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On this episode of Compass: Finding spirituality in the everyday, we delve into the topic of iconoclasm and the conflict it causes in communities as they grapple with troubling figures from their spiritual history. From Confederate statues in Richmond to famous theologians who have committed atrocities, we explore how we evaluate historical figures through multiple lenses and the importance of deep discernment in Christian leadership. Join us for a conversation with scholar and author Diana Butler Bass as we explore the question of when communities need to cancel or reframe historical legacies to reflect on past mistakes and ensure justice.
Diana Butler Bass, Ph.D., is an award-winning author, popular speaker, inspiring preacher, and one of America’s most trusted commentators on religion and contemporary spirituality. She’s written 11 books. Her bylines include The New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN.com, Atlantic.com, USA Today, Huffington Post, Spirituality and Health, Reader's Digest, Christian Century, and Sojourners. And she’s been featured talking about religion and politics on just about every major news outlet.
This episode was inspired by a post Diana wrote for her Substack: The Cottage. Check out "Empty Altars Everywhere". A related post on her Substack would be "The Saints We Don't Need".
Catch up with all things Diana Butler Bass at her website.
A couple recommended books:
- John Blake explores the world-changing power of relationships
- When we question if we want to stay Christian
- Reconstructing burned out faith
- Wrestling with the tough sayings
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- Email our hosts Ryan Dunn and Michelle Maldonado about future topics and feedback.
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This episode posted on May 17, 2023
Ryan Dunn [00:00:00]:
This is the Compass podcast, where we disrupt the everyday with glimpses of the divine. My name is Ryan Dunn. I'm flying solo on this episode. As we give air to a conversation that I had with Diana Butler Bass a while back, I was curious about what we do with some of the troubling figures of our spiritual history. For example, should I be sharing quotes and ideas from people? People who shared some wonderful thoughts, for sure, but also held some, while pretty abhorrent ideals by today's standards? On this episode of Compass, we explore the question of how communities can recognize when we need to cancel or reframe historical legacies to call forth a new moral commitment while reflecting on the mistakes of the past.
Diana Butler Bass, a scholar, author of several impactful books, including Freeing Jesus and A Leader of the Empty Altars Project, shares her perspective on iconoclasm and reflection of history, inviting us to look at monuments, museums, public artwork, historical quotes, and empty pedestals to understand history better. We dive into nuanced approaches to historical figures and explore when iconoclasm is necessary to ensure justice. We also discuss the dissonance between someone's teachings and actions and how to discern whether their sinful actions might negate their positive contributions. So join us for a thought provoking conversation on historical revision and reflection that highlights the importance of deep discernment discussions. Before we get to that conversation, let me ask a small favor leave a rating in review for Compass. It helps us in visibility, especially in connecting with the kinds of guests who bring fresh perspectives to our questions on faith and belief. Thanks so much. A little bit about Diana before we get into it. Diana Butler Bass, PhD. Is an award winning author, popular speaker, inspiring preacher, and one of America's most trusted commentators on religion and contemporary spirituality. She's written eleven books. Her bylines include the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN.com, Atlantic.com, USA Today, Huffington Post, Spirituality and Health, Readers Digest, Christian Century and Sojourners. And she's been featured talking about religion and politics on just about every major news outlet. So yeah, it's cool. We got to speak with her here on the Compass podcast.
Diana Butler Bass, first of all, thank you so much for spending some time with us to answer some questions. How goes the puppy training?
Diana Butler Bass [00:02:47]:
Oh my gosh, I can't believe that you asked about my puppy.
Ryan Dunn [00:02:53]:
I want to know.
Diana Butler Bass [00:02:55]:
I spent the last week picking up more poo and wiping up more pee than I remembered. It's been a long time since we had a puppy, but he's absolutely adorable and he seems like he's very smart, so I think he will learn quickly and it's good to have a dog in the house again. We lost our beloved dog in December, who had been with our family for twelve and a half years, and so we had said, no, that's it. We're not going to have another dog. And within three weeks, my husband said, do you think we could find a puppy? So we have a new puppy. His name is Padrig, and we call him Patty, and he's an Irish dog. So Padrig works a airedale terrier.
Ryan Dunn [00:03:50]:
Okay, and does that name have anything to do with the saints of the past, say, a St. Padrig?
