Confederate Statues, Flags, and License Plates
I Corinthians 10:23-24
“All things are lawful,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other.
From Galatians 3:28
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
Founded on the shores of the Ohio River, New Albany, Indiana sits just north of Louisville, Kentucky. It is 112 miles from where we sit today. In the years leading up to the American Civil War, the Second Presbyterian Church (now St. John’s Presbyterian Church, and Second Baptist Church) with its 150-foot steeple became a beacon for freedom seeking slaves in Kentucky. Presbyterians were active participants in the Underground Railroad. Today, one can still see in that building the hidden basement and the tunnel where runaway slaves were shuttled from the banks of the Ohio River northward to freedom. (Presbyterian Today, August/September 2017, p. 12f.)
Almost 200 years ago, Presbyterians, among many other groups, by their conscience, their understanding of the Gospel, as well as their decency as human beings spoke and acted on behalf of persons who were treated as inferior by the words, the laws, and the actions of other persons.
I have to admit this sermon was not what I planned to give this Sunday. I wanted to end the sermon series on the story of Jacob and Joseph in Genesis. However, many times current events have led preachers to put aside planned sermons to speak about the week’s events. Today is such an occasion.
When you ask me to step into the pulpit, you are placing upon me a sacred trust. You trust that I, or any preacher, will speak to you how the gospel bears on the events of the day. You want me to talk honestly, forthrightly, and unapologetically; for you are here for one reason – to follow Jesus Christ. Doing so begins a conversation between the pulpit and the pew.
Once again, as Americans and as Christians, the ghosts of the past and the ideologies and movements of the present confront us. The past and the present haunt us in the issue of the removal of Confederate statues and flags.
This confrontation took a dramatic turn when self-proclaimed White Supremacists and neo-Nazis protested the removal of a statue of the Confederate General Robert E. Lee. It took a deadly turn when one of the supremacists allegedly used a car to kill one young woman (Heather Heyer), and injured a score of others who supported the removal. In addition, two state patrol officers
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were killed in a helicopter crash.
It may seem strange that we need to address this issue today. The Civil War has been over for a 152 years. Yet, we confront this issue today because this debate over the Confederate statues and flag demonstrate how racially divided this country remains; and racism is an issue that no Christian today can ignore or fail to take a firm stand against.
Today, I submit to you some initial reflections on the events in Charlottesville, as well as the events afterwards, which may guide us as we think about them and our lives today.
One reflection may be hard for us as Christians, and as Presbyterians, to acknowledge. We need to confess that Christians, both in the pulpit and in the pew, have not always spoken out forcefully against slavery or racism in our history. It was humanitarians, not Christians, who began the abolitionist movement. Many Christians, however, supported the slave trade and the institution of slavery and were participants in them.
In addition, while it took four years for the nation to reunite after the Civil War, it took the Northern and Southern branches of the Presbyterian church 118 years – until 1983 – for us to reunite. Much of that was due to racial tensions.
It was a Presbyterian president (1913-1921), Woodrow Wilson, the son of a Presbyterian pastor, who removed African-Americans working or being hired in the federal Civil Service.
In this regard, we must not forget that throughout our history, churches on Sunday mornings still remain the most segregated time and place in our country. This is a hard failure for us to accept.
Because Christians and Presbyterians have not always been forthright in leading the movement against slavery and racism in our country is why we today must speak out clearly and decisively against any type of racism, bigotry, or the degradation of human beings in whatever form it may take.
A second reflection for us to consider is that those who protested against the removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville last Saturday (as well as those against the removal of Confederate statues in Lexington, Ky) said they were there to celebrate their heritage. However, the march, the slogans, and the chanting demonstrated this was no educational event to talk about history. Clearly, the Nazi flags with the Swastika were never a part of the Confederacy, nor were the “X” symbols on the shields of the white supremacists / nationalists.
Clearly, they were proclaiming that what the Confederacy stood for in the past, slavery and the institutional degradation of non-white human beings, is something they wanted to live again.
What these marchers failed to remember is that Robert E. Lee in 1869, just before his death, stated, “Anything which continues or symbolizes the civil strife that the country has undergone, including monuments, should be forgotten.” (CNN – “The Lead – August 16, 2017 – 4:00 pm EST.)
A third point of reflection is that symbols are important because they denote a deeper meaning. Confederate symbols – including flags, license plates, and T-shirts – denotes a deeper meaning than the remembering Southern heritage. These symbols hurt people because they say to all who see these symbols or slogans that: Some people are inferior to other people, or are not people at all.
What symbols and slogans do is attack people in their essence. It denies people their humanity and their rights because of whom they are. Fundamentally, they say: You are inferior because you were born black, because you were born Jewish, because you were born a woman, because you were born straight or gay, or because you were born in a different country.
Some people say it is their right to use or to say those symbols or slogans. However, I would remind all Christians what we read in our Scripture lesson. Paul wrote, “All things are lawful,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other. Just because something may be legal in one sense does not make it right in a moral sense.
A fourth reflection for us to consider is this: Prejudice is the attempt or the act of degrading others so one can promote one’s self. It is the attempt to build one’s self-esteem by
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degrading others. Prejudice is fear turned outwards to hate to give one’s self a sense of power. Of course, fear only promotes more fear. Hatred cannot build up self-esteem. Prejudice and racism is wrong, among many reasons, because it destroys everyone it touches.
The fifth and final reflection to consider is this: If leaders, whether they be religious leaders, business leaders, educators, or leaders in local, state, or national government cannot or do not stand up for the basic rights of people to be treated as human beings, to denounce racism, bigotry, or prejudice in all its forms, then we and they must reconsider whether they should remain in positions of leadership.
Finally this, I know I will most likely never be on the receiving end of discrimination because of the color of my skin. Because I am white, it is impossible for me to understand the experiences of those persons who do suffer discrimination, and how their experiences shape the way they see our country, its history, and its laws. Being white blinds me. Unless I open my eyes more deliberately, and listen more intently, to those who do suffer discrimination because of their race, their religion, their gender, their nationality, or their sexual orientation, I will never be able to help overcome the harmful deeds that people in our country, especially whites, have done to others.
Christ calls us to follow him. To follow Christ means to love God. But the only way to love God who we do not see, is to love our neighbor who we do see. Who is our neighbor? Christ says - all people.
As Paul says in one of his most powerful writings, so we are to act: There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
(Copyright by Jack Hughes Robinson, 2017. Use only by permission.)