When Removing Monuments Strengthens Our Knowledge of the Past

St. Paul

Earlier this week we posted on Kate Shellnut’s Christianity Today article on the way that churches in the South are dealing with their Confederate legacy and monuments.

Since I wrote that post I learned about similar efforts at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, the so-called “Cathedral of the Confederacy.”  Jefferson Davis was a member of this church.  Robert E. Lee worshiped there during the Civil War.

In recent years the church has formed the “History and Racial Reconciliation Initiative” to deal with Confederate symbols in the church, including Confederate battle flags. According to this article at Episcopal News Service, some of these symbols have been removed. Others have not, but the church continues to have conversations about what is appropriate.

Some of the comments on the Episcopal News Service piece have not been pretty.  Here are a few:

Historical “censorship” and revisionism as demonstrated above, is intellectually dishonest, spiritually counterfeit and an anathema to freedom. Actions like these, as innocuous as they appear, are small steps on the path to totalitarianism.

What seems to be lost in all of this is that History is important. We don’t need to be erasing it, we need to learn from it! If we destroy all of the symbols of periods of history we do not like, what have we accomplished? Nothing except a little misguided “feel good” for those in favor of the destruction of the symbols. The same symbols that people want to destroy provide us with a chance to explain how we have resolved those issues, grown as a Church and as churchmen, and understand and respect the journeys of those who lived though those times struggled with their own faith. What can be wrong with that? Have we not learned from the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Holocaust, and from the Civil Rights Movement? Should we destroy the Holocaust Museum, etc.. I hope not.

The confederacy is a part of our history. It is wrong to glorify it, but I think we need to remember it so that we don’t let this happen again. Sweeping things under the rug don’t make them go away, compassion and justice keep them from happening again. I was born and raised in Miami. My family lived in Key West and had slaves and freed them but still provided for them as long as they lived. It is our history, we can’t make it go away – we need to remember.

Political correctness has gone too far when it results in the re-writing of history. It’s our past and we all live with it. The USSR was the last regime in my lifetime to attempt to re-write history. I am saddened the U. S. is going that way.

One of the leaders of the History and Racial Reconciliation Initiative is public and religious historian Christopher Graham.  (He is mentioned in the article).

Graham has turned to his blog “Whig Hill” to address some of the negative comments. He argues that the history conversations at St. Paul’s have actually led the members of the congregation to have a better understanding of their shared past.

Here is a taste of his post:

To the main point; I’ve heard this charge often—that pulling down monuments is erasure; that we’ll know less and be deprived of the opportunity to learn and be inspired—even if by the transcendence of error. Never have had an adequate response to it until now.

What has happened at St. Paul’s is a rebuke to the assertion that we’re erasing the past. Since removing a small number of Confederate icons from the sanctuary, St. Paul’s now knows more about its own history than it ever has.

Even at this early stage of the HRI process, the people at St. Paul’s are able to articulate:

  • Who congregants were in the 1850s and how they fit into Richmond’s slave based economy.
  • How their faith reconciled slaveholding with Christianity, and how they enacted that faith to shape the racial-religious landscape of Richmond.
  • How sharing wartime anxiety, adrenaline, and grief (and yes, faith in the Confederacy’s ultimate cause) tied the church’s identity to the Confederate nation and its leaders.
  • How the narrative of racial difference forged in slavery continued to shape Episcopalian practice in Virginia (and beyond) for a century after 1865.
  • How the stories this church told itself with its memorials contributed to the “Lost Cause” explanation of the Confederacy—and in doing so constructed a history of race and slavery that reinforced efforts to disfranchise and marginalize African Americans in political, economic, and social life in Richmond in the twentieth century.
  • Who among its parishioners that supported the movement toward legal segregation in the 1902 Constitution, the 1912 and 1914 city segregation ordnances, the 1924 Racial Integrity Act, and the 1926 Massenberg Bill. (Most, likely, at the first, but a decreasing number by the last.)
  • Who among its parishioners and clergy (Bowie, Munford, Tucker, Carrington) that tirelessly and passionately opposed the adoption of these laws, and promoted anti-lynching and anti-Klan legislation, even if we recognize that they did so because of their racial paternalism.
  • How churchmen and churchwomen of St. Paul’s—along with the rest of Richmond’s elite—challenged and shaped the geography and culture of segregation that dominated the twentieth century and that we still see the vestiges of today.

