This Lent, I gave up reading my usual theology and started reading Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “Astrophysics for People in a Hurry.” His book starts out with the statement, “We’ve all looked up in the night sky and asked, ‘why?’”
Many people have come before us and God willing, many people will come after us. Humanity is built on lineage, heritage, and tradition. But what do you do when such realities are built on hatred, enslavement, and white supremacy?
I want to make the argument that Confederate memorabilia, including the flags of the Confederacy, are symbols of hatred. These statues and the celebration of flags were put up during times when white people felt their grip on power slip toward equality and equity, and they were scared.
I want to remind readers that they have neighbors of color who look up at these flags and statues and see Robert E. Lee, who chose to offer his life in order to protect the slave-owning status quo, who led countless North Carolinians to their deaths as traitors. These same people, when faced with these historical realities, think of their ancestral family members who were beaten and whipped to work faster in a cotton field Down East or the blacksmith shop in Appalachia.
But that isn’t enough for Confederate sympathizers who take pride in this heritage.
Since that isn’t enough for some people, I will offer you the same argument the Sons of Confederate Veterans are making, through my heritage as a collateral descendant of Robert E. Lee.
Listen to Gen. Lee himself: “As regards the erection of such a monument as is contemplated, my conviction is, that however grateful it would be to the feelings of the South, the attempt in the present condition of the Country, would have the effect of retarding, instead of accelerating its accomplishment; [and] of continuing, if not adding to, the difficulties under which the Southern people labour.”
Those words came from Robert Edward Lee in 1866. In 1869, before his death a year later, Lee said, “I think it wiser not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered.”
Not only were the flags and statues erected in waves during the Jim Crow era and in response to Brown v. Board of Education, not only do they honor those who died fighting for a horrific status quo, but as Lee said, it prevents us as a people from moving on. They are stitches on festering wounds.
And if you wanted to make an argument about historical context and memories as a balm for these festering wounds, let it only be fair to have these current monuments be buried by the words and testimony, strength and courage of those African people held in bondage.
In the end, I will, for the sake of God’s love realized, hope that the Sons of Confederate Veterans might find some empathy in their hearts. My own heart had to be opened and changed to realize what my lineage really meant after you strip away the narratives we are told to save face. I took the flag down in middle school because a special person in my life said I couldn’t be viable in this world of ministry with a symbol of bigotry hanging over my bed.
The questions of our existence are hard. Neil deGrasse Tyson answers them with astrophysics and I answer them with theological realities and Christological hope. But mark my words, we will never answer these questions with relics of a bygone war of a deeply broken nation flying along our state highways and in our 100 counties. Be better and do better, because our country is watching.
Rev. Rob Lee of Statesville is writing a book tentatively titled, “A Sin By Any Other Name: My Love Letter to the South.”