Happy Juneteenth, everyone. In case you need a little history, you can check this out here.
I am writing this post, not to add any more division and misunderstanding. God knows we have had enough of that. Nor am I writing to point fingers at anyone. I am simply seeking to understand and seeking to be understood. So this might be a bit of my own history here. I know more about the hidden recesses of my own heart than the hearts of others anyway, and I am still searching.
All of my life I have heard of the confederate “heroes”. You know the ones. Stonewall Jackson. Robert E Lee. Jefferson Davis.
I have heard of the southern heroes of Presbyterian orthodoxy as well, men like R.L. Dabney, J.H. Thornwell and others.
And I know now of the controversy surrounding these men. With all of their achievements, there was one huge glaring error – the support of the horrible institution of slavery.
To critique these men in some circles is to incur the wrath of the orthodox. One simply needs to spend a moment on Twitter to see it. Now it seems more relevant than ever, when the movement is so strong to remove the statues of Lee and Jackson from southern cities.
There was a time in my life when I also would have said, “Yes, slavery was wrong and it needed to be abolished. But it was only a very small aspect of who these men were. Certainly we can honor their achievements and their character while disagreeing with their stand on slavery.”
Yes. I used to think that way too. And then I listened.
It occurred to me that my saying this exposed a very ugly part of my own heart. The only way I could say this is if black lives didn’t REALLY matter to me. In theory, they would have mattered. I would say, “Of course, black lives matter. ALL lives matter.” But in practice, things were different.
It pains me to say this. Repentant sin still has the power to shame.
But let me explain. To say that Robert E. Lee or Thomas Jefferson or George Whitefield were true heroes except for their views on slavery is the same as saying that black lives really DON’T matter. There are certain viewpoints that color everything about a man.
One recent tweet from a very famous, conservative Christian leader and apologist exposes what I am saying. He said, “Slavery was a very small part of who Robert E Lee was.”
Which you can only say if slavery doesn’t really matter. And you can only say that slavery doesn’t matter if black lives don’t matter.
Please think it through. Would it be tolerated in any other setting?
“Marquis de Sade was a fine citizen except for his habit of torturing young women.”
“Bill Cosby was a great man, with strong family values except for that little peccadillo of drugging and raping women.”
“Larry Flint was a great champion of freedom. Violent Pornography was only a trivial part of who he was.”
“Dennis Rader was a fine Christian man, who taught Sunday School and was a leader in his community. Binding, torturing, and killing was only a trivial part of his character.”
I think you are getting my point. When we say that Robert E Lee or R.L. Dabney were great Christian influencers, and that slavery was only a small part of who they were as men – here is what is heard: Black lives are trivial and don’t really matter.
If you want to know why there are so many who are insisting that black lives matter, there it is.
Here is how slavery operated. Read a history. Men, women and children were sold on auction blocks, inspected like cattle. Families were torn apart, children were sold apart from their mothers, husbands and wives separated for the profit of landowners. Men, women and children could be raped, beaten, tortured. And they were, frequently. They did not count as humans. It was a crime to teach them how to read. They were not allowed in white churches. It was illegal to put them in “white” clothes. A white man seen in the company of a black man was considered an accomplice to an escape in Virginia. Laws were passed that made it impossible for slaves to be freed.
Whole presbyteries owned slaves and rented them to land-owners who worked them into the ground until they were dead. And the churches used the proceeds to pay for their pastors so that they could continue to preach the gospel over the bodies of the slaves.
The first gun control laws in Virginia ordered all white men to come to church armed to prevent any blacks from trying to seek asylum.
And so when we say, “Robert E Lee was a good man, except for his support of slavery” we are counting all of that history as trivial. And the only way that we can do that is if black lives don’t really matter.
PS – I guess I also need to say this. Apparently there is a movement and an organization called “Black Lives Matter”. I know nothing about them. This post isn’t about them.
It is about real lives and real people. Your daughters matter, which is why we don’t have statues of Marquis de Sade in our public squares. Your children’s lives matter, which is why we don’t put up statues of Dennis Rader. And black lives also matter. The first two aren’t disputed, but tend to be well-agreed-upon.
But as long as people keep considering slavery to be a trivial issue, or “good for the African”, or, “A product of its time”, then we will also need to continue to insist that black lives do indeed matter.
It is time to do justice to the millions that died, trampled into the dust by white slave owners, pulled from their homes by white slavers, and sold like cattle to plantation owners. A good first step would be to acknowledge that the “defense of slavery” is not a trivial thing. It overshadows everything else about a person.
A pedophile might otherwise be a good person. A murderer might not be murdering 99% of the time. A bank robber doesn’t rob every bank. A man beating you up might be a kind and loving husband the rest of the time. A cheating wife might not cheat 6 days of the week.
But they are defined by the one thing – pedophile. Murderer. Robber. Brawler. Abuser. Adulterer.
Or a slave owner. One who used the body of another against his or her will for their own profit. And then tried to justify it from the scripture.
Quit honoring these men. We can do better, and we should.