution has memorialized people who fought and died for the right to keep my family as slaves—I would think, would I trust those institutions that are supposed to be providing some level of justice and security to me, that have authority over me, would I trust those institutions, if those institutions are celebrating something so painful to me? And so I think, at least what those emotional intelligence questions, and trying to put myself in those shoes, what that brings to me is an awareness of the delicacy of this issue and the pain felt really on either side of it.
KELSEY: I’m thankful for the way that you began exploring those questions of empathy and emotional intelligence, which even bridges into cultural intelligence, what you were saying about how fiction shapes your empathetic imagination, that you are able to more kindly and compassionately engage with the other because your imagination was shaped by others’ stories. Other ways that we draw out and increase our empathic imagination—I don’t know if that term is used anywhere, but I kind of like the way that sounds, and that our minds are stretched to consider more stories and greater complexity to the story that’s in front of us. So we ask questions, to create those pathways in our mind and expand our thinking on a topic area, and even our feeling, so that through that expanded thinking and feeling we have a more beautiful discipleship response.
So some questions that I might ask as we’re thinking about things on the emotional or cultural level: For those who don’t understand what was going on in the South during the time of the Civil War, we need to ask questions about, you know, what was literacy like in that stage? You know, what did people actually know about what was going on? What were their reasons for joining in battle?
JONATHAN: I know you’re just trying to raise these questions here for people to discuss on their own. But that immediately draws my mind to the fact that we can look at the broad historical reasons the war was fought. But then, you know, you have accounts like in Shelby Foote’s Civil War, talking about reasons these soldiers on the ground were fighting. A Northern soldier asked a Southern soldier, “Why are you fighting?” It was like, “Well, because you’re here.” To that particular Southern soldier and to a lot of people in the South, that was it.
KELSEY: And fiction allows us to engage some of those questions, with maybe a little bit less of that tension of the reality of what is reported or, again, with greater complexity. So we can ask these questions, we can see how they draw us into deeper places. We might also ask things like, what would it feel like, as you asked, what would it feel like to walk into a place where a known abuser or someone who is very evil in their intent was just plastered up on the walls in these beautiful, you know, paintings of the age, and lauded, shown to be somebody who is worthy of attention and praise? What does it look like for us to consider walking in the shoes of another person’s perspective? We’ve talked about that before. So when we ask these questions of our thinking, of our feeling, of even the cultural diversity and how that’s in play—it draws us into those complexities. The reverse, unfortunately, is that we oversimplify and tend to fall into what we’ve at least identified as like three major oversimplifications. Jonathan, I’m going let you dive into those, because you’ve got this great illustration.
JONATHAN: So you’ve been talking about these great questions we can ask to bring out the complexity of these issues. And one of the things we talk about often on the podcast is that we want to foster a non-anxious perspective toward the news. And this might almost seem counterintuitive, but I really believe that these complexities, which may even seem confusing on the surface, they really do help us get to that non-anxious place. Because often the oversimplifications are the things that create anxiety, that make an issue seem smaller or bigger than it is, and that breed conflict. And I really see, particularly in this issue, two oversimplifications that in my mind have bred conflict.
For those of you who don’t know me, you might not realize how much of an accomplishment it is that I have not talked about Star Wars in about 29 episodes of this podcast. But for the first time, I’m going to talk about Star Wars, because I actually think there’s a really good analogy to pull out here, which is—Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Episode VIII, came out a few years ago. And there’s this theme in there of how we deal with history. I think it illustrates this topic really well. Because in that film, you have the character of Rey, who has heard stories about Jedi Knights. She thinks of them as these perfect, flawless heroes. She wants to go find Luke Skywalker. They’re going to go defeat the bad guys. She has this view of history that everything about her heroes is perfect. They are flawless. And that is something I see in some people when they respond to issues like this. They look at our past heroes of America, whether they are Confederates or even our Founding Fathers, and want to refuse to acknowledge any wrongdoing, that these people ever did anything wrong. “Don’t talk to me about the fact that Thomas Jefferson owned slaves.” There’s kind of a false conservatism in that, that instead of learning from the past, we just want to preserve the past, the good and the bad. We’re not just saving the good. We are actually cleaning up the past, doing a negative revision to hide any wrongdoing.
