Civil Unrest

In an unprecedented move, I’m forced to blog twice in one week. Both yesterday’s post and this one are very much needed and come from a pastor’s heart. Forgive me in advance if I offend you, but if biblical truth offends you, line up with it. It won’t change, and I won’t apologize for it. But I am not the source of biblical truth and am therefore subject to error. The views below which are outside of Scripture are my own, and I don’t presume to speak for anyone else, least of all the Almighty. I debated saying anything at all, but circumstances demand a faithful response.

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I’m not sure we qualify to call ourselves the United States of America anymore. We’re states alright, and this is still America, but united, we are not. Right now, we’re divided on everything surrounding our values and our history. Racism, Civil War statues, Nazis . . . I thought these matters were settled.

Apparently not.

Let me say two things that absolutely should not be controversial. First, racism is evil. Always. Period. For many reasons. We know from the creation narrative we are all made equally in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27). All human beings bear that stamp of divinity we call the imago Dei irrespective of race, ability, age, or other factors. We further know from Galatians 3:28 race has no bearing on access to God or value in His eyes. Finally, Revelation 7:9 explicitly states people “from every nation, tribe, people, and language” assemble in heaven. No one is less-than in or omitted from the kingdom of God based on race, ethnicity, or other criterion other than relationship to Jesus Christ. And if that’s not enough to convince you, please remember: Jesus isn’t a white man.

Secondly, if racism is evil, which it clearly is, Nazism is as well. It is a militant racism, militant discrimination. The ideology of genetic/racial/religious superiority is so vile, so abhorrent, the world banded together to put a stop to its spread. If your ideology has its roots in the origins of the Holocaust, if it can be directly linked to genocide, if its hero is one of the most evil men to ever walk the face of the planet, then you need a new ideology. Don’t call it “free speech,” and certainly don’t call it “American patriotism.” We, as a country, fought in a world war to put an end to it. The swastika is our enemy, not our greatest good. And when our president fails to denounce it outright until pressured to do so, we have problems. It shouldn’t be that difficult to say Nazis are a bad thing.

Again, those things shouldn’t be controversial. What I’m about to say will be, however, especially in my context.

The matter of the Confederate statues is, well, beyond simple description. The statues that aren’t being moved or removed are being forcibly pulled down by angry mobs. In America. Those people say the statues represent the glorification of the great American evil, slavery. They argue (rightly) we don’t have statues to the losers of the other wars we’ve fought. And the country that would see them as true heroes and patriots, the Confederate States of America, no longer exists. Just as we have no monuments to Benedict Arnold, they say, we should have no statues of other traitors to the United States.

On the flip side, Southerners are notoriously proud of their southern heritage, and they bristle at the things going on the “godless” (I prefer “frozen”) North. The Confederacy, it’s argued, wasn’t about slavery but about the overreach of the federal government impinging upon states’ rights to govern themselves. The men of those statues are heroes who stood against tyranny to preserve a way of life. Tearing them down, they say, is tantamount to rewriting history and ignoring the sins of our own government.

Clearly only one group is correct.

Right?

I’m not a historian. It still seems to me, though, that slavery was the rallying point for a laundry list of states’ rights violations. In this way, the debate over slavery was the greatest symptom of a deeper problem, and so it became the public face of the war. I could easily be wrong. Regardless it is undeniable the men on those monuments fought to keep slavery in practice. Period. It was a constitutional right in the CSA, and we cannot pretend otherwise just because popular opinion surrounding slaveholding has changed. To deny this is to be guilty of erasing history — the very charge leveled against those calling for the removal of the statues.

This is a salient point. We must never destroy, whitewash, or deny historical truths. But neither can we diminish or abrogate the force of those truths by comparison to other historic evils. And the prevalence of precisely that is what demanded I write this today.

