Month: August 2017

How Lee and Washington Are Different: A Response to Trump’s Comments

“This week, it is Robert E. Lee,” President Trump said in a statement today about the statue in Charlottesville that led to protests there. “Is it George Washington next? You have to ask yourself, where does it stop? George Washington was a slave owner. How about Thomas Jefferson? What do you think of Thomas Jefferson? You like him? OK good. Are we going to take down his statue? Because he was a major slave owner….You’re changing history.”

So, let’s think through the points Trump raised. I’m going to ask some questions and offer some thoughts on them, but remember, I’m not an expert. I’m an average Christian young woman who likes to promote gracious conversations on difficult topics. So let’s have at it, because I’m convinced that yelling and being angry won’t actually change anything, but engaging with ideas in a thoughtful way can and has.

Part One: What Are Statues For?

Most of the conversation about Charlottesville have focused on the violence and the hate groups, and rightly so. But a friend from college asked what I thought about the issue itself, stripped of everything that happened afterward: should Lee’s statue have been removed?

I listed Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee as my two favorite historical figures in eighth grade, mainly because even then I liked complexity. (Also possibly because I liked making people raise their eyebrows in surprise. It’s a problem.) Those two figures, the sides they represent, the conflict that follows…all very complex.

But, the thing is: statues are not complex. Statues say, “We celebrate this person and their actions.” They don’t have context, and they can’t convey nuance in a helpful dialogue. All they do is represent our values in metal and stone. That’s what we understand them to be as a culture.

I understand why people decided to remove Lee’s statue: because he gave marching orders to a group that would rather leave the Union than be told they had to free their slaves.

I see you there, Civil War buffs—yes, there are many things to consider, like economics and states’ rights and lots of fine print about motive and who shot first, but Lee and the Confederate flag are now indelibly associated with what they fought for and against, and I think that’s fair.

Part Two: Are We Changing History? If So, Is That Bad?

Trump and many others say that removing Lee’s statue is a denial of history, peer pressure by the left to be politically correct. Okay. I get that. Maybe that’s part of what’s going on, and it’s fine to dislike a culture that is easily offended.

But I think there’s a double-standard at play. Think about this: who have we decided, in America, is worthy of honor? Whose faces are on our currency, in our textbooks, mounted on plaques and busts and statues around our country?

A lot of white slaveholders…and very few men and women of color. We didn’t have to take down their statues to change history, because we never put them up.

I know that I’m now living in a time where this is the open-minded and “cool” opinion to have. If you’re skeptical, I get that. Just hear me out.

History is not objective. Never has been. We create it by what we put in, what we leave out, and the language we use, like a cinematographer creating mood and meaning through the light and angle of film shots. History changes, and when it does, that doesn’t mean it’s a shift from something inherently true to something false. It’s usually just that a different system, bias, or value is arranging and presenting the facts.

We’ve changed a lot of history, and things like Black History Month are a marginalized group trying to write important figures and events back in. In removing Lee’s statue, people are trying to stop the glorification of the Confederacy and what it was like, just like protests against Columbus Day are meant to challenge whether we should see ol’ Christopher as an explorer or exploiter. No matter what side you take, this is the natural process of recording history. You have to make value judgments along the way.

Here’s where I disagree with Trump that Washington could be next. I’m not suggesting we take Washington off the quarter, partly because his public achievements deserve celebration…and partly because we still associate him with those things and not the slaves he kept. To most of us, Washington means freedom and revolution and the Constitution. I think it’s important to note in books and classes that his rhetoric didn’t line up with his actions, but to us, Washington still stands for the ideals of justice and equality.

In contrast, Lee had solid personal character, but his public actions, the ones he’s most known for, aren’t worth celebrating, and he is deeply associated with oppression and evil.

In a simplistic way, Trump’s off-hand question, “What do you think of Thomas Jefferson?” is actually relevant to whether or not we should use Jefferson as a symbol of our country. When it comes to memorials and other symbols, perception matters. If it’s not the only thing, it’s the main thing—what most people think of when they see a symbol determines its meaning.* That’s why the cross no longer means “an instrument of Roman torture” but “a symbol of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ” for example.

Part Three: Who Decides to Take Down Statues?