Diana Butler Bass [00:03:58]:
Well, Padrig is the Irish form of Patrick, so we call him St. Patrick. They call him Podrick. Actually, it's Dom Crossin, who is Irish. I was with him last week just as a friend happened to be in Florida. And he said, no, it's not Padrig because Americans pronounce the D. It's actually Paulrich. So I went, okay, now I've got to figure out how to pronounce the dog's name in Gaelic so that he doesn't get angry at me, I guess. So Patty is fine.
Ryan Dunn [00:04:39]:
I got you. Yeah. All right.
Diana Butler Bass [00:04:41]:
But it is the form of Pat. It's a form of patrick.
Ryan Dunn [00:04:46]:
Okay. Well, when we look at characters like that in Christian history, certainly we want to build on their positive offerings. And there's a lot for us to learn as Christians from characters like St. Pyrig or Patrick. I got to do it the other way. There like St. Patrick or other theologians from the past, but also there's a heightened sense of awareness, especially today, that, well, some of these characters haven't aged well in how they viewed the world. As we look at teachings from certain church leaders, there's anti Semitism, there are thoughts of misogyny. There's certainly colonialism that's present in a number of their teachings. And for those of us who want to claim our Christian tradition, that begins to be a problem because we feel like we have to apologize so consistently for our Christian heritage. And so I'm curious about somebody with such a strong historical perspective like you. How do you view some of these leaders from the past? Do we try to disvalue or distance ourselves from them? Or is there still a way to claim them while still accepting some responsibility? And where are you going there?
Diana Butler Bass [00:06:08]:
This is the kind of question I have actually thought about for most of my career. So I think it's interesting that more and more people are considering the question when it comes to Christianity, knowing our heroes and saints and theologians and leaders of the past, but it's also a larger cultural question. And so it's not just Christianity. It's also if you're sitting here and you happen to be an American citizen listening to this, we're talking about this in terms of our political and social leaders and heroes. And a few months ago, I happened to be in Richmond, Virginia, speaking at a very large, very liberal Baptist church right next to the University of Richmond. And my subject was history because it was their anniversary, and I was giving a series of lectures on the spiritual practice of history right before one of my lectures. The pastor happened to say to me, have you been down Monument Avenue recently? And for those of you who don't know Monument Avenue, it's the huge, broad boulevard that cuts right through Richmond. And after Reconstruction, they took that road and turned it into one sort of great circle with a monument in it after another for several miles of all the leaders of the confederacy. So there was this huge statue of Stewart, there's a huge statue of Robert E. Lee, you just name it. The general, the Confederate politicians, et cetera, all down Monument Avenue. And in the last couple of years, all those statues have been taken down. And so when the pastor said to me, have you been down Monument Avenue lately? I knew exactly what he meant, and that is, have you seen it since the statues were taken down? And I actually hadn't I hadn't driven down there, but I've seen pictures of it online and in the news here in Virginia where I live, so I haven't. And he looked at me and he said, it's really amazing. He said, I go down there, and I just look, and all I see are empty altars everywhere. I was just, like, floored by that phrase. The idea that empty altars were what he saw when he looked down that road and all the statues were gone. And he happens to agree with getting rid of them. But this idea that what we have right now, I think, in the United States is we have a lot of empty pedestals. And so this is true in both our political life, actually. It's happening in city after city, and it's also true in the life of the church. I think that for me, the first thing that I do is recognize we really live in a kind of an age of iconoclasm where we're all looking at these figures from the back behind us, and we're saying, oh, gosh, really? I can't go along with this. And Christians have frequently in our history gone through these periods where we take down all of the statues of the saints, where we take down all of the pictures that are in our churches. And so often that is accompanied by sort of radical reformations and rethinking and new kinds of social and political spiritual movements that are roiling through the church and through society. I think that that's kind of the time we live in, and I think that's interesting, because I never expected to live in a time of iconic class. And I grew up in the 19 well, I grew up in the was I was born in the very tail end of the 1950s, and, you know, when I was growing up, we began to have the royal of the. We we had the royal of the there were still so many people around who were just so deeply attached to very traditional ways that the stories in the church and the stories of american heroes were taught that the iconoclasm wasn't as dramatic, I think, as it is now. So it's a strange time to be a historian and recognize that there are so many people who are anxious to rip down all of the statues one way or the other. And then there are these other people who are really interested in just sort of going back to very romanticized views of what those figures meant and that we're having a lot of conflict within institutions, political and ecclesiastical institutions about that. I'm not sure that answers your question, but I wanted to put that context out there because I think it's really important for us to recognize it's not just, oh, Augustine had a mistress or concubine, really, that he didn't name, and Augustine was a terrible misogynist and a thief and a whole bunch of other stuff on top of it. And Carl Bart had a live in mistress along with his wife. I mean, we can go through the whole sort of 99 yards of classical Christian theology and what we have is we have a whole string of guys with sexual misdeeds.