I’ve seen many people argue in favor of the South by saying African-Americans cannot speak about slavery from a special position since whites and other races have been slaves at various points in history as well. I personally refer to this as “illegitimizing of anger”: you can’t be angry because I deny the reason for you to be so is valid. In this specific example, it’s frankly outrageous. American enslavement of Africans has been widely recognized as one of (if not the) cruelest forms of slavery on record. But even if that were not true, why can’t we say it was evil and call other forms of the institution evil, too, and just stop there? Why not cry out against all forms of slavery, including current ones, instead of saying everyone was a slave so get over it? It’s infuriating we are unable to accept the realities of evil.

But wait, the common objection goes, no one alive in the U.S. today was ever a slave; they have nothing to complain about. The men on those statues did have slaves or at the very least fought for others to keep theirs; there’s your necessary historical component. By way of analogy, would you want a statue of your great-great-great-grandmother’s serial rapist and murderer on display in the town square as the local hero — because, after all, nothing ever happened to you personally? I thought not. I can agree this sort of argument can seem out of hand at times (you can’t use “my ancestor was a slave” as an excuse for everything), but it doesn’t make it less true on the whole for the discussion at hand.

A second disturbing comparison I’ve been seeing lately is likening the display of Confederate statues to Jews keeping Auschwitz in existence — because, as we all know, the Confederate battle cry was “Arbeit macht frei.” This comparison states we keep the one around as a reminder to ensure such evil never happens again, and so we should keep the other for the same reason. Remind me, though: what large, vocal minority of the German people wave swastikas around and treat concentration camps as places of hero worship? Oh, right, they can’t; it’s illegal in Germany. We, however, treat those statues, those graven images, as idols and elevate them as ideals; similar idolatry of Buchenwald is unthinkable. The comparison fails since we simply don’t see the generals of the CSA as villainous, as evils which should never recur.

Suppose, then, you still personally attribute positive meaning to the CSA monuments and maintain your stance as the historically-correct view of them. That’s what they stood for when erect, in other words, and that’s their only true meaning: champions of states’ rights against a government who only served some of her people. Original intent is all that matters, you say. I’m afraid this argument won’t hold up, either. Statues are symbols, and the meanings of symbols change over time. There are countless crosses worn by Christians, for example, because the naked cross represents atonement accomplished, salvation, and resurrection in our religion. Its original meaning, of course, was the torturous death of criminals and political dissidents. Wearing a cross around your neck in the time of the Roman Empire is unfathomable; it’d be like wearing a pendant of an electric chair today. The meaning has shifted.

Or let’s borrow an analogy from language. If I saw you laughing, smiling, and in a generally good mood around a century ago, I may easily remark to you, “You’re gay today.” If I did that to certain people in our own time, I wouldn’t escape the encounter with all of my teeth still in my head. “Gay” no longer refers to “happy.” It refers to homosexuality. The term can no longer be used even as it was a century ago — and many words change meaning more than once across the years. Now you can say we just need to educate the public and reclaim the original intent, but history shows us it doesn’t work that way; what has passed is past. Simply put, the meanings of symbols change over time, be it right or wrong, and we must live in those present realities.

In our current society, with our current problems with racism, discrimination, and neo-Nazis, maybe the loving response is to remove icons which have come to represent those evils, evils the figures in the monuments valued for themselves, regardless of other earlier meanings. The Civil War itself will never be forgotten; that’s guaranteed. It won’t be removed from our history books or cultural memory regardless of how many statues we don’t have around. (And the historiography argument cuts both ways, anyway). Again, it’s just not going anywhere. It won’t be forgotten, but it needn’t be glorified, either — war never should be.

As a Southerner and an Appalachian — and a fairly conservative one at that — let me close with an appeal to you to truly love your neighbor as yourself and to frame this issue in those terms. If the reason we insist on keeping those statues is “I’m culturally vindicated” and not “I love you,” they need to come down. Likewise, if the reason to tear them down is “We’re historically vindicated” and not “We love you,” they need to stay up. I personally say it may be time for their removal — not because of political correctness or pressure, not even out of concerns of historiography, but out of love for my brothers and sisters.

And remember: old soldiers never die. They just . . .

. . . fade . . .

. . . away . . .

