On the night of June 17, a group of 30-plus people gathered around a statue of George Washington that stood on the lawn of the German American Society in Northeast Portland. They spray-painted its base with the words “genocidal colonist,” covered the statue’s head with the American flag, set it on fire, and then proceeded to topple the statue to the ground.
It took 23 days for the protests that started after the killing of George Floyd to make their way to the statue of George Washington. What exactly is happening in our country?
Some basic facts should be kept in kind. Most demonstrations have been peaceful and their goal was clear and just. Racism and police brutality are incompatible with democracy, Christian morals, or common decency. And yes, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were slave owners. It’s a notion so repugnant that we struggle to match that fact with the words of the Declaration of Independence that Jefferson wrote or the title of “Father of His Country” that’s been given to Washington.
Were Washington and Jefferson great men with terrible moral flaws or were they just two slave owners that we should erase from history? Was the republic they helped create a noble idea stained by the practice of slavery or was their whole project a racist nightmare concocted just to ensure the existence of slavery?
These are the questions behind the idea of toppling their statues. When we celebrate the Fourth of July, we are affirming that the republic created by Jefferson, Washington, and the American revolutionaries was a noble idea. We are paying tribute to the imperfect men who dared to dream the most successful democratic experiment the world has ever known. We do not deny the injustices and the crimes that have marked American history. We celebrate the creation of a society based on noble ideas that has shown a remarkable capacity for self-correction.
This is the idea that permeated Martin
Luther King Jr.’s thinking. For Dr. King, slavery, segregation, and all injustices visited upon African-Americans were a betrayal of the original intent of the Declaration of Independence. That same spirit animated the peaceful demonstrators that went out into streets across the country to demand justice for George Floyd.
That is not the spirit behind the toppling or defacing of the statues of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Ulysses Grant, Christopher Columbus, Miguel de Cervantes, St. Junipero Serra, and many other figures over the past few weeks.
Behind the violent acts of our enthusiastic — and often grotesquely ignorant — iconoclasts is the notion that the entire history of America should be reduced to its worst episodes; that the project of a nation, which began 242 years ago today, is invalid, criminal, and should be destroyed. Sometimes it seems that they hate Jefferson and Washington not only because they were slave owners but because they helped create this nation.
Sadly, this is not just the idea of a few uneducated protesters. “The 1619 Project,” a collection of 10 essays published by The New York Times in 2019 to mark the 400th anniversary of the introduction of slavery in America, used a similar approach to judge the whole history of our country. Historians of every stripe have criticized the project as unbalanced, one-sided, and, in many cases, factually erroneous. Yet the series won a Pulitzer and there are plans to use it as part of the curriculum in many schools.
This Fourth of July, let us work and pray so that our better angels prevail. Let us remember the noble ideas that inspired Jefferson, Washington, Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Let’s not give in to the temptation of reducing these monumental figures to their flaws. We Christians believe in forgiveness and redemption. Throughout her history, America has shown her capacity to become “a more perfect republic.” She can prove herself once again.