In his commentary on Genesis, the renowned biblical scholar Gerhard von Rad writes in partial explanation of the declaration that humanity is created in the “image and likeness of God”:
Just as powerful earthly kings, to indicate their claim to dominion, erect an image of themselves in the provinces of their empire where they do not personally appear, so man is placed upon earth in God’s image as God’s sovereign emblem. He is really only God’s representative, summoned to maintain and enforce God’s claim to dominion over the earth. (58)
The statue of the king is erected to remind friend and foe alike who rules the land and under whose dominion its people live. The image is placed to bestow pride upon those who believe they share in the king’s greatness and thrive under his authority. The image is placed also to instill fear in any who rebel against the king’s system or challenge his rule.
Such is the function of the statues placed throughout the American South in the 1920’s or during the “civil rights era” as images of such champions of the Confederacy as Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis. They proclaim to white people and black people alike who it is that continues to hold ideological and practical dominion over the city or state and its peoples, under whose sway they live and work. Robert E. Lee was a complex man, but it is not his complexity or his place in history that is proclaimed by the statue; it is, rather, the dominion of the Confederacy’s insistence upon the superiority of so-called white people and the inferiority of so-called black people. The statues declare whose land the South is presumed to be – not Lee’s or Davis’s, but the Old South’s. To the white they say, “You are more, no matter your station in life, your place in society, your education, or your successes and failures.” To the black they say, “You are less, no matter your station in life, your place in society, your education, or your successes and failures.”
If Robert E. Lee was indeed as great a man as some claim, then is such use of his image not an abuse of his likeness and his name? I have no desire to debate Lee’s character because it is irrelevant to the function of the statues which represent, not his greatness, but white dominion’s persistence and the expansion of it white supremacists desire.
Should the Confederacy be forgotten or hidden from people? No, like other realities of history, it should be remembered, studied, and questioned. Neither South nor North should be idealized or utterly demonized. We need to learn from what we have done and what has been done to us, from the good (and good for whom) and the bad (and bad for whom), and from the complexities of people and choices. I contend, however, that such was neither the motivation for the statues nor their effect, and I notice that those marching with guns and shields to protest their removal were not history scholars. The issue is dominion not knowledge or wisdom.
Note: I argue as do some modern biblical scholars, theologians, and other ministers that humanity serves as God’s image in creation, not by exploiting the earth’s resources and slaughtering its creatures, but by caring for them and representing for the whole human race God’s compassion and redemptive justice. The biblical metaphor of image and likeness is one of responsibility and stewardship not of privilege and sanction for greed or cruelty.