Symbols are powerful and it is often difficult to separate them from the meanings originally attached to them. We find ourselves in the midst of great discussion about what we should do with the past, especially how we should handle symbols identified with particular causes. If we continue to display them, are we espousing the same causes or are we simply acknowledging their role at a particular time in history?
How do we deal with historical figures? They also become symbols rather than people. Are they one dimensional figures defined by a certain set of actions or are they multi-faceted, flawed human beings who struggled to find clarity in the midst of turbulence?
I am a son of the South. In grade school, we were always reminded that the conflict of 1861-1865 was not “the Civil War” but the “War Between the States.” We observed Confederate Memorial Day. When I went to college, the Confederate Battle Flag was part of our college’s identity. Our mascot was none other than General Nathan Bedford Forrest and our ROTC drill team was the Southern Generals.
In college, after dropping another major, I studied history. I have always been fascinated by the people and events of the past. Through my college studies, I began to deal with the social, political, and economic implications of historical events. I also learned that there is no such thing as an objective study of history—it is always colored by one’s perspectives, presuppositions, and prejudices. History can be a very subjective discipline.
Historical figures are often interpreted in light of what the writer or speaker wants to prove. Was John Brown a terrorist or a freedom fighter? Was Robert E. Lee a man of honor or a traitor? Was Forrest a brilliant strategist or a murderous racist? At this point, we have no way of knowing the mind and motivations of any of these men, so we provide our own interpretation.
When Rita and I visited New Orleans recently, we visited the Cabildo, a museum adjacent to St. Louis Cathedral with a permanent exhibit on the Battle of New Orleans (1814-1815). A good bit of space is devoted to privateer Jean Lafitte who supported the American forces under General Andrew Jackson in the battle. Although many present Lafitte as a hero of the battle and he is even depicted in one large wall-sized painting of the conflict, there is no proof that he was even there. This fact has not stood in the way of novelists and movie makers who have elevated him above Jackson in determining the outcome of the conflict.
As Christians, we argue that Christianity is an historical religion but our understanding is refracted through the lens of faith. We gloss over the atrocities committed by professed Christians in the past and dismiss them as aberrations. Many native peoples have suffered in order to assure their “conversion” to the faith because some group felt that they would be “better off” as Christians.
Perhaps my argument here is that very often the persons, events and symbols of the past become fodder for those with creative imaginations to support their own cause. We are selective in the events we use and the accounts we embrace as authentic. The reality is rarely as noble and clear-cut as we would like.
My own perspective about the Civil War (or War Between the States, if you wish) is that I honor those brave men and women on both sides—both black and white—who saw their duty and accepted their responsibilities. In any war, soldiers rarely fight for great causes. They fight to defend their families, their homes, and their comrades. We can interpret the conflict however we wish, but we must always remember that when one person raises a hand in anger to another, no one really wins.
On this July the Fourth, I acknowledge the blessing of being an American citizen. Although the U.S. government usurped the land of my Native American ancestors and some of my forebears undoubtedly supported the Confederacy, the only country I have promised to defend, supported with my service, and pledged my allegiance to is the United States of America. Getting to this point as a nation has been a long and tortured path. Many have made personal sacrifices to get us to where we are today. Mistakes have certainly been made but by acknowledging them, we become stronger. Let’s not be too quick to take a simplistic approach to our history. It is much more complex than we like to admit.