If representatives of a city or state decide, by listening to their constituents, that they want to make a value statement by replacing Lee Park with Emancipation Park, then that’s the exercise of democracy. If another group wants to peacefully protest, that’s also democracy. What actually happened at the protest was not democracy—it was hate and lawlessness. Mobs yanking down or demolishing Confederate monuments and statues are also examples of lawlessness. Both are examples of the occasional price sinful people demand from America for allowing freedom of expression and assembly.

But beyond the technical, tricky questions: “Emancipation.” That’s what the park in Charlottesville is now called. I don’t care what party you claim or who you voted for…isn’t that beautiful? That what we choose to celebrate is a moment of turning from evil and toward justice and freedom?

It was a long turning. Actually, it’s not over yet. Which is why what we celebrate and memorialize matters so much. That’s what will take the next generation from where we’ve been to where we’re going.

I love General Lee. His story is beautiful to me because it is hard, and I will memorialize him with my words, here and other places, because he was a good man facing an impossible choice, and because I can’t say with certainty what I would have done in his place.

But he chose the wrong side. No, the Civil War and its causes were not simple, and most of the North was just as racist as their brothers to the south. Still, when we evaluate the relative good or bad of large groups, we have to make a judgment somewhere. Based on my reading through the prophets and the way God judges the nations, including his own chosen people, I think the degree that they move toward justice and righteousness seems like a good criteria, and by defending the institution of slavery, the Confederacy did not do that.

Our actions have consequences. Lee, deciding whether to accept command of the Confederate army when he felt slavery was “a moral and political evil” and secession “anarchy,” understood that—felt that—more than most of us ever will. History’s judgment of Lee will go in and out, up and down, imperfectly deciding what to say about him. We’re trying to create meaning, trying to aim our country in the right direction, trying to say true things to our children.

Maybe Charlottesville got it wrong, but I don’t think so.

In the end, it’s not possible to separate the removal of Lee’s statue from the KKK and violence that followed. Academically, they’re two separate questions. Racism and hatred are pure evil and should always be denounced and decried, whereas I could make a case either way for whether Lee should continue to preside over a park named after him.

But they’re not entirely separate in practice. Symbols have deep emotional meaning and often lead to actions.

Simple things often get accused of being oversimplification, but I’m going to risk it here.

When asked what you think about the public display of symbols of the Confederacy, think about this: what do you want to celebrate?

 

*Stuffy Sociological Footnote for the Dedicated Reader: Another example: people were furious when an image floated around the Internet showing a can with “Share a Coke with ISIS.” Turns out, that can was available in Egypt the year before the terrorist group became well known, where Isis is a common female name. In Egypt, Isis meant one thing. In America, ISIS meant another. It takes time and distance for us to get rid of those associations. If America lasts another few centuries, maybe then racism will be disassociated from Lee. Maybe. But I don’t think so, because the association has nowhere else to go. We are drawn towards symbols and representative figureheads as a society, whether it’s team logos and mascots or the flag and the president. Slavery was such a defining event that it has to be symbolized somehow. The Confederate flag and leaders have absorbed that association, just like the swastika and Hitler absorbed theirs. It’s arguable that Hitler deserved it more, but the effect is still the same.

How Do We Respond to Radical Extremism?

NazisShort answer: without surprise, and with the courage to ask hard questions and act on the answers.

Long answer: Friends, if you’ve been shocked by news and images of violence today, now is the time to pray and mourn. It’s also time to think hard about your assumptions about what what your fellow human beings are capable of…and how doing nothing or very little about it might shape our country.

“It’s a terrible mess,” you might say, “but it’s just some crazy extremists throwing out Nazi salutes and racial slurs. An isolated incident.”

Maybe. But I’m afraid of what happens next if you’re wrong. Let me explain by talking through the books I finished this week.

In the conclusion of my nonfiction read, The Boys in the Boat, the author sets up the decent, loyal, hardworking Americans who believed in freedom and dignity for all in contrast with the Nazi regime. And while I loved the underdog sports story and beauty of the language, that idea fell flat to me.

