The Lincoln Memorial will not be in the New Jerusalem.
Our civilization’s monuments, the testimonial pillars of our cultural identity, have been subjected to an increasingly strident moral audit. It has been observed to the point of banality that this subjection will leave no memorial unscathed and standing. The new purity tests being applied are a revision and narrowing of our cultural standards of decency, and society’s understanding of the imperfections of our heroes has shifted from indictments of irrelevant blemish to grossly disqualifying sin.
The fear amongst some is that none will pass muster and meet the new threshold of acceptable public, memorialized morality. As goes Jefferson Davis, so goes Thomas Jefferson, swiftly followed by Ulysses S. Grant, Woodrow Wilson, and Winston Churchill. If followed consistently, no one will be honored because none will be considered honorable. The vacuum created in the toppling of these figures will not be filled, because, so the critics say, Emerson’s hobgoblins of a foolish consistency are prepared to cast all down.
But is this a foolish consistency? Is the innate impulse for justice that rejects all tainted figures an instinct emanating from small minds? Will no one then meet the new, stringent standard?
The feckless pursuit of justice and rage against historical evils will inevitably converge upon this reality: The more exacting a standard used, the less anyone measures up. The glorification of man ends here.
Those who become a law unto themselves and demand the law of justice be upheld without partiality find that the consistency demanded is not foolish, but infinite. The perfection demanded by the infinite law leaves no hero, no statue without excuse. The inevitable consistency demanded by the hobgoblins finds itself inevitably confronting the truth that the irrelevant, and previously excused, blemishes are, in fact, truly gross sins.
The burden of righteousness hoisted upon the heroes of the West will crush them, not because it demands too much, but because they are guilty. The iconoclasts may be a law unto themselves, but though they do not have the law, they are showing by nature what the law requires. All monuments fall and fail before the righteous law of God.
Defenders of our monuments may protest that these are commemorations of the good accomplished by the engraved figures, not a glorification of their foibles, that recalling the virtuous acts of otherwise fallen men is a noble act for a nation. Yet what is the virtue of the sinner when confronted with the law of God? When impurity mixes with virtue, what comes forth? Our greatest accomplishments are as filthy rags, and like dross the impure and wicked are discarded by the holy One. If God were to mark iniquity, who could stand? Like the wind, the iniquities of our monuments carries them away.
No monument to good withstands the scrutiny of God’s judgment.
The obvious retort is that the iconoclasts are not being more faithful to a moral code, much less intentionally scrutinizing with God’s judgment, but are instead exchanging one standard for another, with the new standard likely inferior to the old. Perhaps so, but any new judgment heaved upon others is a judgment that those tossing condemnations must also withstand. An ethical strictness as the new standard is a standard to which the new judges must also conform, and who can withstand when true justice is demanded? Erecting a new morality in the place of the old renders the new judges guilty simply by applying the same demand of justice upon them. As the old good men memorialized in our monuments melded degeneration with virtue, so the new iconoclasts cannot stand. “Judge not, lest ye be judged, for the standard you mete will be meted to you.” It is precisely that strict narrowness of justice that will be brought against the monument of new righteousness, albeit captured not in stone, but activism.
The iconoclasts are a law to themselves, but in their demolition they demonstrate that the work of the law is engraved upon their hearts, and their actions convict them. Judge not lest ye be judged, and as the monuments topple, so will the ones pulling them down. They may possess a sense of escape because the standard employed is self-referential; the measure being meted reflects the mores of the judges, and so it appears to offer protection by validation. But that self-glorification of self-possessed virtue is what brought down the monumental condemnation in the first place.
It was with puritanical glee that I read the Archbishop of Canterbury’s comments on the portrayal of Jesus as white. Should that representation of him be rethought in light of recent events? Yes, “You go into [global] churches and you don’t see a White Jesus — you see a Black Jesus, or Chinese Jesus, or a Middle Eastern Jesus — which is of course the most accurate. You see a Fijian Jesus — you see Jesus portrayed in as many ways as there are cultures, languages and understandings.” We don’t worship these representations, but they are a “reminder of the universality of the God who became fully human.”
What Archbishop Welby intuited is precisely what the iconoclasts of Geneva and Black Lives Matter have been crying: All human-created celebrations of God are inextricably intertwined with the self-regard of the image-casters. This is precisely why some Reformed Christians have read the 2nd Commandment in the way that they have historically. The recently deceased Anglican divine J. I. Packer noted that the 2nd Commandment prohibits images of God because it is impossible to craft an image of God which does not fall into our likeness. God becomes conformed to us, not us to him, with our virtues and values (be they ethical or cultural) being imposed. This is not a reflection of the universality of God, but locating him in a man-created image of man. Human-crafted images of God are but inpourings of the self into our conception of the divine.
What are all monuments but exactly this? Monuments to virtue that excuse the sins of the honored are a reveling of the good while ignoring the blemishes. Monuments materially enclose the belief that the celebrated good of a man outweighs his excused evil enough to justify honoring his good, that honoring the wicked is righteous because of their virtue. Heroes to one generation become the villains of the next not because what good or evil they have done has changed, but what is considered morally permissible to justify their celebration changes. But this is a self-referential morality, and it cannot stand. We cringe or cheer at a shrine’s demise to the extent we see ourselves in its laudings. All monuments are veined with idolatry because they are imbued with a sense of self-righteousness, that the good celebrated is greater than evil done by those commemorated.
Gold and silver intermingled with straw and dross cannot survive the exacting standard of divine righteousness. But the judgment of the quick and the dead will not spare any good mixed with impurity. What precious virtues can be extracted from the depravity of man in that day? Whether in the strain of Nebuchadnezzar or Ozymandias, all that proclaims the glory and virtue of man will be dust.
Can a man profit God? Does God take pleasure in man’s glory? Are not his sins infinite?
The iconoclasm of our present moment is bringing the terror of eschatological judgment near: Christ will suffer no rivals. And yet, “Honor your father and mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.” It is right and good to honor our cultural parents. But to follow the apostle’s admonition to honor our parents “in the Lord” requires recognition that what we honor, we honor for Christ’s sake. No matter how wonderful, the fathers of this life are but finite guides to the infinite Father who expresses his glory in Christ. At their best, earthly parents and our monuments to them serve to direct us away from themselves and towards Jesus.
The glory of man must decrease so that man’s glorying in Christ may increase.
That which is honorable among men, and honorably commemorated, is honorable not on its own terms, but only on Christ’s. That which is glorious among men is honorable not because of the men or actions, but because of the Christ to whom they conform. The celebrated works of man are only truly honorable, not on their terms, but Christ’s, insofar as they truly celebrate him. That which pleases God in man is that which God works in man to glorify Christ. It is not Abel’s sacrifice, though it certified his virtue, that still speaks, but the monument of his blood. And it speaks not of Abel, but of Christ. The blood of Abel amounts to nothing, and will be of nothing on its own. But the one of whom it speaks has a memorial in bread and blood that remains, and only that until faith becomes sight.
When the New Jerusalem descends, the kings of saints and earth will bring in their glory and honor. But what glory can the kings of earth contribute to the king of heaven? What monument, boasting of man’s achievements, can stand in that moment? What can a man profit God that is a welcome contribution to the glory of Christ? The blood of Abel cries for the kings of earth to glory in nothing but the cross of Christ, by which the faithful die to the glories of the world. What monument to men’s honor can enter the kingdom of heaven?
Our monuments are being pulled down but, at worst, the iconoclasm is only premature. Don’t be dismayed. All monuments must fall.