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Skin

When I sat down to write this post, it was with a heavy heart and a weary soul. As I’ve written elsewhere, I am not a violent man. I recognize its occasional necessity, yes, but I still deplore violence, regardless. The last week has seen me an earthly citizen of a violent land. Two men were killed by police, and five officers were killed in a retaliation which ultimately left the shooter dead as well. An additional three people are dead in a courthouse shooting unconnected to the other three. Eleven citizens and police officers dead in a week — and that doesn’t count those who didn’t make the news, the hometown heroes and the innocent victims of racially-motivated violence. Much like the martyrs of Revelation 6, my heart cries out, “How long, O Lord, holy and true? How long?” The violence brings to the forefront of the American consciousness a variety of things: gun control, police brutality, media bias, racism, race relations. Normally I would be hesitant to discuss any of these topics, but these are not normal times. Today, then, I want to run the risk of exposing my own ignorance to talk about race.

Our society seems given to two extremes, both of which are in error (as extremes so frequently are). On the one side, we make too much of race. It becomes our primary identity, the main way we see ourselves and the main way we want other people to see us. Organizations are created to preserve our differences, but they permit only those of the designated race to participate. Skin color becomes the deciding factor in everything from hiring policies to the church one attends. On this side of the spectrum, then, lie the errors of exclusivity and partiality. To make race a “greater than” in any fashion is to ignore the equality of creation as well as the truth of Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile . . . for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” The error inevitably devolves into racism in its more violent incarnations (physical, social, and otherwise).

At the opposite end of the spectrum is, well, the opposite error. Instead of making too much of race, we become “colorblind.” Proponents of this philosophy “don’t see color anymore.” Colorblindness takes Gal. 3:28 and similar texts to the illogical conclusion that race doesn’t matter at all just because Christ makes all races equal. Race itself and all its implications are ignored: its contributions to how one experiences life, cultural distinctives, benefits, detriments, all of it. This can lead to racism as well, but in a different way. If an over-emphasis of race can lead to violent racism, then a de-emphasis of race can lead to apathetic racism. Problems are ignored, stories marginalized, beauty and pain both unacknowledged just because they’re connected to race — and, after all, we’re equal, and “I don’t see race anymore.”

I may not be an Anglican, but I still believe we need a via media here. So what would a middle way, a healthy view of race, look like?

For starters, it requires us to admit that race exists, as do racial differences. We are all equal in Christ Jesus, yes, but our fallen world may never see us as truly one. We must work to end racism in any form. Racist institutions must be brought to account. People should recognize the diversity of ethnicities and celebrate it — and them. The media and the justice system must be taught to treat all races with equality and justice. Churches should integrate; truly, we are among the last bastions of accepted segregation. Whites should worship with Blacks, Blacks with Asians, Asians with Latinos, Latinos with Whites . . . you get the picture. This is what eschatological worship will be (Revelation 7:9-11). Shouldn’t we try to bring a bit of heaven to earth?

We should go a step further, too. Whether in church or elsewhere, persons of all races should be free to celebrate who they are, to say, “I am _____, and I ______.” Freedom of expression is beautiful. It can even be godly. So let’s celebrate the wonders of the human race together, taking the gifts offered to each of us by our races and using them in the service of each other and enriching each other’s lives.

To do these things, however, we must back up a step and reclaim a biblical concept so basic it appears in the very first chapter of the Book. Genesis 1:26-27 tells us we are made in the image of God. Each of us, regardless of the color of our skin, bears the image of the divine. We cannot believe others to be less-than or more-than because they don’t look like us — because we all look like God. (The image isn’t physical, but you know what I mean.) All races are comprised of persons who are relational, rational, moral, and commissioned to have dominion over the earth. And if that’s true, then perhaps race is another gift from God, a blessing to be celebrated and enjoyed.

We must learn to love each other. If we don’t, we cannot love God (1 John 4:20). We must end the hatred, the evils of racism. We must work for a world wherein race is seen as a gift, not a curse, a world which sees, yet looks beyond, skin tone and recognizes the image of God in the Other. We can stop racially-motivated violence, regardless of its origin. We can open our hearts to listen and love those who are different than us. Then we can begin healing the broken heart of a broken land.