Tag Archives: racism

On Robert E. Lee Statues, the Reformation, and The Danger of Forgetting History

Robert E. Lee statue being removed from a New Orleans monument (credit: Scott Threlkeld/ AP)

Having recently returned from a trip to Charleston, South Carolina, I am all too aware of the tragedy of racism, and its intermingling with the story of Christianity in the American South. But I am left with a question: how are we to remember our history?

Headlines have been popping up this year, with various cities across the South, such as New Orleans, and Charlottesville, Virginia, that have been removing or planning to remove statues of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate army general, and an evangelical Christian. As might be expected, white supremacist groups, who seek to have Lee fit their agenda, are protesting such statue removals. On the other extreme, counter-protestors deface such monuments. Like the Confederate flag, such symbols mean different things to different people, and their meaning can be hijacked out of their historical context, for good, or for ill.

As long time readers of Veracity know, we regret how the Bible has been misinterpreted and misapplied to justify slavery and condone racism. Efforts to correct tragic misunderstandings of the past, by retelling forgotten stories, are essential. However, I am bothered by this recent trend of dismantling historical monuments.

A June essay in the Atlantic magazine, by journalist Adam Serwer, seeks to justify such monument removal. Robert E. Lee, Serwer argues, is not the hero or saintly figure that many defenders of Lee’s heritage seek to admire. In some ways, Serwer is correct, hence, the KKK’s ill-informed effort to make Robert E. Lee into a god. But it would serve Mr. Serwer better to take a closer look at R. David Cox’s The Religious Life of Robert E. Lee, a book on my “to-be-read” list, for hopefully a more in-depth look at Lee’s Christian spirituality, that grew from a type of nominalism; that is, Christian by name only, to a more mature evangelical faith, later in his life.

In a rejoinder essay in The National Review, Dan McLaughlin modestly, yet rightly, observes that Serwer’s efforts to attack Robert E. Lee, are more about the present, than they are the past. Robert E. Lee was far from being perfect, and though I greatly respect Lee’s example of Christian faith, I am also painfully aware of the man’s shortcomings. We should be doing more to balance the story, adding historical context, and listen to forgotten voices. But does this mean we should diminish such characters as Robert E. Lee, even with their flaws?

How quickly we as humans are prone to forget.

I see no need to explore the politics of all of this, except to say that it seems like there is a cultural trend towards trying to erase painful memories of our past.

Martin Luther statue, in Washington, D.C. Beloved Protestant Reformer, but promoter of an anti-Jewish tract, later in life. Should his statue be removed next? I hope not. (credit: Wikipedia)

I even wonder what will happen later this fall, when people begin to talk more about the 500th anniversary of when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses, to the church door, that triggered the start of the Protestant Reformation. Surely, some press outlet will release an essay informing of us of Martin Luther’s horrid antisemitic statements he made, late in his life. Luther’s tract, On the Jews and Their Lies, was used by 20th century Nazis as a propaganda tool in their efforts to eliminate Europe’s Jews.

Not only that, but in 1525, Martin Luther infamously urged the German princes to brutally put down a peasants revolt, that left thousands of impoverished people dead. Luther’s ill-guided rhetoric, which he later regretted, helped to fuel the indignant imagination of Karl Marx years later, who described religion as being the opiate of the people, which led to other forces of extremism and violence, closer to our own time.

Could it be possible then, for people to start demanding the dismantling of Martin Luther statues, in response to Luther’s shortcomings? Where does the removal of monuments, that recall the dark side of our history, stop?

May I suggest that the Bible offers some help here.

When reading the Bible, we learn about a whole of host of people whom God used, to help introduce the world to the Messiah, Jesus Christ. In Hebrews 11, many of these names are celebrated in the “Hall of  Fame of Faith.”  However, all of these figures were tragically flawed. Abraham, the father of Israel, pimped his wife. Moses, who led the people out of Egypt, was a murderer. David, the greatest king in all of Israel, committed brazen adultery, arranged the death of the woman’s husband, and sought to cover up the whole matter.

