Of Ax Handles and Olive Branches

In Springfield Park in Jacksonville, there is a statue.

Known as a “Monument to the Women of the Confederacy,” it depicts a white woman and her two children. Like many confederate memorials erected in the post-Reconstruction era, like many schools named for confederate generals in the Jim Crow era, sculptor Allen G. Newman’s Springfield remnant asserts white supremacy.

It’s a piece of art that lends cover to white atrocities—murders of Black men without penalty of law. Click here to read how our public art embodies an ugly rationalization for lynchings.

It’s informative to examine Newman’s earlier work, an ostensible homage to post-Civil War peace and reconciliation. “The Triumph of Peace” remains standing in Atlanta despite its glorification of our nation’s enemy, the confederacy. A large and powerful angel towers over a weary soldier. The angel delivers the news of peace.

“War is over.”

But is it?

The Triumph of Peace, by Allen George Newman

Notice, if you will, the soldier has not quite laid down his arms. Notice the angel holding high the olive branch. It has still not been relayed.

The olive branch is a biblical symbol. The dove bearing the leafy branch was Noah’s signal it was safe to anchor the ark, and safe to disembark all he had curated. Olive wood is soft, too soft to be carved into weaponry.

Too soft, for example, to be fashioned into an ax handle.

To “extend the olive branch” has become a figure of speech for peacemaking. In Newman’s statue, the news of peace comes from God’s messenger.

Interestingly, I don’t recall the idiom’s corollary. We don’t often speak of “receiving the olive branch.”

Perhaps the angel wielding the leafy branch, as if God handed it down, makes for more interesting art than a soldier who has accepted it. How can ever he receive it, though, if both hands are still bearing his weapon?

The book of Isaiah gives us a salient image of peacemaking: “[T]hey shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.”

But how do we uncast our nation’s bronze glorifications of racism? How do we un-harden our anger-forged souls?  How do we begin to trade instruments of destruction for leafy green branches?

It starts with new art.

Instead of glitzy, riverfront advertisements subject to being misread, why not create a clear and complete homage to peace? Why not open the invitation to Jacksonville artists, who understand the healing this place can yet provide?

Trading ax handles for olive branches begins with the symbols we now choose to create.

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