Ryan Dunn [00:12:12]:
Yeah, it's hard to find somebody to lift up. Right. That's the challenge.
Diana Butler Bass [00:12:17]:
Exactly. There is all of that but it's not exclusive to us, nor is it a singularly Christian problem. This is a much more substantive moment in which we are living of which Christianity is a part but our political and social life is also caught up in all of these same kinds of energies. So to be able to develop the capacity of reflection and historical thinking right now I think becomes a gift to communities who are struggling with these things.
Ryan Dunn [00:13:00]:
A gift in what way? And that we're still learning or what's going on.
Diana Butler Bass [00:13:08]:
I think that the gift comes when you can. There are some times when iconoclasm is necessary when people take to the streets and they tear the statue down out of anger, out of just like sheer frustration. And so we've seen some of that in our culture in the last couple of years. So I want to say that right off the bat and I am not the person who will ever say there should never be any kind of public assault like this or rioting. Riots are the voice of the oppressed. I get that and we all should understand that. But there is something else too is there is the iconoclastic moment and there is also the reflective moment. And I think that the Christian life really involves both. And so I think we're losing the capacity of the more reflective moments. And so that's what I would like to have us be able to sort of build up and to hold on to both of those things saying, yes, Iconoclasm has a place, but also this reflective engagement with the past that is a more kind of what I would call thoughtful archaeology of the stories we've inherited that has a place too. And somehow in that conversation between the ripping down and the slow excavation of history, there is truth to be found in both of those sorts of manners. So as a person who is trained in history, I think that excavation tool is a spiritual practice that's much needed. Now go ahead.
Ryan Dunn [00:15:11]:
Well, I was going to ask you, where do you see some of that excavation happening?
Diana Butler Bass [00:15:16]:
Well, I don't see it happening a lot. I see a lot of people either screaming, let's take this down. I don't mean to say this in a facile way. I hope no one would think that I was, you know, this person has to be canceled. You know, we can't ever quote this person again or what, what have you. So there, there's a lot of that sort of quick energy of we've just got to get rid of everything that was ever offended anybody, which is we will have nothing left. We do that. But on this other side of the ledger, I don't see the wise, reflective sort of archaeology of history, what I'm calling the sort of the pulling back of the layers, the excavating, the past in order to be able to reveal it in a more honest way. What I see on the other side is the romanticized, you can't touch my statue. That window has been there for 150 years and that it happens to have a Confederate flag in it. There was a big fight in the Washington National Cathedral over that very thing, a stained glass window that had Confederate flag in it. And so people were saying, no, you can't take that down. You can't do that. And I was part of a congregation here in Virginia that had two plaques, one to George Washington and one to Robert E. Lee hanging up in the front of the congregation on either side of the centrally located pulpit. And people were of the mind, let's tear them down. And then other people were going like, over my dead body. Those have been there. My parents grandparents worshipped here. Those plaques have to stay. And so it's either nostalgia or iconoclasm. And so what I think that sort of Christian leadership calls for in many cases is this other capacity. And so I don't see the pulling back of the layers and the deep sort of discernment discussions that should be going on at this time in very many places. I can talk about what I think that in tales.
Ryan Dunn [00:17:58]:
Yeah, that would be helpful because maybe some of the challenge that we're having is, I guess the inspiration or the imagination to foresee what those conversations might look like in a helpful way.