Yet what strikes me about the Bible is that there is no attempt to cover up the flaws of these wayward sinners. Neither the Jews, nor the Christian church, have sought to revise the Bible, in attempt to remove the unsavory character on display. God saw fit to preserve the memory of those whom he used to achieve His purposes, including those parts that we would probably rather forget.

We live in an age where we desperately want heroes. However, unflawed heroes are hard to find. In our anger, we find it easy to point out the failures of others, particular of those in the past, but we all too conveniently ignore our own failures. The Bible gives a reason why this is the case: We are all sinful human beings, in need of a Savior (Romans 3:23). Jesus Christ, and Christ alone, is the one who can set things right. Sadly, contemporary society has a hard time recognizing the all-too pervasive impact of sin on all of us. So, we are all too willing to shove those uncomfortable things, like our own sin, under the carpet.

So, while there is a trend to remove those aspects of our history that either embarrass us, shame us, or even remind us of our shortcomings, the Bible has a lesson to teach us. Let us remember, as the Bible teaches, not only the good things that God does through human beings, but also those things that remind all of us, how much we all need a Savior, who can heal and redeem us.

For a fascinating, albeit disturbing history behind the Robert E. Lee monument in Charlottesville, you should read Brandon Wolfe’s essay.


“Loving Day” and the Sin of Previous Generations

Virginia judge Leon Bazille’s handwritten theological justification for banning interracial marriage. He ends by saying, “The fact that [God] separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.” What Bible was he reading from?

Fifty years ago today, the United States Supreme Court struck down a Virginia law forbidding interracial marriage. The Loving vs. Virginia decision cut at the heart of racist ideology in my home state, and paved the way for American democracy to recognize that skin-color makes no difference when it comes to marriage. For couples in interracial marriages today, June 12 is often remembered as “Loving Day.”

What makes this so tragic for the Gospel is that a racist ideology had for centuries been falsely linked with the Bible. The biblical teaching that prohibited Jews from marrying people outside of the Mosaic covenant had been twisted to say that people of different skin-color, irrespective of God’s covenantal purposes, should not be allowed to marry.

Folks, unless you have not figured it out before by reading this blog, Bible interpretation matters.

In addition to what I wrote in reviewing Loving, a 2016 film of the story behind the Loving vs. Virginia case, I believe the legacy stemming from Christian rejection of interracial marriage is a good example of what is meant by this difficult passage of the Bible:

“The Lord…[forgives] iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Exodus 34:6-7)

One application of this passage is that sin has its way of being repeated generation after generation, unless it is properly addressed, through confession and repentance. In recent decades, most Christians have thought that interracial marriage is not forbidden by the Bible, but over the past fifty years, this has not always been the case.

I have had more than one conversation in some thirty years, where a believer simply assumed that the Bible really did forbid interracial marriage. In every case where I challenged the believer to give me a prooftext, the answer every time was something like, “Well, someone told me it was in the Bible. I just do not know where it is.

Mmmmpph.

Why would anyone go around saying “the Bible says,” when in fact, they have no clue as to what the Bible says?

At best, that is merely uninformed, or just plain, lazy-thinking Christianity. At worst, it is a subtle way of justifying sin. Furthermore, the fact that it took a secular court to force Christians to rethink how they were misinterpreting the Bible is a scandal in and of itself.

We should therefore not be surprised when so many in our society today apply the same logic about interracial marriage to same-sex marriage. As the thinking goes, “Christians were wrong to condemn interracial marriage some fifty years ago, so why should Christians be condemning same-sex marriage today? Marriage is about people loving one another and being happy as individuals making their own decisions. What does race and gender have anything to do with it?

I can easily sympathize with what drives the argument, based on how poorly Christians in past eras misinterpreted the Bible. However, unlike the falsehood of racial ideology, the Bible does understand God’s purpose in marriage to have gender as an essential component to it. But how many Christians today think theologically about marriage?

