Monuments in Heaven

This story reminds me of a thought that occurred while singing a hymn on Sunday: will #woke Christians let David’s throne stand in the new heavens and new earth? (The story is about the toppling of a Confederate monument, Silent Sam, at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.)

“Jerusalem the Golden”‘s third stanza in the old Trinity Hymnal goes like this:

There is the throne of David;
And there, from care released,
The song of them that triumph,
The shout of them that feast;
And they who with their Leader
Have conquered in the fight,
For ever and for ever
Are clad in robes of white.

So we may have a throne that commemorates an adulterer, a man who plotted the death of his lover’s husband, and a king who could not manage his own household. Not to mention that he purged the holy land of pagan dwellers. Yes, the Lord commanded it but in these times of social righteousness, such aggression is not just macro but cosmic.

Even so, Bernard of Cluny and John Mason Neale seemed to think Christians could draw comfort and inspiration from the thought of a throne in the new Jerusalem that commemorated the very flawed King David. Which makes you wonder if the pursuit of righteousness here (by some Christians) is going to be sufficient preparation for the righteousness to come.

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Even Patriotic Good Works May Be Tainted

The overwhelming case against Confederate Monuments is that either those memorialized or their patrons stood for an evil cause — slavery.

But what if Union Monuments — those memorialized or their patrons — don’t stand for a righteous cause — anti-slavery? What if Union Monuments were designed, like the war itself, to preserve the — get this — Union?

Frederick Douglass pointed out that Abraham Lincoln’s motives in the war were not pure, and that those who came to celebrate the 16th POTUS at the unveiling of the Freedmen’s Memorial Monument, also had mixed motives in the war:

It must be admitted, truth compels me to admit, even here in the presence of the monument we have erected to his memory, Abraham Lincoln was not, in the fullest sense of the word, either our man or our model. In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man

He was preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men. He was ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people to promote the welfare of the white people of this country. In all his education and feeling he was an American of the Americans. He came into the Presidential chair upon one principle alone, namely, opposition to the extension of slavery.

His arguments in furtherance of this policy had their motive and mainspring in his patriotic devotion to the interests of his own race. To protect, defend, and perpetuate slavery in the states where it existed Abraham Lincoln was not less ready than any other President to draw the sword of the nation. He was ready to execute all the supposed guarantees of the United States Constitution in favor of the slave system anywhere inside the slave states. He was willing to pursue, recapture, and send back the fugitive slave to his master, and to suppress a slave rising for liberty, though his guilty master were already in arms against the Government. The race to which we belong were not the special objects of his consideration.

Knowing this, I concede to you, my white fellow-citizens, a preeminence in this worship at once full and supreme. First, midst, and last, you and yours were the objects of his deepest affection and his most earnest solicitude. You are the children of Abraham Lincoln. We are at best only his stepchildren; children by adoption, children by forces of circumstances and necessity. To you it especially belongs to sound his praises, to preserve and perpetuate his memory, to multiply his statues, to hang his pictures high upon your walls, and commend his example, for to you he was a great and glorious friend and benefactor.

Having said all that, Douglass was willing to honor Lincoln:

Instead of supplanting you at his altar, we would exhort you to build high his monuments; let them be of the most costly material, of the most cunning workmanship; let their forms be symmetrical, beautiful, and perfect; let their bases be upon solid rocks, and their summits lean against the unchanging blue, overhanging sky, and let them endure forever! But while in the abundance of your wealth, and in the fullness of your just and patriotic devotion, you do all this, we entreat you to despise not the humble offering we this day unveil to view; for while Abraham Lincoln saved for you a country, he delivered us from a bondage, according to Jefferson, one hour of which was worse than ages of the oppression your fathers rose in rebellion to oppose.

The Attack on Public Art

With all the attention to Confederate Monuments, I was wondering about what the recent hostilities in Charlottesville might say about the state of public art in the United States.

For instance, Nicole Martinez wrote positively about public art displays as recently as May:

If you walked past one of the Garment District plazas in New York City last fall, you may have noticed those giant, vibrantly colored animal sculptures towering over sidewalk diners at café tables. Or perhaps you were running to catch a plane at Miami International Airport, and you glanced up to see an intricate web of etched glass on the roof of the bustling transportation center. If you’re an artist, you might be wondering how you might land an opportunity to showcase your work in a public space and land a public art commission – and while the process can be long and arduous, there are a variety of opportunities to participate in public art programs across the country.

