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Image: Circus Maximus, Rome, Italy, by Carptrash

Should Civil War Monuments Stay Put or Be Torn Down?

By John Barber

On a separate post, I asked people if Civil War monuments should be taken down or moved. I thought I’d take a shot at my own question here for those willing to take more than 20 seconds to read . . .

Most of you know that I teach theology by trade, and so I would be prone to answer the question of Civil War monuments along these lines. However, I also teach art history, having taught Renaissance and Baroque art in Italy, and at home. As well, I’m as a degreed musician. I say this only because I’m going to venture a thought wearing my art-music hat, though I have thoughts from Scripture (see 1 Cor. 14).

Civil War monuments are also works of art, and any discussion on their appropriateness ought to consider their role as such. The “Lee” monument in the news is bronze sculpture. It was created by Henry Shrady, one of the leading sculptors of the early 20th century in America. I want us to think for a moment about this work of art next to some others that have caused consternation both for their ties to racism, and to other bad sins.

After Kristallnacht of 1938 (the eve of Jewish destruction throughout Germany), Jews refused to play the music of Wagner, an antisemite and Hitler’s favorite composer. In 1981, when Zubin Mehta, conducting the Israeli Philharmonic, tried to reintroduce Wagner (“Liebestod” from “Tristan und Isolde”) a Jewish man walked on stage, bore his concentration camp numbers, and said, “Play Wagner over my body.” It wasn’t until 2000 that a small piece of Wagner was performed in Israel.

Time, forgiveness, and a number of factors, have now almost mainstreamed Wagner in Israel.

I’m not an Egyptologist, however, I have visited the Giza Pyramids, a symbol of Jewish slavery (though Jews really didn’t build them). Obviously they can’t be moved to a museum, but I visited them, not to learn from the past so as not to repeat it, but for their architecture and place in history. Many Jewish people visit Giza each year.

One place I have visited with students is the Vatican Museum. Some of my Reformed Protestant friends will not even go near it on biblical principle. In fact, my wife has an ancestor who was martyred by the Roman Catholic Church. Remember how nudity so insulted the Pope that fig leaves were painted over private parts in the Sistine Chapel? The same happened to Michelangelo’s “David.”

One may think Michelangelo’s nudes a small issue compared to statues of Lee. But in fact his detractors viewed them, and his great fresco, “The Last Judgment”, as part of deep paganism. To a large degree they were right. Members of the Counter-Reformation hated these works as much as some hate Shrady’s “Lee” today. So, as a Reformed Protestant, and as a hater of paganism, must I shield my students from Michelangelo?

More, should I avoid taking students to the Circus Maximus in Rome because Christians were enslaved and brutally killed there in ways unimaginable?

As one who has written against homosexuality, am I to destroy my own recordings of Chopin?

Well, I could go on. But what I’m wondering, again from an art history perspective, is this. Can artist and message be separated, as is increasingly the case with Wagner in Israel today? Further, what contributes to the reduction of anxieties over time, when art and architecture is at first linked to ideological movements of which we disapprove (Giza and Circus Maximus)? And can similar anxieties reduce over Civil War sculpture in America? Finally, is removing art pieces, or changing them (Michelangelo), an effective healer?

Perhaps I’ve only managed to ask more questions . . .

Dr. John J. Barber is Professor of Theology and Culture at Whitefield Theological Seminary in Lakeland, Florida. Dr. Barber holds theological degrees from Westminster Theological Seminary (M.A.R.), Yale University (M.Div.), Whitefield Theological Seminary (Ph.D.), and North West University (Ph.D.). A former PCA pastor, he also now serves as a teaching missionary in East and Central Africa, Italy, and Egypt. He is the author of numerous articles on Christianity and culture, as well as several books on the topic, including Earth Restored and The Road from Eden: Studies in Christianity and Culture. His most recent title is on the theology of John Frame, entitled, One Kingdom: The Practical Theology of John M. Frame.

Published with permission from John’s Facebook page


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