Why? Because the fiction book I’m reading at the same time is All the Light We Cannot See, which shows the courage it takes for a decent, loyal, hardworking person to stand up to a corrupting evil that starts subtly and becomes your whole life. In that book, you feel the passion of those who were told that to gain glory and wealth and the awe of the nations—all they ever wanted for themselves and their country—all they had to do in trade was sort the world into “us” and “them.” You experience the desperation of a young soldier following orders when the stakes are too high to take a stand. You see the raw agony and shame of men and women just like us who didn’t just choose the wrong side, no. It’s worse than that. They made thousands of smaller, trivial wrong choices along the way that led to Hitler’s Germany.

Justifications came before gas chambers. Neighbors quietly turned away about business restrictions and revoked community group memberships before they turned in anyone to be sent to labor camps. They were silent before they cheered “Hiel Hitler” in unquestioning salute.

We use the Nazis and their imagery as general villain patterns in debates and video games and movies, in part, I think because we’re still trying to figure out how the Holocaust happened. It’s a great unsolved mystery of human nature because most of us like to believe we would have been brave enough. We are the Resistance, the heroes, the incorruptible.

Do you believe me when I say that, apart from the grace of God, you are deeply corruptible? So am I. So are my neighbors. So are thousands of Americans who are products of our time, warped by prejudices that only history will see clearly enough to point out to us, whether that’s racism or materialism or worshipping an ideology instead of God.

You’re not holding a torch this weekend. Good. Some of your fellow citizens are. What does that tell you? How bold have your prayers been? What small things have you turned away from instead of speaking up? Along what lines have you divided your world into “us” and “them”…and how can you replace that with love?

I ask because we Americans were on the right side of that world war, and we’re proud of it. History has vindicated us in that slaughter of millions…but don’t think for a second that we don’t have blood on our hands in hundreds of other ways. If the riots in Charlottesville surprise you, remember: virtue isn’t a passport stamp. America stands for freedom only as long as Americans stand for it.

I want to be a brave person. Even more, I want so badly to live in a brave country. But we have to remember: courage takes action when the stakes are low, in the small things, and those million tiny decisions make us who we really are.

Do you hear me, church, called to the radical love of Jesus? They make us who we really are.

Do you hear me, America, torn and battered but still trying to live up to the meaning of our creeds? They make us who we really are.

Do you hear me…you?

You and I, we are so very small. But that is the beauty to balance the terrible truth of All the Light We Cannot See. We aren’t heroes. No. But by the grace of God, we can be brave.

Confessions of a Former Church Camp Cynic

I’ll admit it: I don’t like altar calls or tearjerker Christian songs or rhetoric meant to scare people about hell. I’d prefer not to be prompted in the pews with a particular response—even a pastor encouraging me to repeat a phrase will find me with arms folded and lips tightly closed.

I’ve been to emotional spiritual experiences what Ebenzeer Scrooge was to Christmas: a cynical curmudgeon who takes pride in being that way.

Which means the last night of church camp has always been a struggle for me.

Back in sixth grade, I remember informing my friend about one of her favorite songs: “No one is actually thinking about the words—they just like dancing around.” In high school, I was the stoic silent one at the bonfire where all the other girls were weeping and dramatically confessing sins. And every time people went forward or raised their hands or spoke into a microphone about rededicating their life or laying down their burdens or accepting Christ (again), I thought in some small corner of myself that I wouldn’t admit to anyone else, “I wonder how long that will last.”

At this point, you’re probably either disgusted with me or you are me. Either way, keep reading. I’ve learned a few things since then, and it started with the prophet Jonah.

We tend to talk about Jonah’s disobedience in a matter-of-fact way: God told Jonah to preach a message of repentance to the corrupt city of Nineveh. Instead, he got into a ship headed the other way. That reaction makes sense when we’re telling the story to children, because what five-year-old hasn’t thought about running away when faced with a rule they didn’t like?

But Jonah wasn’t a five-year-old. He was a prophet, one of the few people consistently following God at the time, who must’ve known the psalm that said, “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?” and then answered that question with five verses that added up to a loud “nowhere.” For Jonah to think running away would fool God doesn’t actually make sense.

I’m guessing Jonah knew it probably wouldn’t work…and he didn’t care. Pride is the biggest blinder of common sense, and we can be pretty sure that was at work all along because of how the story ends.

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