Public art programs were first launched in the United States in the 1930s, when President Roosevelt’s New Deal spurred the idea that Americans should take pride in their cultural treasures. The New Deal program Art-in-Architecture (A-i-A) developed percent for art programs, a structure for funding public art still utilized today. This program gave one half of one percent of total construction costs of all government buildings to purchase contemporary American art for that structure. Today, acquisitions also include specially commissioned art projects for public art spaces, and the percentage allocated from a new construction project typically varies from one-half to two percent.

You might think that public art is a positive aspect of American society.

The Association for Public Art admits that some pieces might receive support from the entire community but that should not stop funding and recognition:

In a diverse society, all art cannot appeal to all people, nor should it be expected to do so. Art attracts attention; that is what it is supposed to do. Is it any wonder, then, that public art causes controversy? Varied popular opinion is inevitable, and it is a healthy sign that the public environment is acknowledged rather than ignored. To some degree, every public art project is an interactive process involving artists, architects, design professionals, community residents, civic leaders, politicians, approval agencies, funding agencies, and construction teams. The challenge of this communal process is to enhance rather than limit the artist’s involvement.

For that reason, Martinez advises caution to artists:

Ultimately, artists interested in landing public art commissions should pay close attention to government agency websites in an effort to keep track of open calls for public art commissions. If you choose to apply, consider crafting a proposal that directly addresses the architectural components of the space, bearing in mind the agency’s budget constraints and your own ability to stick to the budget you’ve laid out. And while its true that a public art project may not be the most lucrative commission of your artistic career, its lasting influence will likely impact it for years to come.

Obviously, she wasn’t thinking about changing historical awareness.

Consequently, to keep up with the times, Americans for the Arts decided to create distance between their support for public art and the kinds of public displays that have drawn ire recently:

“For nearly 60 years, Americans for the Arts, with its member organizations, has been a fierce advocate for public art and how it can help transform, inspire, and educate communities. Americans for the Arts stands with community members who are coming together to have civil and just dialogues, and to meaningfully and honestly assess the value of their existing public art pieces, monuments, and memorials in telling the narratives that their communities desire and deserve today. Americans for the Arts stands in opposition to any form of violence, intimidation, or illegal activity that cuts short such community dialogue.

“We support ongoing community dialogue around truth, reconciliation, and removal and replacement of the various artistic and cultural vestiges of white supremacy and racism in the United States, and the installation of monuments commemorating narratives of emancipation, shared strength, and equity. We recommend that local arts agencies and other arts institutions join these dialogues in concert with affected communities.

“Americans for the Arts strongly supports diversity, equity, and inclusion, and stands against racism, bigotry, and hatred. To support a full creative life for all, we commit to championing policies and practices of cultural equity that empower a just, inclusive, equitable nation.”

Sixty years for public arts. Four days against white supremacy and racism. You do the math.

American Exceptionalism Perfectionist Style

Forget the meme that has Roman Catholics winning. The big winner of late is Charles Finney, that evangelist who insisted that Christians renounce all sin in their lives and taught a generation of Protestants that compromise with sin in politics was — wait for it — sin.

Evidence of the prevalence of such perfectionism comes in Theon Hill’s piece on Charlottesville. Surprising is his acknowledgement that black Civil Rights advocates were far from pure:

The practice of accommodating white supremacy is not unique to white America. People of color have often deployed accommodation strategically, hoping that it will lead to greater acceptance by whites. Booker T. Washington, in his famous Atlanta Exposition Address, embraced the logics of “separate but equal,” expecting blacks to experience upward mobility as they demonstrated their worth to white America. W. E. B. DuBois called on blacks to avoid racial activism during the First World War, believing that loyalty to the nation during this difficult moment would produce greater acceptance during the post-war period. Even my personal hero Dr. King hesitated to oppose racists in the Democratic Party in 1964, believing that accommodation would produce greater gains for blacks in the long term.

Isn’t that the nature of politics? Don’t you take certain gains while recognizing you don’t get everything? Since politics is about maintaining order and equity in a world that consists of sinners, and since you can’t eradicate sin in this life and don’t want to live in a society where government (who uses force legitimately) is looking into everything you do and think, maybe you live with a little compromise? Maybe you fight another day for another round of proximate goods.

Not so when you apply the standards of perfectionist Christianity:

Scripture and history repeatedly warn that accommodating sin never produces greater holiness.

That is certainly true for the believer and even the church — oh, by the way has anyone asked how pure the mainline churches are in their efforts to combat the alt-right? But monuments and social protests are not about personal righteousness. They are about what we share as people inhabiting the same national borders and government by the same civil authorities.

When did people ever start expecting a nation to be holy?

Oh, that’s right. Mr. Finney.