God has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. -Luke 1:52
It was quite the grilling. Unexpectedly tense.
I was interviewing to be the pastor, and the interviewers were clearly conflicted, not the least bit over me. In the weeks prior I had taken my Confirmation students to see the movie Selma as part of our curriculum. There were questions and concern from some of them, though not all of them.
Would I be doing that with their Confirmation students?
“It’s quite possible,” I said, honestly. “It would depend on what is needful in the moment.”
And then one of them had some pictures printed out, of me at a march in the streets of Chicago over police violence. Would I be doing that, there?
“It’s possible,” I answered, trying to be honest.
“And Confederate Monuments,” one asked, “would you advocate for vandalizing them?”
I was stunned. To me this was an odd line of questioning, but was illustrative of the times I guess. Would I, as a pastor, advocate for the destruction of public monuments?
The newspaper headlines today mirror the headlines back in those days, except ten-fold. I eventually took that call, and about two years into my service there a student at a local university, one who had grown up at the church, contacted me. She had been involved in the toppling of a Confederate monument on campus, “Silent Sam” as he was known.
I was proud. She wanted to write up a reflection about it for the congregation to see.
And that’s when my pride turned to hesitancy. I remembered that interview, the conflicting viewpoints in the room, the tepid response to my honest answers from a few of them. Would this be too much?
That student had, after all, been raised in that community, taught in those classrooms, and had come to learn such acts of holy resistance through the scriptures. But would it be too much?
We never ran the article. It’s one of my big regrets.
Because, had I listened to the scriptures, had I heard the voice of another young woman, Mary, in the early chapters of Luke, I would have seen the inevitability of the current situation. “God will cast the mighty down from their thrones,” she sings out. And these monuments, mighty in size, looming over the public lands entrusted to the people, and looming over the psyche of those on the margins in silent intimidation, they are not just mighty in size, they’re mighty in force. And while they may appear to be innocuous reminders of a long-gone past, we don’t have to search too hard to find evidence that oppression is not a thing of the past, but a very present reality, and these monuments were erected to ensure that present stays ever-present, in stone and marble and iron.
When I was asked by that member of the interviewers if I would advocate for the toppling of such statues, I hedged my bets and, after a moment of thought necessary to collect myself after such a blind-sided question, I said, “No…those are public property. But I can see why someone would topple them.”
Because, well, where should we erect a statue of the person who lawfully murdered your grandmother?
I was nervous about saying yes, being too radical.
It is a hard thing to discern when revolution is holy. It is not easy, and it can be messy.
But we have voices along the way to guide us, like young Mary, and Amos and Micah before her. Like Jesus himself, who toppled the statues of Mammon in the temple of his day, and continues to knock over the idols I erect for myself of money, work, and prestige.
I know that there are questions about when enough is enough to this toppling. Must all of our statues who led checkered lives in regards to slavery and oppression be demolished? Washington and Jefferson, too? Woodrow Wilson was a known racist. His portrait as well?
I have come to the conclusion that I’m not the one to answer that question or set those boundaries, as I’m part of the offending party, ally though I try to be. Instead we need to sit at the feet not of these statues, but of those who cry out in pain and anger at their very presence, to listen and really learn for once.
Literally, for once.
Because we’ve been here before, Beloved. And I’m hoping that this time will not be like those other times, when it all died down and we once again turned our back on the cries of our sisters and brothers when they told the world how hard it is for them to breathe.
I’ve changed my mind, by the way.
If I were to be asked today if I’d advocate for Confederate monuments to be torn down, I think I’d reply, “It’s a good first step. As soon as possible.”