Down Goes Silent Sam– What Should Tar Heels Think?

Down Goes Silent Sam– What Should Tar Heels Think? September 25, 2018

The running joke in Chapel Hill for many aeons about the statue of a Confederate soldier (called Silent Sam) on the front lawn of UNC was that his musket was silent awaiting the first virgin to pass so he could fire his gun. This joke will no longer be part of the folk lore of UNC, because on the night of August 20, Silent Sam was pulled down from his pedestal by a group of protesting students, an illegal action, which led to an arrest. The state legislature has a ban on the removal of such Civil War memorials. What should a Christian Tar Heel (and UNC alum) like me, think of such an action?

The first thing I would say as a Christian, is that war should never be glorified, but the veterans who fought in such wars should be honored for their sacrifices, even if, in numerous cases, the wars they fought in did not meet the criteria for being a just or justifiable war. Soldiers don’t get to decide who they fight. That’s up to the politicians and the generals who make the decisions. And in the case of most of our wars there has been a draft up to and through the Vietnam era, or in effect such strong cultural pressure to fight, that people signed up to do so because they were patriots. So, I have no problem with honoring soldiers who sacrificed their lives because their country required it of them. I personally think we had no business in Vietnam, should never have gotten involved, and in any case— we lost that war!! But that doesn’t mean I think we shouldn’t honor ‘these hallowed dead’. We should. But the place for war memorials of any war is in graveyards and in museums….not in town squares and on college campuses!! It is important that we not ignore, forget, or bury our history– whether it was good, bad or ugly. We must in fact make a special effort to not bury the ugly parts of our past— so that we shall not forget them, and not make the same mistakes again.

So, what do I think should have happened with Silent Sam? I think that monument should long ago been put in a museum or veterans cemetery. It certainly doesn’t belong on the front lawn of a college campus! Why not? Because even with all the charity one can muster, fighting for the Confederacy involves some morally reprehensible components that are endemic to that cause. Slavery was and is a sin. Treating people as property is a sin. Racism is a sin.

And if you are a careful reader of St. Paul’s letter to the Philemon, a letter urging the manumission of a runaway slave named Onesimus, you will notice the line ‘no longer a slave, but rather a brother in Christ’. There was an inherent contradiction between treating someone as a slave and treating them as one’s brother in Christ. Christians from the outset worked to remedy the horrible fallen institution of slavery in the one context where they had some control— in the Christian house churches. They worked to liberate slaves, as the historical record from the first few centuries of Christianity will show. The household codes in Col. 3-4 and Ephes. 5-6 do not baptize slavery and call it good. Rather if you compare it to the household advice in Plutarch and elsewhere, one can see Paul and others putting the leaven of the Gospel into those existing fallen structures and trying to eliminate their fallen aspects— including slavery.

There is a further historical point that needs to be made. These statues were mostly erected in the 20th century, to glorify a past that mostly did not deserve to be glorified, and to perpetuate the notion that fighting for the Confederacy was a noble, though lost cause, or in some cases, a noble cause that was going to continue to be fought because ‘the South will rise again’. Rise how? The battle would be fought through Jim Crow laws, through the KKK, and other such anti-Christian racist measures and means. And it is still being fought (witness last year in Charlottesville). So yes, Silent Sam needed to be moved a long time ago, and shame on the N.C. legislature for not facilitating the change before it came to August 20, 2018!

Yes… I know that most Confederate soldiers fought because they felt compelled to do so, fought because almost all the battles were on Southern soil and they felt they were being deprived of their rights, fought because ‘ya’ll are down here’. I know most Confederate soldiers neither had slaves nor primarily were fighting for slavery. HOWEVER, and it is a big however, they were at least complicit in the major sin called slavery and racism, and that latter sin is still alive and well in the USA, and not just in the South either!

I mostly agree with the philosophy that those who forget the past, are doomed to repeat it. It’s often the case. And therefore, I think we need Silent Sam and other such memorials to remind us, just as we need the Holocaust museum in D.C. to remind us of the horrors of WWII. But the place for such memorials is not our public spaces which suggests that these things have been erected as memorials to something glorious and noble. No…. we actually need as many monuments to our shame as to our past noble triumphs. And that is just a fact. The question is— where should we put the monuments to our past sins and shame? And I’ve suggested above, an answer to that question.


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