A few weeks ago, as we as a nation were dealing from the fallout of Charlottesville, I wrote an article on Medium about the Civil War, confederate statues and grace. Here is an excerpt with a link to the Medium article.
Twenty years ago during a family reunion in Central Louisiana, my cousin shared the geneology work he had been doing on our family. It was fascinating looking at what had been a years long project. Through records, he was able to show this history of the Sanders family from probably not long after we came to America in chains to the present. You could see how the family moved from South Carolina to Alabama and Mississippi and finally settling in Louisiana. It was fascinating because that movement was one that took place when my ancestors were slaves. We even found a name for one of the slaveholders, a gentleman who was originally from Northern Ireland. Know I descended from slaves is one thing, but seeing there in yellowed papers is quite another.
When I was a kid, one of my most favorite televisions shows that wasn’t a cartoon was a the Dukes of Hazzard. Growing up in Michigan where my parents were autoworkers, I had to love a show about cars. Friday nights were special as I would sit and see Bo and Luke Duke try to outrun the inept and corrupt Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane and the head of Hazzard County, Boss Jefferson David Hogg. But of course, the star of the show was the General Lee, a 1969 Dodge Charger painted in blazing orange with the Confederate Flag on the roof. The horn played Dixie when it was pressed.
I share these two stories, because they are a part of me, and yet they seem so diametrically opposed to each other. Here I am, the descendant of slaves watching a TV show in the late 1970s, that could be seen as a celebration of the Confederacy. I am a walking contradiction.
In the wake of last week’s ghastly gathering of white supremacists in Charlottesville, which resulted in the death of one counter protester and when we finally saw our president become the cheerleader for white nationalism, there is a frantic push to get rid of any statue or plaque that might look kindly on the old Confederacy.
Mentally, I think this is a good thing. A lot of the monuments that went up around the South were placed there decades after the Civil War in order to assert who was in charge to African Americans. They are paeans to a movement that sought to break the United States apart. It could be seen as rewarding people who are nothing more than traitors.
And yet in my gut, I feel that something is off. I wonder if we are moving too fast, too quick to try to brush away the bad in our history. I wonder what affect it will have on understanding the Civil War. I wonder if all of this purging will stop with the Confederacy or will it move on to other figures in American history who owned slaves. I worry this is being done out of fear and anger and maybe a bit of punishment than it is to write past wrongs. As a Christian, I wonder if we are leaning too much on judgement and not on grace.
I wanted to write more specifically about race relations after the horror of Charlottesville, but I feel the need to address this issue and more importantly how we as Christians should deal with it. I’ve hesitated talking about it, because it’s such a fraught issue and when it comes to dealing with controversial issues, I am a bit of a coward. I really, really don’t want people yelling at me. But I am more and more bothered with how this issue is being addressed especially by those who are in favor or removing the statues. The issues that are brought to the fore, race relations, the uses of history and even how we deal with past enemies are things that must be dealt with carefully and in a spirit of love and reconciliation. But what I am witnessing in the aftermath of Charlottesville is more about settling scores than it is about doing justice, about right thinking than it is about reconcilation.
As a rule, I’ve come to the conclusion that Confederate statues should be removed or at the very least recontexualized. I do understand that many of the statues revering Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson were not put up in the immediate years following the war, but sometimes decades following the conflict, in the early 20th century and later in the civil rights era of the 50s and 60s. I also understand why they were put up: in most cases to send a message to African Americans about who was in charge here. So I get that the statues are not placed with noble intent.
But I worry how we are going about removing statues. In some cases, it is being done in a rush with no thought other than wanting to get rid of anything that reminds people of the Confederacy. But how we remove some past vestiges is also a matter of grace. How do we extend love in this situation? How do we show ourselves as following a better way?
Yes. Agreed that some statues belong in a museum so they can be put in contest, and that just removing them is not going to fix racism.
I’ve been thinking a great deal about Nazi Germany. I’m of German ancestry, though my family came over in the 19C, but have distant relatives who fought for Germany in WWII. Although the far-right is regaining a voice there, and trying to exonerate German guilt over the Holocaust and the war in general, maybe that country’s way of dealing with shame is the way for American whites to go.