Its no small news that Confederate Statues and symbols have been the topic of discussion for some time now. Following last year’s church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina wherein a white supremacist waved and wore the confederate flag and more recently with the Charlottesville protest, the statues are once again in the spotlight. And rightfully so, due to the destructive ideology behind them and the adverse contexts in which they were erected. As talks of future white supremacist protests around the nation continue to rise, the ongoing discussion surrounding the statues and symbols of the Confederacy must continue.
The Capital of The Confederacy
I’m from the former capital of the Confederacy, Richmond, Virginia, a state with over 200 symbols of the Confederacy (the most of any state in the US), and a city with several monuments (including an entire avenue dedicated to them). For close to twenty years, I’ve passed by many of these monuments on multiple occasions and with every passing by and every visit these moments always seem to be filled with feelings of awkwardness and discomfort.
Growing up in Richmond, I was taught from a young age in the schools that I attended that the men who fought for the Confederacy were honorable, possessing character qualities that most didn’t. Granted, most history textbooks didn't focus much on any of the blemishes or darker moments of America’s early history or its prominent figures, but the Confederates received, in my recollection, more elevated attention. Thomas Jackson was largely praised for his fortitude being like a Stonewall, Robert E. Lee was exalted for his class and decorum displayed at the Appomattox courthouse. J.E.B. Stuart was particularly honored for his heroic and knight-like persona and Jefferson Davis was celebrated for his leadership in the Confederacy. Consequently, when I often passed the statues of these men or recognized their names on local schools, highways, and historical markers, the historical information I attributed to their names was severely and necessarily one sided.
I wasn't too far into elementary school when I eventually connected the disastrous events of slavery to the glorified figures of American history - everyone from George Washington to the Confederate figures whose images I saw preserved in the monuments in my city. From that time, my disposition towards these statues and edifices began to grow colder. On field trips to Monticello, I no longer cared for Jefferson’s mansion or his extensive library when I could imagine the bodies of people like me outside of it, confined in shackles and subjected to the basest of living conditions. Standing in the historic St. John’s Church where Patrick Henry cried out “Give me liberty or give me death”, I knew he wasn’t proclaiming this ultimatum on behalf of my ancestors. Walking past Robert E. Lee’s 60 foot tall statue on Monument Avenue, I felt as though Lee’s sculpted metal eyes looked down on me, not just literally, but metaphorically - in disgust and disdain. The 1978 movie “The Wiz” introduces the cowardly Lion as a large statue outside of a library whose eyes follow Dorothy and her companions, and as they begin to look closer at him, he launches out of the stone structure terrifying them. As a kid, I felt like Lee, Jackson, and Jefferson Davis were waiting to do the same to me if I gazed at them too closely. This feeling never goes away.
Hard to Call it Home
There are some, possibly many, African-Americans in Virginia and the rest of the American South that may say that the statues don't bother them or disrupt their regular rhythms. If I’m honest, even in the deflating feelings that I experience when I’ve visited these monuments, I usually attempt to ignore the statues most of the time and while their presence is certainly frustrating, they are not an ongoing distraction. But if these monuments do produce anything within me, its a hesitancy to truly call this city “home.”
Fellow believers and evangelicals, before you cry out “But this earth is not our home!”, recognize that I and many others have felt the resounding force of this truth long before I came to read it in the Bible. Many African-Americans in the South know what it is like on some level to feel like strangers and exiles in a place while longing for another country. The perpetual visible reminders of what once was in my city cause me, as a minority, to question if I really belong here or if I am truly welcome by those who seek to preserve the exaltation of these particular historical figures. I’m confronted with this reality every time I see the rebel flag raised around town, drive past a monument, or visit the plantation-turned-park with my son, where the reenactments “somehow” never depict the true historical condition of people like myself.
Whether or not these Confederate monuments and symbols in my city are taken down, as a Christian and as a black man, this world, this city, is not ultimately my home. My comfort, while aggravated in this context, does not ultimately rest in the decisions of local governments. In one sense, this city is not my home because my identity as a person of color was taken by cruel oppressors who would’ve died to sustain my subjugation.Furthermore, this world is not my home because the brokenness of sin has corrupted the systems and people of this world in the wickedest ways imaginable, a reality displayed in the elevation of these statues. My supreme hope is rooted in another world where this reality doesn’t exist.
It’s difficult to truly call this city -and even this country at times- “home” because while the heritage of oppression stands tall and sanitized in the city square, much of the heritage of African peoples in this city lies beneath the pavement of parking lots and interstates, beneath superficial narratives; in hidden figures, forgotten stories, and details about what else took place during these periods of history - all while being covered up by many with deflections like “black slaves were providentially and contentedly placed in bondage to hear the gospel”, or “this general didn't own any slaves or treat them badly”. Confederate monuments will draw a thousand supporters with a thousand narratives about heroism, patriotism, character, supremacy, and superiority, while the black men, women, and children whom the Confederacy crushed under the weight of slavery receive the monument of an unmarked tombstone, a forgotten status that still affects the lives and structures that exist in this city presently.
Erasing History vs Embracing Healing
My preference is that all the Confederate monuments come down, not as an attempt to erase history but in an effort to embrace healing. For those who would argue that removing statues is erasing history, history is actually erased when its storytellers conceal and suppress the cruel treatment of marginalized and disenfranchised image bearers for the sake of a superior narrative. On the contrary history is exaggerated when image bearers who perpetuated racial superiority and fought for slavery are given glory they are not due.
The reality is that any city that unashamedly exalts the history of the Confederacy will never truly feel like “home” for African-Americans until it denounces this history and embraces our history- black history- as its own. Until the American South, including its former Confederate capital city admits its tyrannical role in the suppression and enslavement of black bodies and the degradation of black souls, it will to some degree continue to alienate its minority population. I believe healing can truly be embraced in this acknowledgement, but also in the removal of exalted, yet defeated symbols- and perhaps then this city can be a place where the actual present and historical victories and achievements of many peoples can be celebrated and memorialized. I believe this is already happening and my hope is that this would continue to take place in Richmond.
A Better Testament
Confederate monuments serve as a dark testament that proclaims the alienation and inferiority of people created in the image of God. They proclaim the echoes of war instead of peace. They serve as a testament that sinful humans glorify what we shouldn’t, and this is why God’s people shouldn't support their exaltation; its contrary to what we proclaim. What serves as a better testament and proclaims a brighter message of true reconciliation and unity is the cross of Christ. The cross serves as a testament that those who were once far off and alienated, whether racially or spiritually, and those who commit sin and are sinned against, have been brought near through faith in Jesus’ perfect sacrifice (Eph 2:13). The cross proclaims true peace. It is through our uplifted, perfect, victorious, and reconciling Savior on the cross and his resurrection, that all peoples who put their faith in Him, have hope for a better country, that is a heavenly one (Heb. 11:16) even as this country continues to heal. It is through the cross that we have hope for a day when all kinds of people will gather themselves, not around the memorial foundations of sinful oppressors, but around the foundation of righteousness and justice of God’s throne.