Diana Butler Bass [00:18:11]:
Yeah. And I really think that this is where your local history professor is your best friend. So some people will say I think that some people argue that what I'm going to talk about in just a moment is too slow of a task. And I don't think it is a slow task. I think it's a deliberate task to get you further down the road than you might otherwise get with simply taking down the statues. Like I said, there are times when just take removal is what is necessary for the sake of justice, for the sake of love, whatever. And these are things that have to be discerned in community. But when I taught history, I would teach my students sort of what I would call three lenses by which they should look at the past. And the first lens is how is this person evaluated on the standards of their own time? And so that means you have to learn something about that person, what they thought and what they contributed and what the context was. And then secondly, so that's the past lens, the person, the movement or the thought in context and evaluating it in its own context. The second one is, what does that person's thought mean today for us? So there's the past lens and then there's the present lens. And that could be the same thing. Basically, the wisdom of that person in their own context still functions in a very meaningful way for us today. Or we could feel some awkwardness or angularity or even anger about what that person in their context thought today. And we could say, well, we just can't go along with that. Or we have to somehow reject this part of a person's thought and keep this other part here. So that takes real, what I would call a fine capacity of historical reflection and revision. History is always about revision. We are always revising how we understand the past. And then there's a third lens. And this is the one that I always think is the most humbling. And I would never reveal this lens until nearly the end of the class to my students. The third lens is what will the people who live 100 years from now think about us? And so you put this futurist frame on it. And when you do that, all of a sudden you realize that people sitting in some classroom in 50 or 100 years are going to be looking back at our time and they're going to be seeing the choices we made and the decisions that we followed and the languages that we used and how we treated other people. And they're either going to be looking at us and saying, oh my gosh, those people were heroic, or they're going to be looking at us and saying, what were they thinking?
Ryan Dunn [00:21:59]:
Yeah, what a deplorable what a deplorable.
Diana Butler Bass [00:22:02]:
Generation of human beings they were. And so what that does is that brings us to the fact that ultimately our lives are responsive to the concerns of several generations in the future and to be able to be aware of our own situatedness within a cultural context. And that really humbles good students and it should humble all of us. And it also gives us, I think, a deeper sense of empathy, because in the same way, say, George Washington could never imagine a person sitting in the year 2023 looking back and criticizing him, rightly, for slave owning and for violence against native peoples. We're doing something right now that is absolutely invisible to us, that 100 years from now, people will look back on us and say, how could those people even think that they were Christians, they were immoral, degenerates. That's literally what people will be saying. And so it's like, oh, my gosh, do I want to be judged in the same way? Like, right now, I'm just trying dismissing whoever it is from the past. And the truth of it is that none of us do. So there are those three lenses, and that's the approach when I was teaching church history, that I would always bring to the students. And it was a joy because I could watch 1819 year olds take these figures and run people from the past with troubling stories through these different pathways of evaluation and then come, I think, to sort of a more realistic evaluation of a history character.
Ryan Dunn [00:24:18]:
I'm going to be lost in thought for the rest of this day. Imagine, like, okay, 100 years. What are they going to judge me for?
Diana Butler Bass [00:24:28]:
Yeah, well, every day I wake up, I'm pretty sure one of them is fossil fuels.
Ryan Dunn [00:24:34]:
Dang it. Okay.
Diana Butler Bass [00:24:38]:
That's the most obvious one. And yet here everybody I know who's involved in the environmental movement. How do we all move ourselves around the world? We take airplanes and cars, and we're not walking or taking horses to the conferences that we're attending to try to work on issues of fossil fuels and climate change. And so people are going to look at that. And the evaluation of that from those people in the future towards us, I'm pretty sure, will be almost identical to the evaluation that people now have to Thomas Jefferson holding slaves, that's the moment where history, to me, becomes sort of a moral calling, is, what do you do then? It's like Thomas Jefferson preaching about liberty, writing so beautifully about liberty, being a man, 18th century man, dedicated really to the ideas and ideals of liberty, and then he's holding people in bondage. How is that any different than me driving my car around every day and all the time saying, I want to get rid of fossil fuels and I want the planet to be whole and healed for future generations? There's a kind of an absolute incongruity and hypocrisy there. And yet what I know, what you know is how else are we going to get around?
Ryan Dunn [00:26:28]:
Yeah, well, yeah, it's it's a necessity to be active in the world today, right. We could make the moral choice to not utilize fossil fuels, but that's such a setting apart. And this isn't to be apologetic for Thomas Jefferson slavery.
Diana Butler Bass [00:26:49]:
Ryan Dunn [00:26:50]:
But to say that to be active in our world, even to make the case that to be advocates for, in your example, phasing out fossil fuels, we still kind of have to use it.
Diana Butler Bass [00:27:05]:
Yeah, I think that a good example of this. Actually, Jefferson is a really interesting example. Obviously, he and Washington are really contended figures, in effect, is much easier. And I know we're not talking about, like, Christian saints at this point, but all of these people claimed some acquaintance with and or actually understood themselves to be Christian in some way, shape, or form. You have Washington, Jefferson, say, Robert E. Lee. Okay, which one of the three is the card you immediately throw away?
