In case you didn’t think the antics of the woke name police could get any more absurd, on August 31, the “D.C. Facilities and Commemorative Expressions Working Group” released a report urging the District of Columbia to rename, remove, or “contextualize” various municipal public properties named after various historical persons. Included in the list are presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Zachary Taylor, and Woodrow Wilson; Founding Father Benjamin Franklin; national anthem author Francis Scott Key; and inventor Alexander Graham Bell, among others. The sins of these men, the committee tells us, are manifold, encompassing slavery, racism, and eugenics.
Cue city leadership’s hand-wringing on perceiving that perhaps such recommendations—two months before a presidential election—might not generate the best optics. Especially given the rising chorus on the Left that the city supposedly deserves the right to statehood and an end to “taxation without representation,” a popular city slogan. Imagine a state that hates its namesake! “It would be absurd to try and diminish the very historic contributions of men who were truly great men. Great men can have flaws,” said Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), D.C.’s non-voting delegate to Congress. Mayor Muriel Bowser promptly narrowed the scope of the city panel’s recommendations to exclude federal buildings, including those honoring Founding Fathers.
Even with half-hearted backpedaling aimed at trying to blunt accusations that the Left is beholden to radicalist ideologues who want to tar America and its history as essentially evil, the D.C. committee’s recommendations reinforce the growing perception among Americans regarding the true scope of these historical revisionist efforts. Inspired by the 1619 Project (whose historically erroneous claims are dismissively downplayed or ignored), woke ideologues are driven by an irrational, self-defeating desire to tear down anything in American public memorialization that is associated with slavery or racism, no matter how tangentially.
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It doesn’t matter if these historical persons founded our nation, led her through her early and harrowing trials, or wrote her national anthem. Bring those bigots down. Their crimes against humanity, we’re told, are too evil for their reputations to be preserved. They were motivated not by patriotism, courage, or love of man, but by self-interest, vainglory, and malice (1619 Project founder Nikole Hannah-Jones claims the colonists sought freedom from Great Britain in order to protect the institution of slavery). We, the righteous of 2020, would never commit such atrocities, and thus we cannot countenance them. We will find other heroes to place on the pedestals of our public squares, other civic saints whose names are worthy of our schools and parks.
The logical error here is presentism, or what C. S. Lewis memorably called “chronological snobbery,” meaning an irrational inclination to label the present historical moment one inhabits, simply by virtue of it being now, as superior to all previous generations and historical periods. But long before Lewis gave it a clever name, Jesus identified this socio-cultural phenomenon and its hypocrisy. We read of it in His “Woes of the Pharisees” discourse (Matthew 23:27–36):
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites.
You build the tombs of the prophets
and adorn the memorials of the righteous,
and you say, “If we had lived in the days of our ancestors,
we would not have joined them in shedding the prophets’ blood.”
Thus you bear witness against yourselves
that you are the children of those who murdered the prophets;
now fill up what your ancestors measured out!
You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?
Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes,
some of whom you will kill and crucify,
and some you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from town to town,
that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth,
from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechari′ah the son of Barachi′ah,
whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar.
Truly, I say to you, all this will come upon this generation.
The Jewish religious elite of Jesus’s day were experts at virtue signaling with their ostentatious displays of righteousness, including honoring the martyred Jewish prophets. Isaiah, according to tradition, was sawn in two. Amos was murdered by the evil priest Amaziah. Zechariah was stoned to death “in the court of the house of the Lord” (2 Chronicles 24:21). All were killed by the Jews for their condemnatory messages against Israel and its many blasphemies and injustices. The scribes and Pharisees declared that they would never commit such awful things.
Jesus indicts them for two different hypocrisies. The first is that the Jewish religious elite acknowledge that they themselves are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets—they are of the same blood, and inherit the same sin as those wicked men of days past. Their very own forefathers killed these men. How can they possibly claim to be different? The second is prophetic: they who self-righteously seek to absolve themselves of guilt will soon willingly participate in the brutal murder of the greatest prophet of Israel, Jesus Himself. And so they do.
Christianity presents an entirely different paradigm for understanding the sins of those who came before us. Rather than arrogantly assert our righteousness, we are called to acknowledge our personal moral failings. “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst,” writes Saint Paul (1 Timothy 1:15). We all in our sin, to our shame, crucified Christ. To think we would do otherwise is pure pride.
By extension, this leads us to consider our past with humility and honesty. If raised in a culture that condoned racism or slavery, how likely is it that we would have bucked the trend? Moreover, if we so hubristically stand in judgment over our forefathers, what message are we communicating to our own descendants? We are sowing the seeds of our own future defacement and dishonor. The mob is fickle, and we deceive ourselves to think it will not one day come for us.
Christ’s condemnation of those guilty of chronological snobbery is sobering for another reason. For if those presentists in our current zeitgeist are today’s Pharisees, they too will aim their sights on those who expose their hypocrisy. As Catholics, we must pray for those who hate Our Lord, our Church, and its history, and for ourselves, so that when the mob turns its rage on us, we will have the courage to remain steadfast, yet merciful. We must remain capable of asking God, as did Our Lord and Savior, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
[Image: The Pharisees Question Jesus by James Tissot]