Toppling History?

A reflection on the debate about Confederate monuments and the enduring truths that ought to guide us

By William Schweiker|July 15, 2020

And on the pedestal these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Ozymandias” 

The last weeks in this country and around the world have witnessed a reckoning with history. Statues and monuments of supposedly great white men—it is almost entirely white men—have literally been toppled from their pedestals. Rightly so, one must insist, for combined historical, civic, and moral reasons. This Sightings column considers the intersection of these reasons in order to discern their public and religious significance. 
“Monumental history,” as Friedrich Nietzsche dubbed it, uses figures in the past to advance current life.[1] In that light, the monuments to the ‘heroes’ of the Confederacy erected long after the Civil War have been antithetical to the life of the nation as a whole. Carved into the souls of generations of African-Americans, these statues are nothing but granite and iron testimonies to the villainy and tyranny of slavery ostensibly meant to celebrate the ‘virtues’ of the Antebellum South. The most egregious ones are nothing but engines of racism that continue to condemn so many Black lives to grinding poverty, unjust treatment, police brutality, disproportionate illness and early death, civic and economic inequality, and daily indignities that, as a white man, I struggle to imagine let alone understand. They are testimonies to inequities of power parading as eternal truths. 
Confederate statues herald the foolishness of an Ozymandias, as Percy Bysshe Shelley put it, believing that molded steel or stone can outwit the long and leveling stretch of time. At long last these statues’ end has come as they are toppled to the ground. The toppling is not anti-democratic. Those who topple these statues are reminders of how Black Americans are and have been persistent advocates of our founding ideals of freedom and democracy through their long and lonely struggle for racial equality.
The “topplings” spark reflection as well as public debate. Many things can be toppled in the zeal of the moment; zeal motivates action, for good and ill. And so a much-needed debate has begun about monuments as such. The controversy about “The Emancipation Memorial,” Lincoln standing with outstretched hand and a slave kneeling—or is he breaking his own chains?—embodies the complexity of the issues. Might there be some consensus or criteria for judgment about what should abide and what should be leveled in the name of our nation’s life, past and future? 
Oddly enough, this historic and civic debate provokes meditation on time and what truths, if any, endure. With Isaac Watts, should we believe that “Time, like an ever-rolling stream,/ Bears all its sons away;/ They fly forgotten, as a dream/ Dies at the opening day.”[2] Conversely, are there truths that outlive the power of Ozymandias and the tyrannies of time? Are there truths that mark and measure history and that do not die at daybreak? 
In the wake of Black Lives Matter and the toppling of monumental histories, we must have the courage to say that “yes” there are such truths that call on us to realize them in history. The urgency (even while difficult) of believing in eternal verities must be acknowledged. The urgency to acknowledge transcendent truths is the quest for racial, sexual, and civic equality and true human freedom for all. Equality and freedom have been denied for too long to those subjugated by slavery and cultural inequalities of race, class, gender, and sexuality. This nation and every nation can wait no longer for the recognition of the dignity of its peoples, all its people. We must dare to believe in such truths in order that through our acting the nation’s life is founded around these ideals.
The difficulty of proclaiming transcendent truths about human dignity is due to a baneful presentism about standards of judgment. Presentism is the belief that current convictions do not require critique and so they can be foisted on past peoples unmindful of historical distance and difference. The zeal to topple can overreach and so efface what should endure. 
Matters are more complex and even philosophical in tenor. In the current context, an exceedingly popular assumption reigns about the workings of history and society: they are to be exhaustively explained by the clash of interests. Power must meet power because unjust privilege is rarely defeated by moral suasion. However, a view of history and society as merely the tale of contending powers is only partially right. As the sole factor in social and historical existence, it gives rise to a vision of life as warfare. Truth is what those in power claim it to be and all other claims are “fake news.” Society is the domination of some by others and the struggle of the subjugated to turn the tables on the oppressor. Justice is merely another name for the possession of power. “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Thus spoke Ozymandias. History is the story told to bolster the struggle for dominance with or without hope of some final resolution.
Again, there is something right about an agonistic view of history and society, and its simplicity ensures its constant allure. It is not the whole story. For its refutation, look no further than the current moment. The struggle for the recognition of human dignity in the Black Lives Matter movement, the destruction of racist public statues and structures, the labor to reform and transform policing practices, and the thousands and thousands of people marching the world over in the name of human dignity show that the agonies of time are infused with truths not quelled by the machineries of power or the clash of interests. We are in the midst of a moment of the fullness of time, a kairos, which is a judgment on the sin of racism and a call for repentance, especially by those who justify their status without concern for the well-being others.
We can and must topple the historical falsehoods used to demean and destroy human lives. Human worth, justice in social existence, freedom within equality, and the integrity of life, dare we say it and live by it, are timeless truths. Yet, despite the Founders’ words, these truths are not self-evident, even for those who hold them. The horrific legacy of racism by those who utter the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness negates or qualifies claims to the self-evidence of any truth. Yet the failure of mind and heart does not topple the capacity of these truths to inspire action that can (and must!) change the course of history.
If it is to be more than a tale told by kings and tyrants, history must be measured by these truths that signify the aim of our strivings and struggles. These truths topple histories that hope to deny them. Such truths are not solely of our making nor molded to fit our prejudices or the injustices of the past. They judge and should inspire us as well as every human community. To be grasped and be motivated by them is to be awakened to the depths of human life. As Frederick Douglass put it in one of his three autobiographies“The silver trump of freedom roused in my soul eternal wakefulness.”[3] This nation, every nation, needs to awaken to the cry for justice and freedom that has been wrongly denied too many for too long. 


[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Use and Abuse of History for Life (Cosimo Classic, 2010).

[2] Isaac Watts, “Our God, Our Help in Ages Past” originally in The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament, 1719. Psalm 90 is the imitated text. Verses and wording have changed throughout the years.

[3] The citation is from Douglass’s Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass. See David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass Prophet of Freedom (NY: Simon & Schuster, 2018).


Sightings is edited by Joel Brown, a PhD Candidate in Religions in the Americas at the Divinity School. Sign up here to receive Sightings via email. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Marty Center or its editor.


William Schweiker

Columnist, William Schweiker (PhD’85), is the Edward L. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor of Theological Ethics at the Divinity School.