In the Hebrew Scriptures, stone monuments are earthen witnesses to a sacred covenant. When Jacob contractually maneuvered himself out from under his father-in-law Laban, he set up a pillar in the highlands of Gilead. It was supposed to be a reminder of a legal separation, but the fragility of the peace was underscored by the dueling names given to the monument: Jacob’s in the Hebrew tongue, Laban’s in Aramaic. The monument was barely dedicated before it became an object of linguistic civil war.
What’s old is new again. Disputes over historical markers and their meanings are simply the continuance of culture war by other means. Theologian Ryan Andrew Newson wrote his new book Cut in Stone: Confederate Monuments and Theological Disruption in the wake of the 2017 protests and counter-protests in Charlottesville, Virginia. Thousands of organized white nationalists infamously marched through the University of Virginia campus chanting language—“White Lives Matter!” “Blood and Soil!”—charged with centuries of racial supremacy. The material cause for the march was the threatened removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Erected in 1924, the statue presented a genteel, handsome Lee—hat in hand, martial but not militaristic. The stone general is resigned but undefeated, like the Lost Cause he represents.
The statue lasted decades in the city center without scrutiny, but in the 21st century, it struck some as strange to venerate the leader of a rebellion devoted to the preservation of chattel slavery. Newson’s book delves into the history of Confederate monuments like this one, asking what sort of political ideology—or theology—underwrites them. What did these monuments—often constructed many decades after Lee resigned at Appomattox—mean for the communities that created them? What gave them their near-sacred value? And what is the appropriate political and theological response to markers of a contested American legacy? Can you—should you—erase a moral tragedy?