The Rev. Isaac Collins leads a group gathered at the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Va. Photo courtesy of Phil Woodson

In Virginia, Charlottesville’s Confederate monuments played many roles in recent years: the epicenter of a legal and cultural battle over what should count as cherished history, the rallying spot for murderous white supremacists, the touchstone of a painful national reckoning with America’s slave-owning past.

Now, they’re fodder for a Bible study.

Two Methodist pastors selected the monuments as the sites and subjects of their ongoing class, “Swords into Plowshares: What the Bible says about injustice, idolatry, and repentance.” Over the past month, the pastors – the Rev. Isaac Collins of Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church and the Rev. Phil Woodson of First United Methodist Church, both located in Charlottesville – have led weekly seminars that reinterpret the statues as idols meant to prop up the false religion of white supremacy.

“If you read the installation ceremonies, when they were put up, God is regularly invoked, there’s religious vocabulary used about them, they’re supposed to instill awe or reverence,” Collins explained in an interview. “So we’re specifically trying to take the Bible’s language around idolatry and make the case that these statues are idols to white supremacy.”

The two pastors pair each statue with a quotation from Scripture before gathering students beneath the monument and leading an hourlong class that includes equal doses of theology and history. The seminars are free – both pastors are teaching without pay – and open to all.

A recent lecture revolved around the statue of Confederate general Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. Collins and Woodson handed attendees a pamphlet that outlined the statue’s path to installation and quoted Exodus 32, a famous passage that details God’s anger over the Israelites’ decision to worship a golden calf.

“Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Go down, because your people … have become corrupt,'” the text reads in part. “They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of the calf.”

Collins said the decision to analyze this passage in conjunction with the Jackson statue was “an absolute no-brainer”: The monument is easily seen as an idol akin to the calf. Jordan Leahy, a Charlottesville resident who has attended all but one of the classes, said he’d never thought of the monuments in religious terms before – but that he finds the pastors’ arguments convincing.

“You come to a very concrete realization that, if you take a Christian angle on it, they are certainly idolatrous,” Leahy said. “They have no artistic value or public beauty. … These statues, when you study it, it’s clear they cannot be a part of our faith or our town.”

Some in Charlottesville disagree. The city is facing an ongoing, heated legal fight over its plans to remove the Lee and Jackson statues. On Wednesday, a judge dealt a blow to the anti-monument camp when he ruled the statues do not send a discriminatory message.

Collins said his and Woodson’s Bible study, which will hold its last meeting this weekend, follows the Methodist tradition of “going out into public spaces to practice faith in a contextual way.” He pointed to John Wesley, one of the founders of the Methodist movement, who often preached outside – most famously, near coal mines – in a bid to reach people where they were.

Historians of religion agreed that the seminar, which they said is likely the first to argue Confederate symbols are religious idols, is uniquely Methodist in its outdoors setting. Christopher Evans, a professor of the history of Christianity at Boston University, said the study also recalls a long-standing Methodist habit of exploring theology through contemporary issues (for example, Wesley once set hymns to the tune of pub songs).

But it also breaks with more conservative strains of U.S. Methodism and could spur some backlash from the faithful, Evans said. The United Methodist Church, though it has adopted anti-slavery and anti-racism views, has yet to take any kind of formal stance on Confederate monuments, according to Kurt Adams, communications director for the General Board of Church and Society, the church’s public policy and advocacy arm.

Ted Campbell, a professor of church history at Southern Methodist University, said he suspects “a lot of Methodists,” especially those in the Southern part of the country, believe it is acceptable – perhaps even necessary – to honor Confederate leaders.

“What these pastors are doing is very brave in that sense,” Evans said. “It’s a very, very sensitive issue – and it’s not like they’re in the north, looking at this from afar, they’re within a Southern church and community.”

Still, Collins and Woodson said, they’ve drawn no protesters during the five classes they’ve held to date. At worst, the pastors received a few negative emails and comments on Facebook – stuff that’s “easy to ignore,” Collins said.

Collins and Woodson came up with the idea for the seminar during informal conversations the two (who’ve been good friends for several years) began having early this summer. Both pastors believe the Confederate statues should be removed, and they saw their Bible study as a way to spread that belief – backed up by Bible-based reasoning – among the residents of Charlottesville.

“It is my hope that the people who regularly attended … gained a better understanding of why these statues are in direct conflict with the will and desire of God and why God’s people are called to remove them completely,” Woodson said.

The seminars, which took place at 7 a.m. on Sundays, kicked off in early August, a debut timed to coincide with the anniversary of the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally that left one woman dead and dozens injured, according to Collins.

Classes typically drew about three dozen participants, including some of the two men’s congregants. But attendees also included people of all ages, races and religious denominations, as well as non-religious people, Collins said. University of Virginia professors and local politicians showed up, he added – and, once or twice, passing joggers stopped their exercise to join in.

That was exactly what Collins and Woodson hoped would happen: They wanted to make the seminar accessible to a wide range of people, not just their congregants and not just Methodists. The two pastors tried “to keep it as ecumenical and interfaith as possible,” Collins said. They spread the word about the series through their churches, through social media and through word of mouth.

Each class proceeded the same way: First, Collins and Woodson distributed pamphlets. Then, the two took turns speaking for about half an hour, lecturing on the history of the monument and its ties to the week’s chosen Bible passage.

After that, students broke into small groups to discuss what they’d heard and read, chatting together for about 10 minutes. Everyone reconvened to reflect on their findings, sharing discoveries for about 15 minutes before the pastors led everyone in song and the group broke up.

As they approach the final weekend, both Collins and Woodson said they feel the program has been a huge success and that they’d like to do it again, perhaps this coming spring. In the meantime, Collins is optimistic that others may follow in their footsteps.

“There are not enough spaces where these kinds of discussions can be held in an honest way,” he said. “Hopefully this will inspire other people to think more deeply about what role these statues play in our community.”

Sally Hudson, a University of Virginia professor who lives in Charlottesville and worships at Woodson’s church and attended most of the classes, said the study demonstrated the very best “spirit of Methodist Christianity.” For Hudson, who grew up in a tradition of “faith-based organizing,” the seminar underscored the role that communities of faith must play in working to achieve racial justice, she said.

But what will stick with her most powerfully, Hudson said, is a United Methodist hymnal that Collins, Woodson and attendees chanted together at the end of every class. Hudson pulled up the text on her phone and read it aloud:

Let me not be afraid to defend the weak because of the anger of the strong

Nor afraid to defend the poor because of the anger of the rich.

“And to do it in the presence of these statues – staring up at them, feeling the full weight,” she said. “If there ever were a prophetic call for our time, that’s it.”

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