I had an a uncle whom I affectionately called “Uncle R.E.”. Only later did I find out that the “R” stood for Robert. His last name was Lee.
Yep. My uncle’s name was Robert E. Lee.
I’m not sure that my Uncle R.E. would have had an opinion about taking down General Lee’s statue. He seemed as indifferent about the significance of his name as the statue itself. Everyone else, though, seems to have intense feelings on the subject. The recent events of Charlottesville, Virginia, are enough to prove that.
One would think that we were still at war, based on what we saw on TV last week. In a way, I guess we are. Everyone is reading between the lines. No one has much tolerance for nuanced thoughts or opinions. The only question seems to be, “Whose side are you on?”
Regardless, we are not at war, and I do want to give some nuanced thoughts about taking down the statue of Robert E Lee. I want to talk about racism, identity, and a helpful solution.
First, the events in Charlottesville were atrocious. No level-headed southerner would argue otherwise. In no way does Charlottesville reflect the heart and soul of the South. It only reflects the heart and soul of people, drunk on their own delusions about their god, their country, and their skin color. Sadly, these pockets of people will exist as long as Jesus tarries.
They have already been given too much consideration. Let’s not give them any more.
Second, racism in the South is real, but it is dying. It may be a slow, horrible death, but it is dying. I know, because I live here. I see firsthand the interracial churches and the non-profits, dedicated to this very cause. I know businesses that could care less about what color you are, so long as you can do the work. I have worked with organizations who understand that poverty, substance abuse, hunger, and broken homes are a problem irrespective of skin color.
The news media only reports the bad stuff because that is the only thing that benefits them. Hollywood makes movies on the bad stuff because it benefits them. And when racism is all but dead and gone in the South, I believe that these entities will try to keep it on life support. Racism sells. Unity and peace, not so much.
Regardless, racism is dying, and, like many here, I wish that it were dead.
The taking down of a statue like Robert E. Lee brings a Southern dilemma to the foreground. It’s not just about racism, it’s about identity. Take racism out of the picture, and you still have the dilemma of identity on both sides.
Robert E. Lee is a hero to most white southerners, but not because he defended slavery. Robert E. Lee is a hero because he inherited an intensely complicated situation, and his actions exemplify the finest traits of a southern white man. He was a Christian; He was a patriot; He defended his family; And he was a man of honor (not to mention a brilliant military strategist).
When the Union army asked him to defend Washington, his reply was classic to the man and to the times…
“Mr. Blair, I look upon secession as anarchy. If I owned the four millions of slaves in the South I would sacrifice them all to the Union; but how can I draw my sword upon Virginia, my native state?” 1
Robert E. Lee wanted neither the war nor to be immortalized in stone, but now that both has happened, he stands as a way for southern white people to remember and honor an honorable man. Like it or not we identify with him, and we always will.
There may be a context where we would desire to take his statue down and honor him another way, but not today’s context. The way the statue is being removed today, it feels more like shaming than progress to a white southerner. Somehow, the sentiment has become that we should be ashamed of a man who fought for such a lost and immoral cause. If we are not, then we are racists.
Ironically, we hear this racist nonsense more from white people who don’t even live in the South than we do from the black people who do, and we get emotional because, as the statue gets hauled into some basement or museum, we feel like that is where the watching world wants us.
On the other hand…
Black southerners have a heritage too – an inconceivable one. Symbols like Robert E. Lee’s statue remind them of a time when they were sold alongside of four shovels and a good plow horse. The atrocities of slavery reach across generations to present day – not only in how black people are seen and valued in our society, but in how black people see and value themselves.
I can’t imagine what being in the “Union” has been like for them since their emancipation. They went from being slaves to being second or third class citizens, both in the North and South. And, say what we will, the playing field is still not level for them today. It’s an American problem, not just a southern one.
I call my fellow black southerners my brothers and sisters. If they are in Christ, they really are my brothers and sisters. Faith, to me, is thicker than blood or soil. We are different, no doubt, but we are equal. I have no desire to hold up anything to them that would make them feel or think otherwise. This is their South too, this is their United States too, and their best days are still ahead.
Hence, the dilemma.
A helpful solution
As I have said, there are white people and black people in the South working together on this problem. They aren’t mobilizing and petitioning to dislodge statues. They aren’t organizing an oxymoron like a “peaceful protest”. They aren’t talking with their representatives.
They are talking with one another.
I had my eyes opened to this about eighteen years ago when I visited an interracial church in Jackson, MS. There was no forced integration, no black Jesus, no white Jesus, no statues, no media coverage. There were just people who were learning to honor their history, yet define themselves by something bigger than their history.
One of their black leaders was asked once how a predominantly black congregation felt about accepting white families into their number (That question alone was once unheard of).
The man said something that I will never forget. He said that the real fear among the black people of the congregation was (surprise) their loss of identity. They were afraid that they would lose part of their own culture in accommodating white people. “Our cultures are different. Our tastes in food, music, art, literature, worship style, and family interaction are different. The stuff that makes us who we are is different.” they would say.
They were thinking about what they would have to give up, but what the leadership in that church was challenging the congregation to do was to ask a different question.
The leadership was giving that church a vision of what could be gained and letting them decide in their own time what should be given up to achieve that vision.
One of the visions of that church is that Christ would be glorified by the healing of two different and warring peoples through the gospel, repentance, and cross-bearing love. They were looking to God to hear from heaven, to forgive their sin of biting and devouring one another, and to heal their land – one member at a time, one family at a time, one congregation at a time, one community at a time.
They didn’t start with monuments and courthouse steps. They started with mourning and entering the house of God. They started with desiring to remove hatred and resentment in their own hearts while holding on to their own identity. They started looking past the differences while working and waiting for change.
Sure, they have had their problems. I suspect that they still do. Two hundred fifty years of what has been going on won’t go away easily. But one day at a time, it is happening. They are beginning to believe that together, they can be something better than they were when they were apart.
Our nation won’t heal from our past by hiding monuments or making protests. Racism won’t be healed until a greater vision of what we can be together is grasped.
If I knew that taking Robert E. Lee’s statue down would heal this land of racism, I would do it myself. Robert E. Lee would want me to. The truth is, it won’t. Our land won’t heal until the stone in our own heart is removed. Then, we will stop being slaves to our own hate and fear.
When that happens, racism will die – statue or no statue.
Let me hear what you think in the comments below. Keep it reflective, helpful, or encouraging. Otherwise, it won’t get posted.
Thanks for your time,
1 This quote is found in several publications, but I can’t find the original source. If you know what the source is, let me know.