I have seen [my master] tie up a lame young woman, and whip her with a heavy cowskin upon her naked shoulders, causing the warm red blood to drip; and, in justification of the bloody deed, he would quote this passage of Scripture—“He that knoweth his master’s will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes,” (Luke 12:47).
Master would keep this lacerated young woman tied up in this horrid situation four to five hours at a time. I have known him to tie her up early in the morning, and whip her before breakfast; leave her, go to his store, return at dinner, and whip her again, cutting her in the places already made raw with his cruel lash… (Chapter IX, Pg. 57)
This is an excerpt from the book, Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave.
Arguing about the placement of a statue n the public square may seem arbitrary or nitpicky if we do not feel the full weight of why people find statues and icons of people like Robert E. Lee problematic. That’s why I began with the above quote.
It was this kind of treatment of another human being, described in Douglass’ book, that Robert E. Lee fought to defend.
In a letter to his wife about slavery, written in 1856, General Lee said:
In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral and political evil in any country… I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, and while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially and physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, and I hope will prepare and lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known and ordered by a wise Merciful Providence. (Emphasis mine)
You can see how he felt about African Americans in the last two sentences: “The painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their instruction…” He makes it sound like black people are untrained animals which we intelligent white people have been commissioned by God to educate, but in the most grotesque of ways.
Robert E. Lee was a slave owner. It’s easy for me to want to say, “Yes, but he also was a man of character, and we shouldn’t let a single short-coming tarnish his whole person.” It’s easy for me to want to say that because I’m not black.
We should strive to be understanding about why people want such statues and icons removed, even if we disagree with their conclusion. Robert E. Lee stands frozen as the icon of the Confederacy in many cities, including my own, and it is not because he stood for freedom, equality and unity.
General Lee stands for something far more tragic than that.
Loving your neighbor.
I’m not asking you to change you mind about what you believe Robert E. Lee’s name represents from your perspective. I’m asking you to defer to your black brothers and sisters who still have scars, and some even fresh wounds, that you and I will never understand.
Paul said in I Corinthians 8:13, “Therefore, if food causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause my brother to stumble.” In the same way, if our black brothers and sisters find a statue like this oppressive (understandably), we should defer to them.
It’s not enough to merely condemn racism because racism is a vague and subjective idea. No one actually thinks they are racists. Even members of the KKK don’t consider themselves racists.
That’s why I appreciate the concreteness of the conversation about statues. It’s kind of a test for how far we are willing to go in loving our black neighbors as ourselves. But of course, it’s about far more than statues, and I understand that not everyone agrees that removing statues is a helpful solution. So I want to metaphorize the conversation and ask this question.
What proverbial statues should you seek to remove?
In other words, what hindrance to racial unity should be taken out of the way, and what is your part to play in that?
For me, I recently signed a petition to change the name of a high school in my city, Robert E. Lee high school. I did this, not to erase history, but because I’m not black. As a white man I have no paradigm in which the name Robert E. Lee could ever offend or feel oppressive to me. But there are many for whom that isn’t true. So I want to love my neighbor as myself.
For you, maybe it isn’t a statue or the name of a high school, but the question remains. What proverbial statue can you see thwarting racial unity, and how has God called you to respond?
*As someone who works for a wonderful local church I would like to make clear that the thoughts and opinions expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect those of the church I work for and attend.
You may also like:
Download my FREE eBook when you sign up for my email list.