Ryan Dunn [00:27:48]:
If you're asking me, we go with Robert E. Lee.
Diana Butler Bass [00:27:51]:
Right, right. Sure.
Ryan Dunn [00:27:53]:
Most people probably would.
Diana Butler Bass [00:27:55]:
Yeah. I do live in Alexandria, Virginia, where Robert E. Lee is from. But all these guys were actually from the neighborhood. But yeah, that's right, because we've made some sort of moral evaluation that most Americans have made, and that is that Robert E. Lee clearly violated some stance of morality on the standards of his own time, on the standards of our time, and on the standards of the future, all of which are offensive. And so out goes the Robert E. Lee card. But then you've got Washington and Jefferson, and what do you do? One of the most interesting exhibits at the Smithsonians Institution institutions Museum of African American History is an exhibit called The Paradox of Liberty. And you walk into this section of the museum, and there's this gigantic statue of Thomas Jefferson, and you think to yourself, what the heck?
Ryan Dunn [00:29:11]:
Is he here? Yeah.
Diana Butler Bass [00:29:12]:
Why is thomas jefferson in african american history museum? And behind him there's on the words on the wall are the words of the Declaration of Independence. It's just beautiful. It's just what you expect, all those beautiful words about liberty, Thomas Jefferson. But between the statue of Jefferson and the words on the wall, there are bricks. There's kind of a brick wall that's sort of built there. So you can see the wall behind him, but you also see these bricks. And on the bricks are the names of all the people he held in slavery. And so in that case, see, I think that is a really interesting use of history, is that on one hand, you are holding up what is really worthy to be held up of the.
Ryan Dunn [00:30:15]:
Aspirational of Thomas Jefferson.
Diana Butler Bass [00:30:18]:
And we wouldn't have America without those words. We wouldn't have this nation without those words. And so, in effect, you're saying, this is a great man with these great ideas, and we're grateful. But then those bricks between you don't even have to say that there was a hypocrisy involved. You just see those names of the people held in slavery, and then you go, oh, well, wait a second. Jefferson didn't live up to his own standards. Do we live up to our own standards? And so, see, that to me is an amazing use of someone like Jefferson is that you are not taking away the genuine good that this person contributed to the world, yet you are providing sort of an alternate frame around it that says, yes, but and then invites people into that deeper question. And so in that way, I would never want to get rid of any statue of Thomas Jefferson, because that's the Jeffersonian question. And the more sort of public spaces in which we have that question raised, then the more we can ask ourselves in the present time, are we living up to those standards? And what will those people 100 years from now think of us? That's a whole different kettle of fish than having Robert E. Lee on a horse charging down Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, going after the Yankees. That's that finer edge. And there are some people who who probably walk into the African American History Museum and say, what the, you know, heck is Jeff Jefferson doing here? Take him out of here.
Ryan Dunn [00:32:36]:
Get him out of here.
Diana Butler Bass [00:32:38]:
But no, Jefferson serves an amazing purpose in that space. That's what I'm talking about here. And the question is, do we have the capability as a people to be able to know when the statue has to go off of the pedestal in Monument Avenue? And when you reframe particular kinds of public figures to tell the story with more depth and insight that calls forth a new moral commitment on the part of a community? So I think that Jefferson and Washington work in that second capacity much better than someone obviously like Lee or Jefferson Davis. A Confederacy, to me, is a fairly easy example. Even though my family were basically Southerners, my husband's ancestors served all in the Confederate Army. And one of them was actually the young man who carried around Robert E. Lee's arms, his swords and stuff during the whole of the war and went with Lee to Washington College after the war was over and basically just was his servant for the rest of his life. And my husband's attitude every time one of these Lee statues comes up is he says, just take the damn statues down. There are plenty of Southerners who can look back on that and say that was a huge mistake and it is not a betrayal of our ancestors to get rid of those statues because we need to cleanse ourselves of those moral sins. To me, that the leafing is pretty clear for most of us. And I do think that Washington and Jefferson can be equally as clear because they become kind of the models of conscience that we should be that white people specifically should be able to have in order to reflect on the mistakes of our past. So instead of exiling them from history, they become a mirror for us. So that's kind of the way that these questions can work.
