Tearing Down the Heroes, Now What?

Last year we all watched as statues and monuments were toppled and defaced across the country. Statues depicting Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis were some of the first to be attacked. Then came a whole host of Christopher Columbus depictions. Then Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln and even Francis Scott Key. They became the rallying focal point for angered protestors. In the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the accusation of systemic racism, these elevated heroes that shaped the legacy of our nation seemed to be a natural target.

Most people didn’t have strong feelings one way or another about statues. Many cities simply voted to have statues removed or relocated. After all, a city square or government courthouse usually wasn’t defined by the statue that was erected in front of it. A nice garden or fountain would do just as well so why risk the controversy and anger of the mob? 

Now, I happen to like statues. I know that’s probably a strange thing to admit these days, but I do. I like them. Or at least I like a few of them. I’m not sure I would vote to spend taxpayer money on one, but there are some statues of which I have a vivid memory. These memories and the statues I remember are important. 

Let me tell you about one particular statue. At Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, where I trained to enter the vocation of pastor, there is a beautiful statue of Martin Luther. To this day, when I am back on the campus, I always make it a point to go walk beneath the gaze of Luther. There is something good and fitting about looking up to that great reformer as he stands unmoved in cast metal. To look up to the statue wasn’t about creating an idol or being tied to his legacy. It was about inspiring me to be better than I was. The stories of Luther were not of a perfect man but of one who, though a faulty sinner, made a bold stand. His courage and mastery and a preacher and teacher of the Word of God were the things I needed to be reminded of. He was a hero, and rightly so.

In fact, if I remember rightly, that statue was an exact copy of the one that stands in Worms, Germany. I’ve been there as well and was equally as inspired while looking up at that form. After all, it was in Worms that he made his powerful confession in defiance of Holy Roman Emperor and the authority of the Church. In boldness he said, “I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me, Amen” (LW 32:112–13).

I’m not saying all statues should be weighted equal. I’m saying that that in tearing them down, we remove the visual of the great heroes that have gone before us. Surely an argument can be made of Washington, Lincoln, and Grant, as having qualities that inspire men to be better than they are. In looking up we are turned away from our lowly and base desires to strive to imitate their courage, strength and boldness. 

It is in the removing of our heroes that we run the risk of becoming men without chests, with nothing to aspire towards, nothing above to motivate and excite our imagination and drive.

“And all the time — such is the tragi-comedy of our situation — we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive’, or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity’. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.” – C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man.

“Liberal democracy produced “men without chests,” composed of desire and reason but lacking thymos, clever at finding new ways to satisfy a host of petty wants through the calculation of long-term self-interest. The last man had no desire to be recognised as greater than others, and without such desire no excellence or achievement was possible. Content with his happiness and unable to feel any sense of shame for being unable to rise above those wants, the last man ceased to be human.” – Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man