So God created man in his own image,
    in the image of God he created him;
    male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27)

Here Genesis sees human gender as a primary way of reflecting God’s character, demonstrating to the world around us, the nature of the God of the Bible. But how many of us think of God’s purpose for marriage in this way, as a means of displaying the attributes of God? The God of the Bible is Triune, the Father and Son in union through the bond of the Spirit, distinct persons yet in fundamental unity with one another.

Surely, those Christians from earlier eras who opposed interracial marriage were not theologically sound when they were thinking about marriage. Could it be that Christians today still need to learn more of thinking theologically about marriage? Could it be that we have some more confession and repentance to do today?

HT: The Gospel Coalition has a helpful article summarizing the significance behind Loving vs. Virginia.


Hidden Figures

I wanted to briefly encourage Veracity readers about a new movie (and book), Hidden Figures, that explores the lives of several African-American women, who made a vital contribution to America’s space program, in the early 1960s. Like several other recent films, Hidden Figures is set in Virginia, not too far from where I live, in eras when African Americans were either enslaved (The Birth of a Nation), or later segregated from the white community (Loving and Hidden Figures).

One of these talented women, Katherine Johnson, worked as a highly skilled mathematician, who at one point in her career, was asked by astronaut John Glenn to verify the reentry trajectory and coordinates for his historic NASA mission, being the first person in space to encircle the earth, in 1962. Many NASA people at the time did not trust the new IBM computers, instead relying on expert mathematicians, like Johnson, to verify the calculations.

It is difficult now to comprehend how so many white Christians advocated the corrupt concept of segregation, using the Bible for justification, as in The Birth of a Nation or Loving. In contrast, Hidden Figures, while in a handful of places slipping in needless profanity and inappropriate remarks, has overall a very positive image of Christian faith, as all of the lead African-American female characters are portrayed as actively involved in their church. Though not a “Christian” movie per se, I found it refreshing that a Hollywood movie would portray Christian faith in such a positive light, without also buying into the popular narrative that sees a conflict between science and faith. Plus, the movie is quite funny at times.

Most of the women depicted in the film had since left NASA Langley Research Center, in Hampton, Virginia, before I started working there in the mid 1980s, as a computer programmer. The old card punch card systems, like the “new” IBM computer in the movie, were on their way out the door, upon my arrival, so the need for human “computers” to assist in such mathematical work was no longer needed. It is quite remarkable that the story of these pioneering African American women is only now being told, some 55 years later, but it really is a great story to tell. Kudos to author and Hampton, Virginia native, Margot Lee Shetterly, for bringing this story to light.


Loving vs. Virginia vs. the Bible

Richard and Mildred Loving

Richard and Mildred Loving

My grandmother grew up in a rural part of King and Queen County, Virginia. In those days, as she put it, the “colored” people lived in communities separate from the “white” people, but everyone seemed to get along.

The house she grew up in was less than a twenty minute drive from Central Point, a very small town in Caroline County, Virginia.  In the mid-20th century, a story developed in Central Point that has forever changed American society, and that still continues to reverberate in the cultural discussions of our day, some 50-60 years later.

Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter were just two teenagers, from rural and mainly poor families, who fell in love with one another.  In 1958, they drove up to Washington, D.C to get married. The difficulty was that Loving was white and Jeter was part-black and part-Cherokee. In the Commonwealth of Virginia in those days, it was against the law for a white man to marry a black woman. When the couple returned to Virginia, the police raided the Loving home, and they were arrested.

Virginia Judge Leon Bazile ruled against the Lovings, and exiled them from Virginia, saying:

Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.

A new film by Jeff Nichols, Loving, is a dramatic portrayal of the Lovings’ story. Richard and Mildred decided to fight the verdict, and the case was taken to the United States Supreme Court. In 1967, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Lovings in Loving v. Virginia, and the ruling struck down all state laws forbidding interracial marriage. Virginia had been the first to pass such an anti-miscegenation law in 1691.