Ryan Dunn [00:35:14]:
And you're doing quite a bit of work right now in iconic bass, iconic class, and we'll muddle through that one, and I'll pronounce it right later on anyways. And you're doing that within the lens of faith. Do you have a kind of yardstick within the faith tradition where we might hold people up to say, I mean, at least a working yardstick for you, in which we say, well, this is the point at which we need to set this person aside or not.
Diana Butler Bass [00:35:59]:
I think I understand where those lines are for myself and where yeah, where I'm uncomfortable with them. We could use a more contemporary example than, say, these three figures. We could use John Howard Yoder okay, who was a Mennonite theologian who wrote an amazing book called The Politics of Jesus in, I believe, 1972. And the Politics of Jesus was an enormously influential book that influenced the founding of Sojourners magazine. And sort of all of progressive Christianity was reshaped by the way that Yoder framed up Jesus politics through the lenses of radical anabaptist thought. And Yoder actually was, I believe, one of Stanley Hower was professors, at least a friend of his, when Hower was a student. And so Yoder had enormous influence in academia and enormous influence in seeing Jesus not as a sort of figure of empire, but as a countercultural figure questioning empire and helping us to understand that that political framework of the New Testament in ways probably nobody else did in the 20th century. Well, I don't know what year it was. It was about 1990, maybe 1985. Someplace right in there, people started telling these stories about him. At first, it was just a rumor or two about women who said that they had been sexually abused by him when he was their professor. And as it sort of all tumbled out, there were more than 50 credible accusations against Yoder and the school where he taught. It's a whole different day and age. The school that he had taught at literally had covered them all up because Yoder's international sort of profile as an anabaptist theologian was so significant that they felt they couldn't let this horrible sort of character defining stuff get into public. And so they kept silencing the women by whatever means they could. Well, eventually there were just too many, and it all broke loose. And when it did, he was brought up for all kinds of university trial and denominational, and so much of it was all true, and it was just terrible. And this was a case where a person had literally made his career talking about how the whole life and message of Jesus is about peacemaking and nonviolence and equality between people. And yet the theologian who had written all of that was conducting these this this sexual violence in his own intimate sphere. Now, to me, I'm sorry, that's the Robert Eli moment, I mean, that is so unacceptable, where what the person was it was an exact contradiction. Of everything that he taught, on one hand, to be true, and he was yet doing it in his own life, but because he was doing it to women, it didn't count somehow in his moral universe until it did. And so that disjunction is so extraordinary that as a young professor, I took his book out of class. I was not going to expose my students to that. I found a different book, substitute book, and I still have somewhere in this office over there, I think, politics of Jesus on my shelf. I go back and I look at it occasionally. It's a brilliant book and I would never, never use it with students. And I'm not the only person to make that decision. Pretty much everyone I know who teaches theology would never put yoder anywhere on a syllabus. And so that's one of those things that's really clear cut. Then you ask yourself, are there other cases of that? And we have a recent one. We have the Jean Veneer situation with La Arch community, whereas, again, it's a person who is fighting for the rights of disabled peoples, and yet, on the other hand, he is abusing people. And so are you actually an activist for those who have disabilities or are you inflicting harm on people who have little power? And again, that's one of those things that is just so there's so much dissonance that I think that a lot of people who had lobbed of Veneer and his work are saying no. And that's the clear line when the dissonance is extraordinary between the message and the the sinful mistakes. And clearly in both of these cases, these were things that these men were trying to hide because they knew they knew that these two things did not line up. So that's where you definitely say, I'm sorry, there are things here and there that I can maybe still learn from this person in private. I still keep the book. Of Yoders. I still have some sayings of Veneers and different books of mine around my office and sort of prayers and spirituality, but these things are not things I'm going to use in public ever again. There are lots less clear examples of that. And I think that's where the church needs to try to figure out what is the level of dissonance between what someone taught and even what they might have done for good. Like setting up a community, entire community, where people with disabilities actually had genuine leadership and voice and were treated as beloved members of society. That's incredibly good work, but the dissonance was enormous on the other side of that ledger. But that's what you have to do in every one of these bass. What is the good and is the sinful part so egregious that it creates a level of spiritual energy that is just utterly negative and it doesn't function in any meaningful way as a moral lesson or a witness to grace and justice.
