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I’ve Been Reading History Again

I’ve been thinking lately about the fall of the Roman Empire.

Let the reader understand.

I am specific when I saw Roman Empire as opposed to “Fall of Rome” because one of my historical presuppositions is Rome, as an idea, never actually fell. The empire collapsed, but not the idea. In fact, collapse is probably not the best word for it. Disintegrate would be better. Governmental structures evaporated but people still continued to think of themselves as Roman and they passed these ideals along. They were so successful at maintaining the ideals that today we celebrate the American Senate, our civic architecture is decidedly Roman, garrisons man outposts in every corner of the empire, our legal code is rife with Latinisms, and the national symbol is an eagle.

I will not bore you with my analysis of the Roman Empire’s demise. Instead, I want to share an observation I found in one of my old history texts. As you know, the Empire in the west fell in 476 A.D. but the Empire in the east, Byzantium, continued on for centuries. The discussion in the history text was of the church — a specific interest of mine, for obvious reasons — and how it viewed itself in these two very different parts of the Roman experience. In the east, the church viewed itself as intertwined with the empire itself, like the priesthood in ancient Israel’s kingdom. Byzantine faith was comfortable blending and bending the decrees of emperors with the teachings of the church.

By contrast, the church in the west learned to view secular power with suspicion. It was not the Christian empire extending ecclesiastical power at will, but rather it was Noah’s Ark, seeking to save and rescue the faithful as the world drowned in a rising flood of chaos. To be sure, this is the snapshot of the church at the end of the Roman Empire in the west. Eventually, history teaches, the church would grab at secular power with both hands, clutching and clawing for as much control and wealth as possible.

But that was not the case at the end. At the end, it was the church that held order. It was bishops who negotiated with tribal chieftains to spare cities. It was the church that gathered up orphans and raised them. It was the church that held together legal systems. It was the church that brought organization — even borrowing the terms like diocese to describe things.

Allow me, please, to philosophize a moment from the historical situation about the present. These two views are powerful in today’s American ecclesiastical landscape. Some view the church as a partner with politics, both on the left and the right, to wield power. Others, both on the right and the left, think of the church as an instrument to rescue those who are perishing, those drowning in the chaos of change and the evaporation of civilization.

The current climate we are in, perhaps, is the most Roman we have ever experienced.

On The Removal of Confederate Statues

I have many mixed emotions about the phenomena of cities and institutions removing Confederate statues. It is an issue that has clogged my social media accounts, although I’ve seen very little about it in the news. Perhaps the media isn’t covering it much because they don’t know how to feel about it, either. The most recent actions have been taken by the city of New Orleans to remove statues from public places, even in the middle of the night, and relocate (Click Here for NY Times Article) them.  However, the one that is closest to my heart is on the campus of my alma mater, where a very prominent statue of Jefferson Davis was recently (Click here for a news story on this)  relocated from the main square to a historical archive of statues.

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Here are my mixed emotions. I have no love for the Confederate States of America. I consider the Confederacy to be rebels who took up arms against the country I love. I do not understand how anyone can pledge allegiance to the American flag and still have such a love affair with the Confederacy and all her symbols and trappings. I also consider the Confederacy to have been tragically wrong. In fact, it was so wrong that my reading of history, as a person of faith, tells me God himself intervened to make certain it lost. How else can anyone explain to me why the South did not win the war in the first two years. There is no logical explanation other than Providence. God made certain the South lost because slavery had to end and the culture which was nurtured by the enslavement of souls had to end. In the modern age, the symbols of the Confederacy, as well as the cause of the Confederacy, have been use by people who are pushing a racist and/or xenophobic agenda. This is undeniable. Since the 1960s “States Rights” has meant, mostly, that states can segregate if they want to and the federal government should just butt out. History is written by the winners, and the winners are still writing and re-writing it as an act of imperium, and good for them. We want to celebrate the values of diversity, tolerance, and freedom which are the opposite of the Confederate values of uniformity, exclusion, and slavery.

Those are the mixed emotions on one side. But there is another side. History is precious. We learn from history, but we learn nothing by  sanitizing history as if it never happened. That is what I think the proponents of moving statues are trying to do–sanitize history. Removing the statues from New Orleans or the campus of the University of Texas does not change two facts of history. Fact one: These people lived and led. Fact two: Years later, people were still committed enough to the cause that they paid money to erect a monument. Both of these truths are a part of our history, and the latter is the issue for many in academia. The statues were put there by well-heeled donors who were racists, and thought of the school as an institution for their kinds of people.

Statues mean something, and they can teach. When I behold a marble statue from Ancient Rome, I do not consider the rightness of the Empire that gave rise to it. Instead I consider what kind of people made this, what were their values, how were they right, how were they wrong, what were their beliefs and so forth. Removing Confederate statues robs future generations from such contemplation as they gaze into the angry eyes of Stonewall Jackson or the gentle face of Robert E. Lee. I want them to stare into the eyes of Lee. I want them to ask, “How can such a gentle looking grandfather have believed in such a horrible cause?”

