It seems to me that you only pardon the sins that you don’t really think sinful. You only forgive criminals when they commit what you don’t regard as crimes, but rather as conventions. You forgive a conventional duel just as you forgive a conventional divorce. You forgive because there isn’t anything to be forgiven. —G. K. Chesterton
The above quote is by the titular priest in G. K. Chesterton’s The Secret of Father Brown. The townspeople that Father Brown addressed had first welcomed back a beloved nobleman who killed his loathsome brother in a duel 30 years prior. They accepted him with open arms, “forgiving” him without question because they liked the guy so much. Father Brown was more hesitant, saying that the killer must be penitent before anything is forgiven, leading the townsfolk to proclaim themselves more forgiving than the priest.
It comes to be known, though, that it wasn’t the well-regarded man who killed his hated brother. It was the other way around! The demeanor of the people is flipped accordingly, and they demand the lousy sibling’s execution. Father Brown again calls for moderation, but this time in the direction of mercy.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean anything unless those granting it believe that something actually wrong happened, as the sagacious priest further explains to the crowd. Forgiveness, to them, is just a cheap tactic to brag about when they don’t actually believe anything unjust occurred. Forgiveness—and penitence—hurts.
The Catholic faith I share with Chesterton is as unambiguous about the wrongness of racial hatred as it is about the rightness of reconciliation. Racism is the sin that denies the inherent dignity in every human being, and is therefore incompatible with God’s design. The Confederate States of America defied God’s law by institutionalizing a false and perverse moral distinction between humans.
People in the South before 1865 weren’t historically anomalous devils, though; their wrongness with regard to slavery was the rule rather than the exception. Before the 19th century, for the overwhelming majority of human societies, servitude was an unquestioned fact of life. They were just holdouts from a pre-industrial, pre-capitalist time when slavery made economic sense. We only like to cast them as Hollywood villains because of their cultural proximity to ourselves.
Nonetheless, God’s justice couldn’t sleep forever. Hundreds of thousands of brothers, husbands, and sons—many of whom were teenagers—had the meat ripped from their bones by cannon and musket fire. That stench of death may have never left the American psyche.
One monument that grapples with this reality is called Spirit of the Confederacy, in Baltimore. It shows a scene that should be haunting to anyone familiar with the Civil War: a wounded soldier who appears to be barely 20 years old. He needs help standing; he is dying. But the angel that is carrying the soldier off brings something uplifting to tragedy, as does the pedestal’s text “Gloria Victis,” which is Latin for “glory to the defeated.” Onlookers are given the reassuring message that even the young men who fought on the losing side will be honored, cared for, and granted immortality.
As of Tuesday night, Baltimore started the process of removing Confederate memorials, and the Spirit probably won’t be spared. It was vandalized on Monday, and city governments are often on the same page ideologically as iconoclastic mobs.
That monument is from 1903, but its sentiment is anything but “outdated.” In 2015, a sculpture called The Pieta of Joan of Arc was unveiled by the U.S. Army at Fort Drum, New York. It has a similar theme about unbiased moral courage during war.
It shows the Saint Joan holding the head of her dying enemy in her lap, comforting him as a sister would. It’s based on a real moment which had eyewitness accounts. He was an English prisoner who was too poor to be ransomed, so he was struck down by the heroine’s countrymen.
We don’t (or shouldn’t) go to war because we love the enemy’s suffering. It’s that kind of tribalistic militarism that needs to be consigned to the trash heap of history, not the memorials of our fallen enemies. But this sentiment is nowhere to be found in mainstream moral messaging. Why aren’t we allowed to deal with the country’s deadliest war with a moral gravitas that is uncontroversial anywhere else?
The Civil War was not a war of conquest. The South is not a subjugated foreign nation, but an essential component of the Union. The South—and, importantly, the United States in general—paid for the sin of slavery with horror and hardship that the modern person can’t imagine. The Southern states were re-admitted to the Union, and the restoration of fraternity began. Southerners get to honor their dead and memorialize their heroes, too, because healthy families don’t hold grudges.
The fanatics who are trying to bring statues down are are so obsessed with moral rightness that they forget that part of being good is loving your enemies rather than hating them. Love—agape, not the “love” that we’re lectured about in empty sloganeering—crowds out vengeance and tempers impulses to hurt.
Housebroken conservatives offer lukewarm appeals to “patriotism” as their own pseudo-morality. The argument that we need to hate people because they fought against the United States is a nauseating attempt to gain the favor from the country’s left-wing overculture. Would this argument work if applied to the Vietnam War? What about the Indian chiefs we honor with monuments, who fought against the United States and for their own brand of despotism?
Conspicuous, spiraling displays of anti-racism are part of the American civil religion. But our secular creed will never provide the moral grounding that actual religion does because it will always be a prisoner of the current day, existing as an instrument to legitimate political ends.
Anti-memorial activists can learn something from the father of Heather Heyer, the woman who was killed in Charlottesville. He forgave the white supremacist who murdered his daughter, and he expressed that he did so because of God’s example on the Cross. There is no political justification for this kind of charity because the goal of politics, like war, is to defeat an enemy. Undiscriminating compassion is strategically useless when it’s tribe vs. tribe.
Individual virtue can exist even in a less-than-virtuous system. Heroes of the South, from Robert E. Lee to a 20-year-old soldier who died anonymously, can be honored with a clear conscience in the same way that George Washington can. Their memorials and symbols can be remembered fondly, blemishes and all. If you think that the flag-adorned Dodge Charger from The Dukes of Hazzard was a Nazi fashion statement, you’re living in a Portlandia sketch.
In a rush to cleanse society of anything that is morally offensive, activists often forget about the most important party of morality: reconciliation. Forgiving those who have done wrong is hard; sanctimonious grave-spitting is easy. We need to remember which one is righteous.