As we watch the events of turmoil in our nation, we have seen the destruction of various statues and monuments across the country. Mobs of people are seen on TV vandalizing and tearing down statues of everyone from Confederate soldiers to Union generals to Christopher Columbus. There is even talk of removing monuments to George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.
In Louisville, KY, the John Breckinridge Castleman monument near Cherokee Park has been the source of conflict for several years. The statue has been repeatedly vandalized and was recently removed as a result of political pressure and the threat of violence.
Castleman was a Confederate Army officer from Kentucky and a supporter of slavery who was eventually captured by Union forces and sentenced to death. Abraham Lincoln, however, stayed his execution and Castleman was exiled from the United States only to be later pardoned by Andrew Johnson. A decade after returning to the US, Castleman led a military unit from Kentucky to fight for the US in the Spanish-American war. He later was promoted to the rank of Colonel in the US Army.
Post military, Castleman was an influential man in Kentucky. He was a businessman, a delegate to the Democratic National Convention who worked to get Grover Cleveland nominated, and Castleman served as Commissioner of the Louisville Board of Parks for over two decades. Upon his death, several African Americans spoke fondly of him saying that he had become a friend to the black community.
Even so, Dr. Tom Owen, a historian from the University of Louisville, says that Castleman was a “mixed bag.” Though Castleman originally supported slavery and served in the Confederate Army, his later life showed a man whose attitude towards black people had changed. According to Owen, Castleman fought to keep Louisville parks from being segregated; and it wasn’t until after his death that segregation happened. And yet, Owen notes that Castleman was proud of his actions serving in the Confederate Army as a raider to the end. In this regard, he was unrepentant.
Because of his service in the Confederate Army and because of his original support for slavery, even though his attitudes towards African Americans changed over his later years, and even though he played an influential role in the creation of Louisville parks, a growing voice has arisen to oppose the continued presence of the Castleman statue near Cherokee Park.
While you may not be familiar with John Castleman, and frankly many Louisvillians aren’t either, my guess is that you have a statue or two near your home that has been vandalized or is under scrutiny. Do I think that Castleman’s statue should have been removed? I’m not writing to take a position on that.
I am writing to warn against one of the attitudes behind this growing movement to remove monuments which finds itself reaching even for historical figures such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Christopher Columbus, and others. I call it the attitude of Anachronistic Righteousness.
Anachronistic Righteousness is the shortsighted attitude of some modern people which ungraciously judges a person from history and disregards that historical figure as irrelevant or unworthy of honor because of some alleged or documented sin(s) regardless of the overall tenor of his/her life. Regardless of the positive contribution of the historical figure on any number of people, anachronistic righteousness cancels his/her contributions on history, sometimes even upon discovery of misdeeds that required a very narrow scope for discovery.
Anachronistic Righteousness fails to recognize that the current modern understanding of righteousness is, in part, the product of the accumulation of the contributions of thinkers, culture, and reformers that preceded him. Modern man did not come to his current understanding in a vacuum. He did not come to his present viewpoint without the thinkers who preceded him, even the contributions of those who were imperfect. There is nothing to say that the modern critic wouldn’t have taken the exact same position as the historical figure that he criticizes (if he had been in his shoes at that time and place). And the insistence that, “I would have been different,” may be as much a display of arrogance as anything else. Even if the modern critic had taken a proper view on the moral issue in question, it’s likely that he would have failed in another area. That is the nature of man.
As such, the person afflicted with Anachronistic Righteous often can’t pass his own test. Anachronistic righteousness is self-defeating because the one currently engaged in such attitudes fails to realize that he too will one day be rendered irrelevant because future people will find some fault in his life when applying the same anachronistic standard of judgment. In fact, since no one is morally perfect, by the current standards of anachronistic righteousness, no one should be honored (either now or in the future) because there will always be found some defect in any person whose life is investigated by anyone who cares to look (the great moral reformer Martin Luther King Jr. could not even pass this test).
Anachronistic righteousness fails to properly recognize societal moral progress over time. It fails to recognize even imperfect people who imperfectly contributed to societal moral progress. At its root, the one infected by anachronistic righteousness over-estimates his/her own moral goodness.
What sort of judgment should we then apply to historical figures? We should be honest about their contributions and shortcomings and display a measure of grace because, frankly, in some regards, we are they. We too are a “mixed bag.” Genesis 6:9 says that “Noah was righteous man, blameless among the people of his time.” It doesn’t say that Noah was blameless, but “blameless among the people of his time.” If you read the Bible, you discover that Noah wasn’t a perfect man.
It is unfair to judge a man strictly according to modern standards because, again, moral understanding is often progressive in nature. We benefit from the moral reforms and philosophical contributions of people who came before us, much in the same way that we benefit from the scientific contributions of the past. If a man was righteous in comparison to the people of his time, then he is worthy of honor.