So then you have the villain of the movie, who is Kylo Ren. And his whole thing is, “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to.” Unfortunately, a lot of people took this to be the point of the film, even though it’s the villain speech. But his whole thing is—the good guys, the bad guys do away with it all. It is all tainted. It is all corrupted. We need to burn down everything and start over. And I think that is the other major oversimplification that you see exactly, in this issue of renaming things or removing monuments—it’s a sort of mob mentality, graceless progressivism, that—whereas this other view refused to acknowledge the bad of the past, this view refuses to acknowledge the good accomplishments of the past. And it reminds me of what we talked about with cancel culture, this search for perfection,, and wherever sinfulness is found, wherever corruption is found, it wants to burn it all down. We don’t just stop at tearing down statues of Confederate generals. We want to stop celebrating Lincoln and Washington. We look for any imperfection and want to root it out. And I think eventually we end up sawing off the branch we sit on, culturally speaking.
And I’m almost done with Star Wars, don’t worry. The last thing I want to say, and I think you brought this up as being maybe a little bit oversimplified as well, but I think though you can maneuver it. I think there’s a lot of truth here, as far as you can get without it being an explicitly Christian film. Where the movie ultimately lands—where The Last Jedi ultimately lands—is in the idea that it’s not about venerating history without any critique. It’s not about burning down the past. It’s about learning from the past, preserving what was good, and learning from failure. Where we end in that movie is that Yoda tells Luke, “The greatest teacher, failure is.” We end on this idea that the Jedi are going to carry on, that Luke Skywalker will not be the last Jedi, that Rey is going to restart the Jedi, but not from this point of view of, “Oh, everything was perfect in the past. Just make things the way they were,” but from a point of view of, “There were flaws in the past that we can learn from.” And from that starting point, we can seek a better future and actually bring out the good of the past. To me—this is now getting a little bit into the response section, perhaps a little bit early. But I would say that invites those complexities we were talking about, how can we look at the failures of the past and not erase them, but also preserve the good—not letting the past die, but also not just naively clinging to what was.
KELSEY: The student who refuses to be a student of history is doomed to repeat it, versus the grace of being able to learn by being a student of the past and recognizing that there’s something to be learned. You know, it’s the Christian worldview that allows us to unpack that, and even equips us for that learning. So yes, I think we are really in that response mode, where we flesh out what it means for our for chaptered redemptive paradigm, or Redemptive Narrative, to fill out. Yoda’s response, or our response as the learner in this situation—you know, we cannot camp out in only one chapter of that narrative. It is a four chapter narrative. If we only camp out in Creation, we forget three quarters of this fully orbed story that we’re living in. We can’t just refuse that any bad has happened. That’s what would happen if we were camping out only in that chapter of Creation, the very good, and proclaiming, labeling, that everything is only very good all the time. That’s not our story. Our story tracks us through a very heartbreaking, relationship-breaking splintering of all things: our relationship with the Father, with one another as human beings, human beings to creation and, as we’ve mentioned in our episode on the environment, on that stewardship of creation. Our place within creation is fractured. We are no longer able to serve it as we were called to. So we have to look at every story, at every action that is ours through this second of lenses at the same time. It’s like when you’re in that seat in the ophthalmologist’s chair, where they have multiple lenses. They’re flipping back and forth. We have to look through the Creation lens and also add the lens of Rebellion into what gives us greater clarity of focus. And then we add our third lens. This, I think really rubs well into those concepts that you were illustrating through Yoda’s words, that there’s a redemptive process here, one that includes a vast amount of learning, a vast amount of work, honestly. Redemption, what it means for us to move into the work that is ours, as agents of His kingdom, as those who’ve been given the ministry of reconciliation in the world—you know, this is where the complexity lies, in that our work is manifold and diverse. And sometimes, in certain situations, it’s going to look like one thing, and we have to discern what that one thing or that varied response is, even within a situation. I think of charitable work within the states, and I love how Effective Compassion, one of our other podcasts, helps us to understand the complexity of the issues that we need to know in order to engage in an effective manner in charitable work.
Similarly, we’re talking about these things that require a complex response, where we’re thinking carefully through the nuances so that our attitudes are shifted well, and our actions are fitted to the task. And so we’re already just pivoting a little bit even more into that fourth chapter, when we think about what we’re redeemed for: redeemed for that ministry of reconciliation. We’re redeemed to be agents of restoration while we wait for that ultimate consummation, that ultimate restoration, where all things are made new. How do we bring this newness to bear? As we are agents who help to bring the kingdom, who help bring all things into a new state, what does that mean then, now, to this idea of revisionism, or revising the things—not just revision for revision’s sake, which is what “revisionism” can sound like, but when we are engaging in a work of redemption towards the past, that we would not laud things that need to not be praised. They are not praiseworthy. So you see this interface between those categories of Philippians 4, interfacing with these four chapters of the Redemptive Narrative. So what is worthy of praise? What is worthy of memorialization, in these certain contexts that we’re looking at today?
