Is It Wrong to Display a Picture of Robert E. Lee? My Response
— Wednesday, July 28th, 2010 —
Back before I went on this extended hiatus (finishing up this new book), I received a question from a reader about whether it was ethical and neighbor-loving to display a picture of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. You can read his query here, along with comments from other readers about what he should do. Below are my thoughts on the situation.
As I write this, I can see on my wall the flag of my home state of Mississippi, and I’m deeply conflicted about it. The flag represents home for me. I love Christ, church, and family more than Mississippi, but that’s about it. Still, the flag makes me wince because emblazoned on it is the Confederate Battle Flag, which was used so often in my home state, and elsewhere, as an emblem of backlash in support of the ugly epoch of Jim Crow. I supported a referendum changing the flag in 2001, but the voters of the state kept the old flag design by a vote of 65 to 35 percent. The more I think of it, the more I believe my conflicted feelings about that flag aren’t all that unusual for a Christian.
When it comes to Robert E. Lee, I can’t agree with those who would equate this picture with one of Adolf Hitler. Virtually every biography, by his contemporaries and future historians, would commend the General for his personal character and his sacrificial leadership. As biographer Roy Blount Jr. demonstrates Lee’s views on race were, in some ways, much more progressive than those of Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and other Northerners.
Lee, like many in the army he led, saw himself as fighting, not for slavery, but for home. This doesn’t mean they were right, but it does mean that an easy caricature isn’t possible. Based on Lee’s own writings, he sounds much like an antiwar American who, nonetheless, when drafted, fights for his country.
The question is complicated more by the home for which Lee was fighting. As a localist Agrarian-leaning political type, I agree with a good bit the Vanderbilt scholars of I’ll Take My Stand found commendable in some isolated economic/cultural aspects of the antebellum South, especially compared to the whirl of the industrial rootlessness that came after. But the agrarians, right as they were on so much, were still too close, I think, to the Civil War to see the moral enormity of the slavery question.
But the Confederate States of America was constitutionally committed to the continuation, with protections in law, of a great evil.
The idea of a human being attempting to “own” another human being is abhorrent in a Christian view of humanity. That hardly needs to be said these days, thankfully, but we ought to remember just what was at stake. In the Scriptures, humanity is given dominion over created things but he is not given dominion over his fellow image-bearing humans (Gen. 1:27-30). The southern system of chattel slavery was built off of things the Scripture condemns as wicked: “man-stealing” (1 Tim. 1:10), the theft of another’s labor, the destroying of family ties, and on and on and on.
In order to prop up this system, a system that benefited the Mammonism mostly of wealthy planters, Southern religion had to carefully weave a counter-biblical theology that could justify it (the spurious “curse of Ham” concept, for instance). The abolitionists were right.
So what should a pro-civil rights son of the Confederacy do with the memory of those who fought for a Lost (in more ways than one) Cause?
Several comments on the original post pointed out how tainted virtually all history is. Yes, Lee fought for slavery, but so did the American Founders, in writing in allowances for it into the American Constitution. Does the picture of Thomas Jefferson I have in my study endorse his theological liberalism and his slave-holding or does it recognize his far-sighted commitments to human dignity and religious liberty? Does the bust of Theodore Roosevelt endorse his Darwnism or his awful views on eugenics?
The problem with a simple view of history is that it leads to a totemic use of historical figures. Some have romanticized, for instance, the American Founders in a way that doesn’t allow an honest conversation about the real problems there. Fourth of July sermons that treat Jefferson and Franklin and Adams as exemplars of evangelical Christianity aren’t really defending the gospel, nor are they honoring those founders. They are simply not treating persons as persons, turning them into slogan-supporting icons instead. The same thing is true with the cult of the Confederacy that has emerged in the last century, except often in much more malevolent forms. The Confederate dead have become a kind of cultural short-hand for white supremacy and racial resentment. It is a long drop indeed from Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson to George Wallace and David Duke.
The fetishistic use of historical figures is precisely what leads to the kind of “absolute good vs. absolute evil” characterizations we often see among Christians in the way they view current leaders. Why did so many evangelicals send around email forwards with the urban myth that the then-President of the United States had led a little girl to pray to receive Christ on a rope line? It’s because so many wanted to think of this political leader as a spiritual leader too.