For that is the lesson. In the end, I think of these statues as monuments of pity. Lee, Jackson, Davis and company were wrong, and their wrongness caused the greatest devastation in American history.  Yet, even in their wrongness, we can learn a positive lesson that helps us every day. Honorable people can be misguided and wrong. I often bring that point out when speaking of war from a biblical perspective. Good, honorable people can be wrong and still need to be stopped. Everything I’ve studied of Lee and (Click Here) Jackson, for example, indicate that these were good men who loved their families and, in their own twisted way, thought of themselves as Christ-followers. Yet they were wrong. Very wrong. Tragically wrong. And they had to be stopped. I thank God they lost and were stopped. It is a lesson we need to remember in the times in which we live. There are honorable, good, and yes, even Christ-following people who are on the other side or whatever issue we are passionate about. Being on the other side doesn’t make them the devil. They may be wrong, but they may yet be noble. It does not mean they should not be stopped and opposed at every opportunity. And of course, I am speaking politically and rhetorically.  We are not at the point of bloodshed. We should stop no one with the power of a bullet, but instead with the authority of our logical and reasoned argument.

Mixed emotions. History is a great teacher, and I fear removing these statues is like taking a teacher out of a classroom, or ripping a page out of a textbook because it is painful. The issue of the statues is different and distinct than the Confederate Flag debate. Statues are snapshots in time–about the people who are memorialized and those who did the memorializing. As a contrary example, the Lincoln Memorial is about Lincoln–his times, his leadership, and his sacrifice–but it is also about those who appropriated his values and transformed him into something like a Greek god. There is little doubt to me that the Lincoln of history would have thought his memorial preposterous. But it teaches us something. I don’t think it is their intention, but those wanting to remove statues have a lot in common with the ISIS folks who destroy art and culture from antiquity because their intolerance can’t abide it. It is an ironic twist that the progressive left today cannot stand anything that is not in uniformity with its own views, thus they are more like the Confederacy they deplore than the Union they celebrate. The result could be a kind of cultural slavery that denies individuals the ability to be contrary, or to consider their history.

See, mixed emotions. I legitimately can see both sides of the issue. Perhaps we are missing an opportunity. Maybe instead of removing anything, we instruct and inform. Count me as one of those who believe education and learning can fix a lot of what ails our world. Simply removing statues from public view is a choice to live in ignorance of the past, thus guaranteeing nothing is learned except a temporarily soothed conscience or a glimmer of false peace. For anyone who thinks that removing a statue will remove the racism in the heart of someone else has never seriously considered the evil of either racism or the human heart.

A RANT, IN WHICH THE AUTHOR INEXPLICABLY HAS TO DEFEND DEAD ROMANS

Columbia University is having a campus wide discussion about the offensive and sexually repressive material found in . . . classical literature.  I’m not joking.

You can click here to read the whole article, but an excerpt will probably work for now:

During the week spent on Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” the class was instructed to read the myths of Persephone and Daphne, both of which include vivid depictions of rape and sexual assault. As a survivor of sexual assault, the student described being triggered while reading such detailed accounts of rape throughout the work. However, the student said her professor focused on the beauty of the language and the splendor of the imagery when lecturing on the text. As a result, the student completely disengaged from the class discussion as a means of self-preservation. She did not feel safe in the class. When she approached her professor after class, the student said she was essentially dismissed, and her concerns were ignored.

Warning:  Belief might be offensive to some.
Warning: Belief might be offensive to some.

This is the biggest load of academic garbage I think I’ve seen in a very long time.  What is more, I can’t believe this student’s peers didn’t call her out on it, rather than advocating, as the op-ed continues, that professors be given special training in helping students with trigger warnings about the content of their classrooms.

Let me tell you what I am not saying in this blog post.  One, I am not saying that sexual violence and ethnic diversity are not issues that need to be confronted.  They are.  Universities are great places for awareness, education, and prevention education to take place.  Sexual violence is a real issue and deserves real discussion, rather than this kind of issue avoidance.  Two, I am not saying that Greek and Roman history is the only historical background for western civilization.  There have been contributions to the modern world from all regions of the globe, and a good instructor will recognize this.  Three, I am not saying I like Ovid.  I studied Ovid in college and never really liked him that much because I thought of him as a dirty old man.  I still do.

What I am saying, though, should be noted as well.

1.  Western civilization–literature, entertainment, politics, fashion, economics and religion have an incredible debt to Greece and Rome–classical civilizations that still impact almost everything we say and do in the United States. Therefore, it is reasonable for a university to have as a part of its core curriculum a study of the ancient western world.

2.  The world is hard, and having a bachelors degree from a university tells employers and other academic institutions that the bearer of the degree has demonstrated a certain level of endurance and strength in overcoming obstacles and barriers.  I don’t think we want institutions to hand out diplomas to people who have not demonstrated that toughness.  To create such ‘trigger warnings’ prepares a student to expect this in all avenues of life, and that would be a false expectation.

3.  The Columbia op-ed authors have missed the point.  This young woman has complicated issues that need to be handled by professionals who can help her.  She has been made a victim by someone else, and that is not her fault.  However, It is not the the professor’s fault either.  What they seek to do is pin the responsibility for issues on the classroom environment, and that is a misplaced view.  A classroom is not the place for therapy or comfort.  It is a proving ground, an arena of competition where the individual is challenged, not comforted.

Anything worth reading–or watching–will have trigger points for someone, in some way or another.  That is what makes it great literature.  It is true of Ovid, Homer, The Bible, Suetonius, The Koran, The Bhagavad Gita, Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Steinbeck, Hitchcock and Star Wars.  The first book that ever made me cry was “Fathers and Sons” by Turgenev, which I read for a Russian history class.  A university is not a high school.  A university student is being shaped into someone who can handle the world without kid gloves.  Some students at Columbia University apparently wants to put gloves on everything.

image from wordsonimages.com