Confederate Monuments: Idols or Icons?

The movement to remove and replace the many statues honoring Confederate leaders that speckle city centers through the South is one that has existed for some time, but has picked up a great deal of steam in the last several years, culminating in the recent rally and ensuing violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. Baltimore, New Orleans, and other major American cities have moved quickly to get rid of the monuments. Other cities, like Savannah, Georgia, have publicly announced pending changes in the placement and form of their monuments.

Americans of various backgrounds are, of course, deeply divided on the issue and both sides have leveraged arguments worth considering. There are those, for example, who see these memorials as endorsements of slavery, segregation, and racism and as lingering symbols that seem to celebrate or belie the darker aspects of American history. Others see these monuments as reflections of their heritage and their removal as an attempt to erase their place in the history of the United States.

A Christian, however, must consider this—and anything else—from the perspective of Christian faith, thought, and history. The first thousand years of Christianity witnessed two major movements for the destruction of certain pictorial representations. The first was the removal or destruction of the images of pagan gods in the Roman Empire in fourth and fifth centuries. The second was the iconoclastic movement of the Byzantine Empire in the eighth century. The latter of these movements resulted in the Seventh Ecumenical Council (the Second Council of Nicaea) in 787 and its restoration of Christian iconography to the churches, homes, and public places of the Empire. It also provided Christians with a theology of iconography, still especially strong in the churches that derive from the Byzantine tradition, that can be applied to current debates about Confederate monuments.

The distinction adopted by the Seventh Ecumenical Council and first fully formulated by St. John of Damascus, the tireless defender of icons, is one that separates images into two categories: the iconographic and the idolatrous. What both sorts of images hold in common is that they serve to make the person or thing depicted present, in a sense, to the viewer. As anyone who has observed Eastern Christian veneration of icons knows—involving, as it does, repetitions of bows, crossing oneself, and kissing—this making-present exceeds mere signification and passes into a temporary and partial identification of that which is signified with the signifier. The key difference between the icon and the idol, however, is whether what is made present by the image is true or false.

This distinction is the basis upon which the destruction of the idols of Mithras and Serapis in Alexandria or the removal of the statue of Victory in the Roman Senate in the fourth century can be seen as justified. And it is the basis upon which the destruction of the icons of Constantinople in the eighth century is condemned. As false gods, the making-present of Mithras, Serapis, and Nike/Victory through their statues was a dangerous deception. Representations of the Incarnate Son of God, the Virgin Mary, saints, and angels, however, make present that which is good and true and so serve for the edification of the believer and become worthy conduits of the piety of the worshiper through acts of veneration bestowed upon the images.

Distinguishing between the icon and the idol can, however, sometimes become complicated. A depiction of Aphrodite—clearly an idol to man’s sinful lust in the fourth century—may take on some of the attributes of an icon when created by the hands and paintbrush of a Christian artist in the fifteenth century. The figure depicted has been purged of the temptation to worship a false god and Christian-Platonically baptized anew as a symbol of the eternal beauty of the Godhead. A Christian tourist or art pilgrim today can happily walk among the many statues of the gods of Greece and Rome in any museum in Europe without the slightest temptation to sacrifice an ox to Jupiter; he or she can, in fact, see in these statues the wonders of man’s possibilities—the human artist in the image of the divine artist—and so be led to the worship of the true God even through what were once worshiped as images of false gods.

The same is true of many of the Confederate statues whose presence is currently under debate. As is well known, many of these statues were built in the early 20th century, more than a generation after the Civil War and coinciding—though the contemporaneity is hardly a coincidence—with increasingly oppressive Jim Crow laws in the South; anti-black, anti-immigrant, and anti-Catholic sentiment; a resurgent Ku Klux Klan able to muster 25,000 robed members for a 1926 march in Washington, D.C.; and a rise in lynchings and other crimes and intimidation against people of color, Jews, and Catholics. They are, in short, more monuments to the racism of the day they were built than to the heroes of bygone days. Other monuments, however, reflect a different spirit. The monument “to the Confederate war dead” in Savannah, Georgia’s Forsyth Park is one example. Erected in the 1870s by the women of Savannah—many of whom, no doubt, had lost brothers, sons, and husbands in the Civil War—on the place where their male family members once trained, it seems to be more of a monument to grief over lost loved ones than an insidious symbol of enduring racism.

What is the Christian, then, to do? What does the iconographic perspective prescribe for the future of Confederate monuments? In short, a level head and the ability to carefully consider and distinguish between icons to grief, loss, and personal heroism and idols to racism, white supremacy, slavery, and other heresies and false gods. We must be willing to call evil by its name, but also willing, as our Fathers in the Faith once did, to save what is worth saving and to baptize what can be baptized.