That’s the kind of hagiography that led to George Washington’s cherry tree inability to tell a lie. Well, George Washington was a great man, but he was also a liar. And so am I, and so are you. Unless there was a star shining over Washington’s birthplace (and there wasn’t), then Romans 3:10-19 applies to him as well as to all of us.
But this messy historical ambiguity ought not to surprise those who are being shaped by the Bible. Think of the brutal honesty with which the Scriptures give us the sins and foibles of our fathers in the faith, while honoring them just the same. Think of the very sinful, conniving picture we get of Jacob in Genesis and then think of the fact that he is commended in Hebrews 11 as a man of faith. Think of the genealogy of our Lord Jesus, filled as it is with scoundrels. And we know they were scoundrels because the Bible tells us so.
The Christian isn’t called to a rootless, ahistorical existence. We are commanded to show honor to our fathers and mothers (Exod. 20:12). That doesn’t mean hagiography. Jesus pointed out that his fathers had died in the folly in the wilderness (Jn. 6:49). Peter pointed out that the revered David was now just a pile of bones, and thus at least one sin short of a Messiah (Acts 2:29-35). This means we have a skeptical honor that recognizes both the good graces God has given to sinful men and women, and the fact that even the best among us is a sinner.
Should you keep up that picture of Lee, with his quote about what it means to be a gentleman? I don’t know. I can’t tell you one way or the other because what’s more important than a single picture is the general ethos of a home. Years ago, I had an African-American civil rights activist friend with a portrait of Lee in his home, and I never questioned whether he might be a Klansman. I have a portrait in my office of Fannie Lou Hamer, who supported the Equal Rights Amendment (I think), but I don’t think anyone sees that picture as an apologetic for feminism.
The issue is love of neighbor and the mission of Christ. That’s why the Apostle Paul refuses to lay down simple rules about eating vegetables or eating meat (Rom. 14:1-23). If that picture would hinder your being able to show hospitality and love with your brothers and sisters of every background and race, take it down.
But, if you keep it up on the wall, let it be, like every historical portrait, a warning.
I’d like to think that if I’d been born in 1841 Mississippi instead of 1971 Mississippi that I’d have been leading slave escapes. I’d like to think that if I’d been born in 1941 Mississippi that I’d have been singing “We Shall Overcome” at the 1963 March on Washington. And maybe I would have.
But a gentleman as devoted to character as Robert E. Lee, who had thought long and hard about the evils of slavery, was so conditioned by his time that he couldn’t see past his blind spot. So what makes me think that I could have escaped a similar blind spot? And what is so common in our culture right now that we can’t even see it, as we think we’re serving the Lord?
Jesus addresses something of this when he says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrite! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets’” (Matt. 23:29). Those are chilling words for one whose bloodline has come down from the slave-holding South through the Jim Crow oppression to the present day.
As I look at that Mississippi flag, I can’t demonize it. I’m grateful for the people, the family, the place it represents. But I wince at the symbol that was used to enslave the little brothers and sisters of Jesus, to bomb little girls in church buildings, to terrorize preachers of the gospel and their families with burning crosses on front lawns by night.
All that ought not to prompt a pretending that you come from somewhere other than where you’ve come. That would be ingratitude. It ought instead simply to lead you to say, “I am a man of unclean lips, and I come from a people of unclean lips” (Isa. 6:5).
None of us is free from a sketchy background, and none of our backgrounds are wholly evil. The blood of Jesus has ransomed us all “from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers” (1 Pet. 1:18), whether your forefathers were Yankees, Rebels, Vikings, or whatever. The gospel also then frees us to give honor to whom honor is due (Rom. 13:7), without the pretense that any human being is without sin or dishonor.
Robert E. Lee was a complicated figure, a sinful rebel (in more ways than one) who bore the image of God. And so are we. Lee was gifted in commendable ways even as he used those gifts sometimes in ways that ought to horrify. So do we. We ought to be honest, in both directions, about Lee and about our neighbors and ourselves. And that ought to cause us to search out our own lives for that hidden sin, that secret hatred, that conforming to the pattern of this age that we don’t see and don’t think to ask about. Ultimately, no matter how we seek to whitewash our heritage or our personal stories, we’ll only conquer it all at the resurrection from the dead. Until then, we watch our hearts, pray for wisdom, work for justice, and love our neighbor.
Deep in my heart, I do believe that we shall overcome some day.
What’s your ethical dilemma? Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org