If a picture is worth a thousand words, what’s a statue worth?
Just down Franklin Street from University Baptist Church, in a grove of hardwood trees on the UNC campus, a lone sentry on a stone pedestal stands vigil facing north. Silent Sam, like scores of other Confederate memorials across the American south, was erected decades after the Civil War by people intent on revering the memory of those who fought for a lost cause: the defense of slavery.
The recent violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, resulting in the death of a young woman protesting the presence of Neo-Nazi white supremacists waving the Confederate battle flag and chanting racist, anti-Semitic slurs, serves notice that the same fear-stoked ignorance and evil rage which cost Jesus of Nazareth his life are ominously alive and festering among us.
When newspaper editor Tess Flanders, in a 1911 article discussing journalism and publicity, noted that “a picture is worth a thousand words,” she nailed it. A visual image is far more effective in conveying emotion than mere words on a page.
Or so we’ve been taught. We’ve also been taught that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me,” a well-worn rhyme first noted in a March 1862 publication of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, The Christian Recorder, intended to persuade young black victims of name-calling to ignore taunts and refrain from physical retaliation.
Interesting, is it not, that from the earliest years of the Civil War, young African-Americans were being urged to remain calm in the face of hatred. Was that good advice?
What would Silent Sam say, if he could speak? Probably something similar to the vitriol spewed by Confederate veteran Julian Carr, the Durham business-man for whom Carrboro is named, who spoke at Silent Sam’s dedication in 1913, smugly recalling his public whipping of a young black woman accused of insubordination toward her white superiors. Fact is, Silent Sam has never been silent. His very presence embodies the stubborn refusal of Confederate hard-liners to admit the deliberate evil of their miscalculated slavery defense. Silent Sam shouts to every passerby, “I will not confess my complicity in the sinfulness of slavery. I do not admit guilt. I will never ask forgiveness.”
Hebrew scripture gives eloquent voice to God’s compassionate love: “If my people who are called by my name will humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14). Silent Sam’s mute defiance is far more sinister than a thousand verbal racist diatribes. Words can harm us, whether spoken or etched in the cold bronze of a soldierly memorial. As long as he is allowed his non-repentant perch, he discourages the humble pursuit of forgiveness among any white supremacists who pass his way. Scripture prohibits our erecting any graven image that might usurp God’s rightful place in our hearts. No statue is worth that.
If we truly want God to heal our land, a good place to start would be the orderly and peaceful removal of Silent Sam from our beloved campus where, as an undergraduate, I wandered beneath his shadow, unmindful of the suffering endured by all those denied freedom’s dignity during the cruel regime this statue venerates.
There are two kinds of people, suggests Franciscan friar Richard Rohr: those who want certitude and those who seek understanding. Four decades as a pastor convince me he’s right.
Listen in to conversations in America these days, from casual exchanges between strangers to political pundits to family gatherings, and you hear it. Folks who demand certitude out of life insist on it even if it doesn’t fit the facts. Logic and truth have nothing to do with it. If certitude is what you’re after, Rohr laments, you’ll be content to surround yourself with foregone conclusions.
Authentic faith, on the other hand, stands in stark contrast to that world-view. Rohr pulls no punches, insisting that Jesus is actually dangerous if taken outside of the Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit), reducing faith to a static concept, not dynamic and flowing. Faith’s mysteries whisper that we must live in exquisite, terrible humility before the overwhelming reality of human suffering. Only then will we be compassionate, wise people:
“Show me where the Gospel ever promised certitude. If God wanted us to have evidence, rational proof, perfect clarity, the incarnation of Jesus would have been delayed until the invention of audio recorders and video cameras. Rational certitude is exactly what scripture does not offer us.”
Instead, scripture offers something much better: an intimate relationship, a dark journey, a path where we must discover for ourselves that grace, love, mercy and forgiveness area absolutely necessary for survival in an uncertain world. People who live in this way “never stop growing, are not easily defeated, and frankly are fun to live with.”
Look around you. People of mature faith are able to deal with darkness and failure. They don’t insist on validating the ego, don’t allow impulse control to dictate their behavior. They have a quiet but confident joy. “Infantile religion,” Rohr concludes, “ insists upon certainty every step of the way, and thus is not very happy.”
Life is too short to waste time around angry people. I’d rather savor the intimate, dark journey of grace among the beloved community that is UBC.
- Pastor Simpson