Confederate Statues: A Christian Response

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 By Michael Jones
 

After the 2015 shootings at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina legislature voted to take down the Confederate flag from its Capitol building. This came from popular belief that the Confederate flag represented discrimination toward African Americans, bolstered by photographs of Dylann Roof, the perpetrator of the shooting, waving the flag.
 

Nowadays, we're removing statues instead of flags. Why? Because many Americans believe statues of Confederate generals represent the South's fight to preserve slavery. Mitch Landrieu, mayor of New Orleans, recently spoke in defense of the removal of statues of Robert E. Lee and other confederate generals in New Orleans, commenting:

We must always remember our history and learn from it. But that doesn’t mean we must valorize the ugliest chapters, as we do when we put the Confederacy on a pedestal — literally — in our most prominent public places. [...] If we don’t want to be forever held back by our crushing history of institutional racism, it’s time to relegate these monuments to their proper place. (The Washington Post)

People in both minority and majority demographics side with Mayor Landrieu, seeing the statues as obstacles to racial equality.

 

To other Americans, the Confederate statues represent the heritage of the South and pride in Southern culture, as well as the Confederacy that fought for economic freedom along with slavery. Sophia A. Nelson, a black journalist and political commentator who believes the statues should not be taken down, writes, “we […] cannot tell people they are not allowed to honor family members who fought for the confederacy or that their forbears could not raise monuments to southern heroes like Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson” (Think).

 

Each side fights to preserve its sense of justice. Mayor Landrieu, in his speech, reiterates his point that the “right course, then, is to excise these symbols of injustice” (The Washington Post). On the other hand, Sophia Nelson and others would argue that we “do not learn when we run from our wrongs. We learn when we face them. Keep the statues where they are so that people can explain history to their kids” (Think). Everyone has a stance on this issue, so which one is right?
 

Neither stance is "right". Each side desires justice, a justice for their past, for their ancestry and posterity. As Christians, we want reconciling truth. We're called to "love mercy, do justly, and walk humbly with [our] God" (Micah 6:8). Echoing Mayor Landrieu, we want to be sensitive to our American past, and remember the mistakes each side has made. We must walk humbly in our pursuit of justice if this country is to ever be reconciled.
 

We can find virtue in either stance.  If we remove the statues that remind us of where we were, we open ourselves to forgetting lessons of the past. If we forget our past segregation, we open ourselves to future segregation, as Sophia Nelson expresses: “I don’t fear 150-year-old statues of old dead white men. What I fear is the hatred we are seeing in real time in 2017 on social media, on our college campuses, in our workplaces and in our political rhetoric” (Think).

 

Just as well, when we hang a flag from our houses, schools, capital buildings, or the beds of our trucks, we understand that we are pledging allegiance to what that flag represents. People will see this confederate flag, and they'll interpret that we side with slave-owners and those who oppress (or at least fear and avoid) African American culture, whether we intended to express this or not. Mayor Landrieu assumes this position when he speaks for the southern State of Louisiana: “As mayor, I must consider [the statues’] impact on our entire city. It’s my job to chart the course ahead, not simply to venerate the past” (Washington Post).

 

To those who uphold Southern identity, God doesn't call us to claim cultural or national identity; He does call us to live peaceably with all men, inasmuch as it depends on us (Rom. 12:18). Jesus gives me the privilege and command not to stand up for the South, but for His Kingdom. I still relate with my world-given identity as a Southerner, as Paul related with his Jewish and Roman cultural identities. However, this fleeting world is not my home. Why, then, would I stake my core identity on the nation that supports me, when God upholds that nation and gives me an identity with an unfading kingdom?
 

We think so often that our culture defines who we are; Howard Winant, a Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, states in his book Racial Conditions: Politics, Theory, Comparisons, “U.S. society is so thoroughly racialized that to be without racial identity is to be in danger of having no identity” (Winant, 16). Our culture (whether white or black, northern or southern) does not define us as Christians; we are foremost children of God. We must fight for the church to ground its identity in Christ, and to see that true justice was served on Christ at the cross, when He bore the wrath for all the sins His people would commit.

 

With tensions rising on each side, we must remember above all that fear-based responses are normal among sinners (and that’s every one of us). The people who are unlike us fear as much as we do; the simplest thing we can do to bridge racial and socioeconomic divides is to befriend people different from ourselves. Opening our doors to different people for meals and conversation builds bridges one person at a time, and these bridges stack up like pennies in a jar. In turn, empathizing with other cultures shapes how we see the world, whether we decide to take down statues or leave them to stand, cold and motionless. When Jesus invites anyone to the wedding feast who will come, He leaves us a standard of hospitality and outreach which we would do well to follow.

 

Sources:

 

Landrieu, Mitch. “New Orleans Mayor: Why I’m Taking Down my City’s Confederate

Monuments.” The Washington Post, 11 May 2017, https://www.washingtonpost

.com/posteverything/wp/2017/05/11/new-orleans-mayor-why-im-taking-down-my-citys-confederate-monuments/?utm_term=.1414ef95be4b. Accessed 5 Nov. 2017.

 

Nelson, Sophia A. “Opinion: Don’t Take Down Confederate Monuments. Here’s Why.”

NBC News, 1 June 2017, https://www.nbcnews.com/think/news/opinion-why-i-feel-

confederate-monuments-should-stay-ncna767221. Accessed 5 Nov. 2017.

 

Winant, Howard. Racial Conditions: Politics, Theory, Comparisons. Minneapolis:

University of Minnesota Press, 1994.