Historians, museum curators, artists, and a host of other professionals have mixed feelings when people start to topple statues. I know that there were many people who wanted a small piece of brick from the Berlin Wall when it fell; it was President Reagan after all who said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall.” We remember the picture of the great statue of Lenin toppling down from Kremlin but the Chinese keep their statues of Mao, even though they have written against him. ISIS and those who think like them have destroyed important pieces of history in Afghanistan and Syria and the pyramid tourism that was a great part of the Egyptian economy has been destroyed. In America, we felt like it couldn’t happen at a university like Duke and never imagined that a governor and a mayor would try to outdo the other by removing statues in the middle of the night.
One of the greatest church historians wrote that it is due to the heretics that we have right, or the orthodox, doctrine. As much as we applaud that young man by the name of Athanasius who stood up for the right doctrine, Adolph Harnack argues that the right doctrine was chiseled against the Arian heresy. Arius raised certain issues that forced the church fathers to think like they had never thought before. He was close to the truth, but he did not have the whole truth and his impartial truth was dangerous and inadequate.
From time to time in my church history classes, I am asked if I can teach church history without making a distinction between those who are orthodox and those who are heretics. I remind them that a math professor cannot accept that 7x7=49 and also accept that it equals 46. There is a correct answer. I also remind them that they would not like if I graded every paper with an B, simply because they turned their paper in. They expect me to grade it so that their next paper can be better.
Christianity in the past and many of us in the twenty-first century seem to be guilty of wanting to destroy the works of those who do not agree with us. Augustine burned the works of the Pelagians and the Donatists and we know of their works only from what he quoted. The Inquisition was known for burning people and their works. In the 16th century, one of the most dangerous occupations was to be a printer. One could become rich by printing for both sides but if you were found to be working for the enemy, both sides would burn the printer and the papers they had printed. The Roman Catholic Church and universities such as Sorbonne and Notre Dame were known for burning many literary works in the 16th century.
There is a dangerous shift in the liberality of this country, with regards to the thinking that we had in the past. The liberals in this country used to say that, while they disagree with you, they will defend to their death your right to say what you want to say. Our idea of freedom of speech and freedom of the press seem to be changing.
I am not a Muslim and I disagree with the teaching of the Quaran, but I have a copy that is very visible in my office. I am not a Mormon and I disagree with the Mormon teachings, but I have a Book of Mormon on the same shelf. I do not agree with the Catholic and Orthodox positions on icons, but I have had them in my office.
I take issue with people who are so quickly incensed by the sins of our forefathers while winking at the sins of the present. We can certainly argue that everyone in the Civil War was touched by slavery and many benefitted from it. Nevertheless, while the Civil War had the greatest number of casualties, it changed the position of this country. In 2017 there are more slaves internationally—men, women and children—than ever before, but most of us do nothing about it. It is the same sin, but it is easier to talk about the sins of others than to examine if we are any better than the ones whose statues we are toppling.