Ryan Dunn [00:44:32]:
That's really helpful. I'm going to ask you one last question. It's a little off topic, but I see bringing Jesus behind you there and it's been a year since your last book. So what are you working on now?
Diana Butler Bass [00:44:45]:
Oh, my goodness. Well, this is actually what I'm working on right now. Yeah, I got very interested in this whole question of iconoclasm because it's a church history question. You start getting iconoclasm early in the early centuries of Christianity where people are saying, oh, no, that's idolatry. We have to take down these images. I've got fascinated because of living here in Virginia and not only Monument Avenue, but here in Alexandria where I live. We had for more than a century this statue that sat right in the middle of one of the main streets in Alexandria. And when we moved here, I guess it was 23 years ago now, I remember driving by it the first time and I looked at it and I said to my husband, what is that? A statue of a dejected confederate. And that's what I always called the statue, the Dejected Confederate because he stood there, huge statue in the middle of the street with his arms crossed over his chest, looking down. He had a very sad look on his face and he had his back turned to Washington, DC. And so he was looking southward and you could literally stand in front of the statue and see behind him the Washington Monument. So it was just like such a point you couldn't even imagine. There was no ambiguity about this statue. It was controversial. And he got taken down two years ago in the middle of the Pandemic and he actually didn't get taken down by the city of Alexandria. They were trying to take him down, but the Daughters of the Confederacy got there first and they snuck in and they took him down in the middle of the night and they put him in some undisclosed location.
Ryan Dunn [00:46:53]:
Nobody knows where to this day.
Diana Butler Bass [00:46:57]:
No, he's somebody's backyard who knows where he is. And so I just really am compelled by these images because the next question is, what do we put up? Because human beings, we don't leave pedestals empty very long. And this is one of those moments. Every time there's an iconoclastic moment, there's also the alternative movement, and that is the searching out for new heroes and saints. And so I would like to think that we were in a time where we might be able to find some better ones.
Ryan Dunn [00:47:44]:
Diana Butler Bass [00:47:48]:
So that's what I'm trying to help people sort through thinking about history, I think, with that more layered approach, not in an attempt to slow down the process of doing justice. Sometimes arcs the arc of justice moves forward in different ways. Sometimes it moves forward by tearing the statue down in these big leaps. And other times it does take the work of a reflective person or persons making just determined forward strides. And so maybe it's not just always about crashing the statues to the street, but it's also about taking that finer tool to history and saying, how can we tell these stories better with more depth that invite us into a better moral future? That's what I'm trying to do. And technically, right now, or tentatively, I guess that's a better word, the projects refer to as empty altars. And it's about searching out a new spiritual landscape in America. It's really fun. I've been going to all these great places and looking at monuments and museums and public artwork and empty pedestals on statues and hearing people fight. I was just in Birmingham, Alabama, a few weeks ago and went down to Montgomery to the Lynching Memorial, which was amazing. And also I spoke in a church that was in the 1960s, the center of the White Citizens Council. And there were people who were in that church whose ancestors, usually their parents, in some cases their grandparents, were deeply involved in racist opposition to the civil rights movement. And the congregation is in a very different place now. And I talked about this subject, about conflicted, family histories and the removal of monuments, and there was a lot of discomfort, but there was also a lot of deep appreciation. And so I think that we live in a time when people who have a lot of, I think, well meaning moral people understand the problems with some of those heroes of the past, and I think would like to make good, wiser decisions about how to share history with their communities and their children and grandchildren going forward. And there's some of it we just let go of, and then there's some of it we put new frames around. And there's some of it we're going to have to discover for the first time.
Ryan Dunn [00:51:06]:
Well, thank you for the work you're doing, and thank you for being so generous with your time.
Diana Butler Bass [00:51:11]:
I really appreciate it. Thank you for asking these great questions. Ryan, these are important questions.
Ryan Dunn [00:51:17]:
Thank you for sharing.
Ryan Dunn [00:51:21]:
Tough questions handled with a lot of grace and thought. Thanks to Diana butler Bass. The Compass Podcast is brought to you by United Methodist Communications. If Compass is meaningful for you, then check out another episode. Episode 108 with John Blake is a fantastic episode with some great stories and more thoughtful responses. Odds to difficult questions. We also addressed some really similar questions in episode 91 with Brian McLaren. While you're listening, hey again. Leave a rating and or a review and we'll be back with a new episode in two weeks. So we'll chat at you then. Peace.