Why Do We Have Monuments of Famous People? How to Really Tear Them Down

Jun 26, 2020 by David Fowler

pile of stones with Joshua scripture
As a child I played on the Civil War monuments, markers, and memorabilia on the grounds of Missionary Ridge Elementary School. I never gave much thought to what they symbolized other than the war itself. It was recess, and I was just playing. I do know that none of them venerated a particular person, but I have been grappling with how to think about the monuments to and statues of some famous or some might say infamous Americans that are being defaced or pulled down.
My first thought is that it is lawless, and it is. There are lawful means by which monuments and statues can be removed.
My second thought is one of sadness. Those who think that these monuments and statues are their problem or that tearing them down will solve their problem don’t realize the depth of their problem. The problem is internal to them; they are under bondage of an identity from which they cannot be freed by any external changes around them. But today is not the day to delve into that.
Today, I want to delve into why we have monuments venerating individuals in the first place, regardless of what singular achievement—holding an office, winning a battle, serving in a leadership position, excelling at a sport, inventing something—might be associated with that individual. As I pondered that, this story came to mind.

Why No Monument for This Person?

Joshua is one of the foremost characters in the Biblical narrative, and for a number of reasons. But the part of Joshua’s story that came to my mind was about the monument erected after his first significant act of leading the people of Israel into the Promised Land, crossing the Jordan River.
Here are key highlights to the story, from selected verses in Chapters 3 and 4 of the Book of Joshua. It starts with his words to the people the day before the crossing: “Sanctify yourselves, for tomorrow the LORD will do wonders among you.”[i]
The wonder is that God held back the waters of the Jordan River so that the Hebrew people could cross over on dry ground. But here’s the “monument” part of the story I find interesting:
And it came to pass, when all the people had completely crossed over the Jordan, that the LORD spoke to Joshua, saying:
“Take for yourselves twelve men from the people, one man from every tribe, and command them, saying, ‘Take for yourselves twelve stones from here, out of the midst of the Jordan, from the place where the priests’ feet stood firm. You shall carry them over with you and leave them in the lodging place where you lodge tonight.’ ”

And the children of Israel did so . . . .
We are then told that on the day they crossed over “the LORD exalted Joshua in the sight of all Israel; and they feared him, as they had feared Moses, all the days of his life.” But notice, next, what was done with the twelve stones. A monument to Joshua?
Joshua then took the twelve stones from out of the Jordan and set them up in Gilgal. Then he said this to children of Israel:

When your children ask their fathers in time to come, saying, ‘What are these stones?’ then you shall let your children know, saying, ‘Israel crossed over this Jordan on dry land’; for the LORD your God dried up the waters of the Jordan before you until you had crossed over, as the LORD your God did to the Red Sea, which He dried up before us until we had crossed over that all the peoples of the earth may know the hand of the LORD, that it is mighty, that you may fear the LORD your God forever.”

Joshua is certainly remembered, but the monument God instructed them to set up was not that the people might remember Joshua, as important as he was. It was that they might remember God and that their help comes not from God, not men.
Moreover, the memorial was not just for the sake of Israel—that their “fear” or reverence would be directed to “the LORD your God forever"—but for all the people of the earth in order that they might know that the God is mighty. [ii]

The Point of the Story

The point of the story is that God alone is great, and it is by His choosing and His work through, against, and sometimes in spite of the actions of His creatures that any person appears exalted before our eyes.
We tend to get it the other way around. We exalt men, erect monuments to them that we might remember them, and forget to whom “blessing and honor and glory and power” really belong (Revelation 5:13; see also 1 Chronicles 29:11).
Such glory as human beings have is that God is so great that He can accomplish His purposes through us whose feet are made of clay and are perpetual idol makers. God said to the prophet Jeremiah, “Let him who glories, glory in this, that he understands and knows Me” (Jeremiah 9:24).

How to Really Knock Down Monuments of Famous People

Perhaps putting with each monument something about how God does wonders even through the likes of those fallible people for whom we’ve built the monument would provide a context that really knocks those people and those who exalt them down a notch.
Providing that kind of context for every monument to famous people might even point the restless and agitated who want to deface and topple them to the Source of real and eternal rest and peace. A change in Who we know and in Whom we glory changes everything, even if nothing around us ever changes.

[i] All scripture references taken from the New King James Translation of the Bible.

[ii] The picture is of stones my wife and I gathered with our young daughter from a local stream and assembled together keep in our home as a reminder to us of God’s provision for our family.

David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. 

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