These are just a small and incomplete sampling of the points upon which we’re developing a new narrative about our own past.

We haven’t erased history. Indeed, the removal of a small number of tablets has served as a catalyst for knowing more. And that may be my key takeaway in this particular moment: whether you alter a memorial landscape or not, the action can’t be the only thing, but just one point in a larger process of discovery and re-inscription. Moving things may not even be the most important element of that process in the end.

I can’t say (because nothing has been decided) what will become of the items removed, or those that remain. In fact, this process and the discussions around it have ranged far beyond the location of memorials. But I do know that the knowledge that we’re beginning to carry about our past, present, and future, feels far more consequential right now.

Read Graham’s entire post here.  This is a wonderful model for how to bring good history to bear on the life of religious congregations.  I am glad that Graham is involved in this initiative.

I wonder what it might look like to have a similar conversation in a church that places an American flag in the sanctuary.

How Could They Believe in Slavery and Still Call Themselves Christians?

Lee BookChristopher Graham, writing at his blog Whig Hill, brings a dose of historical thinking to our understanding of Christian slaveholders in the 19th-century South.

Graham responds to Rev. William Sachs’s review of David Cox’s book The Religious Life of Robert E. Lee.  Sachs is the director of the Center for Interfaith Reconciliation at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia.

According to Graham, Sachs can’t seem to grasp how southern slaveholders like Lee could claim to be Christians and still own slaves.  Graham writes:

Sachs follows Cox’s explanation of mid-19th century evangelicals’ views on providentialism, sin, and action, but is tripped up by what appears to be a contradiction regarding slavery, “what sort of religion,” Sachs asks, “allowed such wrong?” He is so incredulous that he repeats the question, “how could Christian faith allow slavery and oppose its abolition?”

Christians today so thoroughly identify with the abolitionist and the Civil Rights-era interpretation of scripture, that any deviation is deemed hypocritical, delusional, heretical, and sinful. This view of a Civil Rights Christianity is so self-evidently sound and settled that we can hardly imagine that debate ever existed or that the abolitionist view was once the heretical, innovative, outsider to an orthodox Christianity.

Sachs searches for an explanation that I also see quite a lot. It includes two parts. First, “Lee, like others in his family saw slavery as evil, even as they owned human beings.” Again, I haven’t read this book, so I don’t now how Cox explains what Lee actually said, but this explanation allows slaveholders to have a moral conscience in accordance with ours while being helpless victims of 19th century material realities. At worst, they’re guilty of failing to turn belief into action, but they were ok because they “saw slavery as evil.”

The second part is this: “His turn to leadership of Southern forces was no defense of slavery in his mind. He expressed a sense of duty to his family and a way of life.” I see this frequently, not just in religious circles, but also in broader explanations for Confederate motivations. It compartmentalizes slavery, separates it from other categories like honor, family, home, and nationalist visions. This allows us to set slavery aside—yeah, it was bad, they knew that; we know that; but it was an aberration that didn’t have anything to do with larger motivations.

It all boils down to a notion that they couldn’t possibly have believed in slavery because as good Christians, they couldn’t have. But this is wrong. They believed in slavery because they were good Christians. Proslavery theology serves as a much more satisfying explanation for what we see than describing them as tragically confused.

This is a clear example of the differences between historical thinking and other kinds of thinking.  If I read Graham correctly, Cox wants to do more than merely understand Robert E. Lee’s faith as it relates to slavery.  He wants to show that Lee, from the perspective of his understanding of Christianity, is wrong.  This, of course, is a fair and honest exercise and one that theologians and pastors should make.  But, as Graham nicely points out, it strays from the tenets of good historical thinking.

Here is Graham again:

Academics understand proslavery Christianity fairly well, but because this prevalence to convolute an explanation for Christian slaveholding (they were mistaken!) by the wider public suggests that academic inquiries have limited reach. This has consequences. To deeply absorb and understand that proslavery Christians (e.g.—most white southern Christians) actually believed what they said opens the door for the work of more authentic historical accountability. And it helps us better articulate and understand how white supremacy worked and has evolved into whatever form it has today. Slavery, after all, was just the beginning of this. But I believe that standing up and simply saying you’re mistaken is not an effective approach to solving today’s problems any more than it is to understanding and explaining the past. Confronting this history prepares us to do better today.

Read Graham’s entire post here.