Why do we remove some statues and not others?
In the winter of 1914, the only surviving son of William Tecumseh Sherman, the Civil War general who fought for the Union and burned Atlanta, unexpectedly showed up at the offices of America. Thomas Ewing Sherman was a Jesuit. His mother had converted to Catholicism in her youth (though his father never did) and Thomas, imbued with his mother’s rigorous piety, entered the Society of Jesus. He also entered into a prolonged period of certifiable insanity, apparently suffering from the same psychological afflictions as his father. Father Sherman would wander in and out of the Jesuits for decades before being fully reconciled with the Society just before his death. More about that in a moment.
Ironically, Thomas Sherman and his famous father came to mind recently during a brief stay in New Orleans, where I ventured out of my hotel to see what had become of the downtown park named for Robert E. Lee. An enormous statue of the Confederate general had recently been removed, crated up and transported to an undisclosed location, one of many such iconoclastic episodes in cities across the nation. As I stood in the now inaptly named Lee Circle I thought of the statue of General Sherman that stands a few blocks from my office in New York, which the City of New York recently spent millions to regild. This got me thinking: Why is the statue of General Lee gone and the statue of General Sherman still there? To be more precise, what is the justification for removing one and not the other?
Why is the statue of General Lee gone and the statue of General Sherman still there?
Is it that General Lee owned slaves and General Sherman did not? This is true, but General Sherman was also a racist. He did not become an abolitionist until the Civil War, mainly because it served the Union war aim; he certainly never believed in equality of the races. Is the justification found in the fact that the statue of General Lee is a painful reminder to African -Americans of a cruel history of injustice? That is certainly understandable. Yet it must be just as painful for a Navajo visiting New York to see the statue of General Sherman, who endorsed the genocide of Native Americans, including women and children, and did his level best to make it happen. To my knowledge, General Lee never did such a thing. Nor can we say that the Lee statue in New Orleans, like many Confederate monuments, is essentially a 20th-century reaction against the burgeoning civil rights movement. The statue of General Lee was unveiled in 1884, almost 30 years before General Sherman’s.
My point here is not that one statue should go and that the other should stay, nor is my point that both should go or both should stay. My point is simply this: What is the point? Is there a coherent justification for removing one and not the other? Or is all of this simply a fight-to-the-death struggle for power? If so, we should just say so. If not, then those who want to tear down the statues need to articulate better why one should come down and the other should not. And if it is decided that General Sherman’s statue should come down as well, then what will be done about Sherman Circle, located in the national capital named for a slave-owner who had even more odious views on race than Robert E. Lee? What are the criteria by which we are going to decide these questions? And, perhaps most important, who is going to decide these questions apart from the elites on either side who dominate the debate?
More important than any of that, however, is this: In light of the fact that our secular country no longer collectively recognizes a higher power as supreme judge of the universe, how are we going to prevent these monuments from being more important than they should be? If we now live in a society in which there are no goals beyond human flourishing in the here and now, then these civic symbols are only going to become more important, not less.
Which brings me back to Thomas Ewing Sherman, S.J., who died in 1933 at the Jesuit novitiate in Louisiana. The next Jesuit to die there was John M. Salter, who happened to be the grand-nephew of Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederate States of America. Thus, two descendants of warring sides now lie next to each other in a grove in Grand Coteau, La., a poignant sign, whether we like it or not, that under God we are one nation. That is important to remember, for when a people renders unto Caesar what is God’s, they will inevitably mistake a statue for a sacrament. A pitched and violent battle for dominance will likely follow. But those two graves in Grand Coteau remind us that while every sacrament is a symbol, only seven symbols are actually sacraments.