Events surrounding the tragic death of George Floyd, a victim of police brutality, have triggered a massive wave of protests across America, and across the world. Even more despairing, extremists on both the far right and far left have taken advantage of the situation, igniting hatred by attempting to hijack the protest movement, through senseless acts of violence, that only makes the situation worse for the poorest among us. The misinformation, often relayed through irresponsible use of social media, and media in general, has generated confusion in the process, leading to some misguided response by law enforcement. We live in desperate times.
Even in my home state, the crisis has reached a boiling point in nearby Richmond, Virginia, the home of the Confederacy. As marchers have descended on Richmond, there have been long-standing calls for the removal of confederate statues along Richmond’s famed Monument Avenue, a prominent feature of the Richmond landscape. The most significant of these statues is that of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, dressed in full military regalia, mounted on his horse, Traveler.
Virginia Governor Northam announced today that he will seek removal of that statue.
There are mixed thoughts here. On the one hand, the Confederate “Lost Cause” narrative has itself hijacked the story of Robert E. Lee, thus serving a particular version of history, that has fueled unchecked racist-oriented police brutality for decades. THIS MUST STOP. On the other hand, by removing the statue we are endangering our collective memories, by threatening to silence the story about Lee that needs to be told and re-told. If God can chasten and change a man like Robert E. Lee, God can change the heart of anyone.
Robert E. Lee fought for the Confederacy, defending his native Virginia, but like many in his day, he was conflicted about slavery. He came to the conclusion that God, in his providential way, would judge him personally, regarding the outcome of the war. When defeat of the Confederacy became imminent, Lee concluded that God had judged against him, and that upon to returning to Richmond, he should take off the military uniform and work for peace and reconciliation. He spent the remainder of his life in civilian attire, promoting the restoration of college education in the American South.
Might I suggest that Governor Northam consider replacing Lee’s military statue with a different statue of Lee in civilian clothing, as Lee, the Chastened Soldier turned Educator? Inaccurate and incomplete knowledge and ignorance of history has impoverished our communities, particularly in our churches. In our efforts to rectify the wrongs of history, let us not forget the lessons that such history teaches us.
I have included some links below to previous Veracity posts, that tell the story more fully:
- Why forgetting history is dangerous (what does Robert E. Lee have to do with Martin Luther?)
- Robert E. Lee’s slow transformation to follow Christ, an example for us all.
- The Southern Confederacy, the power of symbols, and the changing interpretation of those symbols.
- Racism, Police Brutality…. and the misuse of the Bible (Why Bible interpretation REALLY matters)
- The Legacy of Misreading the Bible, that continues to haunt the church today.
- Correcting a Persistently Wrong Interpretation of the Bible regarding Race.
Here, we learn about the last time Robert E. Lee wore his Confederate uniform, and put it away forever:
June 7th, 2020 at 8:29 am
Clarke…have you read the article in The Atlantic from 2017 about Lee? Nathan Moore posted it on my Facebook page…a very different perspective given on post-war Lee. I would encourage you to check it out. I learned a lot about Lee that I did not know. Scholar that you are, you know it’s good to hear other perspectives.
June 7th, 2020 at 9:58 am
Hi, Jane. I linked to that Adam Serwer article, from The Atlantic, in one of the posts I referenced above, and I even critiqued it, back in 2017. Bottom line, Adam Serwer does provide a corrective to the “Lost Cause” narrative hijacking Lee’s legacy, but as Dan McCaughlin notes in his rejoinder in The National Review, Serwer “suffers from his own myopia.”
Lee’s repentance of his moral failure was instrumental in healing the country after the Civil War. Sadly, Lee died too early after the war to keep that influence on-going. Granted, even after the war, Lee held to racist views, but such attitudes were not uniquely Southern, as many Northerners thought the same way. The Civil War addressed the slavery issue, but racism more broadly was still yet a stain on the American story. Serwer has the luxury to judge Lee harshly, but anachronism can be purchased easily these days. I link to the McCaughlin rejoinder article as well. See the link from above, or highlighted below.
Another critique of Adam Serwer can be found here, by historian Brian McClanahan:
As a side note, my alma matter, Washington and Lee University, did some serious soul searching, after the Charlottesville incident in 2017. At the Lee Chapel, where Lee is buried, there had been a portrait of Lee in full military regalia. The school was rightly embarrassed about it. What should they do?
Instead of simply tearing down the portrait, they replaced it with a different portrait, of Lee in civilian clothing, serving as college educator. Likewise, they took down the military portrait of George Washington, who owned slaves, but released them from bondage at his death. W&L replaced that military portrait with a portrait of Washington in civilian attire as well.
I think W&L did the right thing here, by reframing the historical presentation of these figures, and not eliminating them altogether, which would have been ill-conceived gestures to erase history. You can see the new portraits now at the Lee Chapel, displayed from their website:
June 7th, 2020 at 12:17 pm
One other thing…. part of the reason that I linked to the Christianity Today article about George Floyd, in the blog post, was to highlight Mr. Floyd’s profession of Christian faith. CT tell us that George Floyd left a “Gospel legacy in Houston,” before he moved up to Minneapolis.
On the other hand, George Floyd had a stained history, too. He was arrested for drug and theft, and then arrested for home invasion in 2007. The whole story would suggest that Mr. Floyd decided to take a new path, following his criminal past:
Sadly, he lost his job, earlier this year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In view of his death, some will be tempted to portray George Floyd as an untarnished saint. In the wake of the Civil War, Robert E. Lee was treated the same way by advocates of “The Lost Cause” narrative.
George Floyd was a complicated man. So was Robert E. Lee.
That’s the point I am trying to make.
June 8th, 2020 at 9:40 am
Bristol’s Edward Colston had a bad day….. Edward Colston had been a 17th philanthropist, but he was also a well-known slave trader:
June 10th, 2020 at 12:36 pm
In 2006, there was a movement in the Liverpool, in the U.K., to rename all of the streets, with names associated with the slave trade….. that is, they would rename all of them, except when it came to “Penny Lane.”
We would not to rename that, should we?
The always cheerful Tom Holland has insightful things to say about that:
June 11th, 2020 at 1:09 pm
There is probably a more orderly way of doing this….. Jefferson Davis, I can see the complaint, but Christopher Columbus is stretching it….. If we erect new statues to take their place, how long will such new statues last, before THEY get torn down? Is it possible to make a statue for anyone?Where does this all end?
June 12th, 2020 at 7:57 pm
June 12th, 2020 at 4:46 pm
J.K. Rowling just got “canceled” by the cancel-culture. Perhaps the anti-Harry Potter folks were right after all :-). Rowling responds. Good for her:
July 7th, 2020 at 5:24 pm
As a W&L alum, I am not thrilled by this move. If they want to remove Lee from the name, they need to remove Washington as well.
July 14th, 2020 at 8:32 am
Kudos to the The Economist magazine for exposing the ideology behind critical race theory, for what it is while appreciated some of positive insights. Not enough Christians are seeing what this secular magazine is seeing:
July 24th, 2020 at 1:28 pm
Christopher Columbus statue comes down in Chicago, for public safety purposes: