I’m from the South – Arkansas to be exact.
When I was young, I never understood how the emotional and ideological divisions of the U.S. Civil War continued to cause divide.
Sure, when I went off to college in Texas, my roommates ribbed me about being a Yankee from The North (of Texas). Plenty of Confederate flags can still be seen throughout my home state.
And I always enjoyed an opportunity to stop along a roadside sign marking a field or town square where some significant Civil War-era event had taken place.
But for me at least, all these signs and symbols were ways of remembering, with a tinge of sadness I thought, an unfortunate series of events, and the firm but misplaced values of many who fought that war.
But today, as statues topple, and two sides gather, it is clear to me we are still wrestling with firmly held beliefs and emotion-laden ideologies that will continue to divide us if we’re not careful.
I’ll confess my own sins first.
Perhaps like many others, I never understood the power that symbols from this war still wield.
Being white and male, I now realize that my own privileged vantage point led to ignorance in some respects. It wasn’t intentional ignorance, but ignorance that could have been avoided.
How many opportunities did I miss to ask African-American friends what American history looks like from their view?
A statue of Lee or Grant, Jackson or Sherman, has never stirred deep emotions within my soul, but I now see that for others, a picnic in a park in the shadow of Lee or Jackson might carry a wholly different meaning.
I have read many defenses recently, on both sides, as to why Confederate symbols and monuments should remain or be removed.
I do understand that many of these statues and other markers have stood for decades as reminders of our own history, dark as it may be.
I also have no desire to erase or rewrite where we have been. Lessons from the past, especially when so much blood was shed, should not be soon forgotten.
And while history has its place, public parks and government buildings seem less than ideal locations for displaying prominently those who fought against our union to maintain the sinful and evil institution of slavery.
Perhaps the most significant factor in my own transformation on these issues has been an intentional approach to relearning the history for myself.
From my school days in Arkansas, reading books like “Gods and Generals,” I held onto the vague notion that those who lead southern armies through the Civil War were noble heroes caught between incredibly difficult choices.
I knew that Robert E. Lee himself had a low view of secession, and that he hoped his beloved Virginia would never leave.
It seemed somewhat understandable then, that when his home state did leave the Union, he might feel compelled to do so himself as well.
But what I don’t remember learning is that Lee himself was a slave owner with substantial property reliant upon slave labor for economic success.
Significant also is the fact that while he wrote the practice of slavery was “a moral & political evil in any Country,” he also believed that “the blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.”
Some may argue that the prevailing views of the day blinded many from understanding slavery as we do now. But Lee also made choices.
Rather than standing with the army of the country he had served for decades, as did at least 40 percent of the officers from Virginia, he chose to fight against that Union and against his president who asked him to lead the northern Army.
At the least, it would seem a man who was truly torn between state and country might have chosen to sit the war out, rather than picking sides.
After the war, Lee’s decisions did improve. Contrary to the hopes of some Confederate officers, he had no desire to reignite the flames of war once peace had been brokered.
And perhaps most notably of all, in the years to come, he argued vehemently for the unity of the country, as uncomfortable as that may have been for some in the South.
So passionate was he about avoiding more upheaval that he actually opposed on several occasions the erection of Confederate monuments, writing in 1869, “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.”
With these words, I am reminded of a passage of Scripture, intended for the church, but applicable in much of life.
Paul writes in Romans 14:13-23, “Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died.”
These Christians, some Jewish and others not, were called to be respectful of one another; while enjoying some type of food or drink may not be a hindrance to one, it may cause someone else to suffer.
The issue of statues is no equivalent, but I believe the underlying principle remains.
My faith calls me to have concern for my brothers and sisters, of every nation, race and tribe. And while Confederate monuments in public may not previously have caused me to suffer, they now do because of my love for others.