JONATHAN: So we’ve talked about the difference between remembering and celebrating, what we memorialize versus what we want to remember maybe by putting it in a museum or history book. I think another question that your comments now bring out for me is: What is the difference between who we remember—who we memorialize—and what we memorialize them for? Because, bringing it back again to our picture of the Redemptive Narrative, that we are created as good but we’re fallen—no matter who we laud, no matter who we put on a pedestal, unless it’s Jesus, they are going to be a sinful person with flaws. And if we want to remove every memorial to a person who did sinful things, we’re only going to have statues of Jesus left. You know, maybe that’s not a bad thing, but—
KELSEY: Some people might say that.
JONATHAN: Yeah, I guess that depends on your theological tradition. That got me sidetracked. But what I’m trying to say is, nobody is perfect, which is a very trite way of saying “all have sinned.” And—who are we remembering versus what are we remembering them for? I think about the fact that we have a monument to George Washington, our first president, and he was not a perfect man. He owned slaves. Some people would argue, “Well, he was a good slave owner,” whatever that means. You know, slavery is an evil institution. I’m sorry, there’s no good way to own slaves. But we don’t celebrate his slave-owning. The Washington Monument is not a monument to the fact that he owned slaves. It’s a monument to the fact that, even though he was a sinful person with flaws, who did some bad things, he also was a founder of our country, was our first president, and had many good characteristics, and that is why we memorialize George Washington, right? We are able to memorialize the good things people did, even if they had flaws, because everyone has flaws. But then there’s the question of—well, what about the times when we are memorializing somebody’s sin? Not just memorializing somebody who was a sinner, but memorializing their sin? And that’s where it gets a lot stickier with these Confederate memorials, statues, names. Because if we are remembering their Confederate service, is that worthy of memorialization? That’s a harder issue. I would lean towards no. But you’re dealing with people, and that is always complex. And you need to ask that question: What are we memorializing them for? Not just what not just “Who are we memorializing.”
KELSEY: This goes beyond our method of what can we affirm and what can we challenge, and if the things that we can affirm outweigh the things that we can challenge, then we’ll memorialize them. This is much, as we’ve said, much more complex than that, and it thinks about, what are the reasons for their pedestal in the first place? If that pedestal is formed on the backs of those that have been oppressed by this person—let’s knock that down.
So asking questions at home—these are the important, the most impactful places that you can have these discussions. We can try to touch on some areas, we can try to point to them, we can try to repeat some of the questions that we’re asking ourselves. But in the home or in the classroom, in that face-to-face context where these discussions can be played out, even over the course of hours, and returned to, and different days—these are where these subtleties need to be spun out into something lovely. How do we respond to this aspect of culture with discernment, with wisdom, with compassion? How do we actually engage the work that is before us without shirking it? And how do we do so in a manner that is not divisive, but that welcomes and even fosters community?
I want to close us with a reminder that there is so much we have to rejoice in in the Lord. So from Philippians 4: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand.” And then skipping to verse eight: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”
JONATHAN: I love the ifs in that passage, that “if there is any excellence.” To me, that feels like a digging, a searching, because again, we are in a fallen world, and wherever we look for excellence we are also going to find fallenness. But we can search, we can dig to find those praiseworthy things that reflect our good Father. I love the phrase one of our coworkers, Jacob Roberts, used: “a kind of holy treasure-seeking.” I think that’s brilliant.
So seek those treasures together. May they equip you for the work that is yours in the world. Parent, teacher, mentor of kids and teens, you students who are listening in, remember: His word is living and active in you, and it equips you, He equips you, for the work.
We’re taking a look at history. What should we think when schools, military bases, and other public institutions change names or remove monuments to distance themselves from a Confederate past?
Check out The Concurrently Companion for this week’s downloadable episode guide including discussion questions and scripture for further study.
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See more from the News Coach, including episode transcripts.
Whom do we platform? Listen to our episode on “Cancel culture and the whole person.”
Read “There Are Good Reasons To Consider Removing Confederate Memorials From Our Public Squares” by Gracy Olmstead at The Federalist.
How do we tell the story of history? Read “Getting the story right” by Denis Haack.
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