My grandmother died some years ago, and so I am not sure exactly what she would think about this new movie, where many of the events portrayed happened just a few miles from her childhood home. But I would not be surprised if her sentiments did not echo those of Judge Bazile.

As I have argued elsewhere (here and here), Judge Bazile’s idea, that the Bible forbids people with different skin color from marrying one another, is a complete fabrication, with no foundation in Holy Scripture. But clearly, many Virginians in my grandmother’s generation thought very differently. Sadly, there are still a number of folks in our churches who still think this way, despite what the Bible teaches.

Racism is a sin, and it runs deep from generation to generation. It surely exists in my own life, in ways unconsciously known to me.

Yet what was so insidious about the Loving story is that the Bible was used to blatantly justify such sinful attitudes. Shortly after the Supreme Court ruled in their favor, legally allowing them to return to their home in Virginia as a married couple, a cross was burned in the yard of their home in Caroline County.

A cross? Why would a symbol of Christ’s unending love for you and me be misused as a weapon of fear and intimidation?

The struggle against racism, both inside and outside of the church, has been a long and difficult one. We are almost one year shy of remembering the 50th year since Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, and just a few months shy of the 50th year since the Supreme Court’s decision in Loving v. Virginia (June 12, 1967).

What can we learn from the Biblical missteps taken by believers in previous generations? Where has the message of the Bible been misused today? Let us not be deceived by our own chronological snobbery in our day and age. We are not much better than those who lived before us. Technology, and other advancements, have surely progressed, but the human spiritual condition remains the same. Where have we, in our current generation, twisted the Bible to legitimize some sin?

For those concerned about how Biblical values apply to the wider culture, the questions raised by Loving are essential to address (To learn more about the story, HBO did a documentary on the Lovings a few years ago, and here are some clips). If you have the opportunity to view this new film, Loving, I would love to hear from you as to what your thoughts are.


Nat Turner’s Virginia Slave Rebellion, Hollywood, and How We Read the Bible

In August, 1831, a literate slave and Bible preacher, Nat Turner, led a rebellion against his white masters, in rural Southampton County, about a one hour drive south of where I live in Williamsburg, Virginia. After the 48-hour mass killing of 55 whites ended, Turner’s insurrection was eventually crushed, and tougher laws were enacted to try to prevent such slave uprisings in the future.

Nate Parker’s new film, The Birth of a Nation, is a fictionalized retelling of this tragic and violent story (deserving of the R-rating)…and just to think, the events depicted only happened less than two hundred years ago, practically in my own backyard. The film’s director is enveloped in controversy, and early reviews of the film are mixed. Intended to subplant the legacy of the 1915 silent film of the same name, a cinematic apology for the Ku Klux Klan, Parker raises a number of important issues, but one wonders what the film will actually accomplish.

Gospel Coalition blogger, Justin Taylor, summarizes some of the most significant elements regarding the history behind the film’s story. For more details on the history, you can start with the Nat Turner Project. Some historians are disappointed with the inaccuracies of the film, which frustrates me, as I am more interested in the actual history than I am in Hollywood’s fantasies. Does the film tell us about what really happened, or does it tell us more about the mind and state of contemporary pop-culture? How much of the film is about Nat Turner, and how much of it is about the film’s director, Nate Parker?

In the film trailer below, the Nat Turner character recites 1 Peter 2:18, in an effort to encourage his fellow slaves to keep in line. I confess that I, as do so many other evangelicals, tend to water this passage down:

Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust (1 Peter 2:18 ESV).

I have euphemistically tried to replace “servants” with “workers,” and “masters” with “supervisors,” but does that really get at the original context? I am afraid not.

Slavery during the New Testament period is difficult to comprehend in modern terms, and it was very different from how many Americans viewed slavery prior to the Civil War. As I have argued elsewhere (here and here), many of my southern, Virginia evangelical forefathers did not properly understand passages like this either. Instead, they read things into the Bible that were not there.

If any Veracity readers end up seeing the film, I would like to know your thoughts.

 


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