Monuments of Shame

Monuments of Shame

During my college years, I was quite enamored with beer.  I’m not proud of that.  But, it’s the truth.  My love affair with beer became a destructive habit that damaged relationships, hindered my maturation and education, and cast a permanent dark cloud over that chapter of my life.

I not only drank beer.   I covered the walls of my bedroom with beer-related posters and neon beer signs.  I built a visible, tangible monument to my destructive, addictive idolatry.

27 years ago, with God’s help, I stopped drinking.  Thank God.  About that time, I also tore down the beer-related decor.  Needless to say, there’s no beer-related paraphernalia in house anymore.

Given my history with beer, and the pain and destruction it caused, imagine if I still had that stuff hanging around.  What would that communicate to my mom, to my wife and children? What would that communicate to guests in my home?  What would that communicate to those who call me “pastor?”  What would that say about me, and my inability to move on?

Perhaps this is an overly-trite example, by comparison.  I hear a lot of talk these days about Civil War-related monuments.  I hear well-intentioned people say, “It’s our history,” as a justification for why the monuments should remain.  But, as I understand it, the purpose of monuments is to honor.  Is it appropriate for monuments to remain, in public, tax-payer supported places of honor, that represent such a dark blot on our history?  Is it appropriate for monuments to remain that symbolize the source of pain and strife for so many of our fellow-Americans?  It appropriate to maintain public monuments that white supremacists continue to use as symbols for their hate-filled cause?

I have vivid memories of the Berlin Wall coming down  and the massive statue of Saddam Hussein toppled in Iraq.  Numerous statues of Stalin and Lenin were torn down, removed, or relocated to history museums.  To the best of my knowledge, the destruction of such monuments was celebrated by most Americans.

In contrast, one can still visit many of the concentration camps of Nazi Germany – not as monuments, but reminders.

I will confess, as a 50-year-old white man, born and raised in the South, it only recently occurred to me that Confederate monuments were an issue of concern.  They’ve been an “accepted” part of Southern culture, since before I was born.  They’ve just been part of the Southern landscape.

But, my eyes have been opened.  While they’ve not offended me in the past, I now view them from a different perspective.  I have a growing understanding of what they represent to my African American brothers and sisters.  I have a growing understanding of the shameful horrors they represent. If they cause pain, and continue to communicate a message of racial difference and separation, then they need to come down.

They MUST come down!

Yes, the Civil War is part of our history – as are the Trail of Tears, the Japanese internment camps, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the southern Jim Crow laws, etc., etc.  We have history books, documentaries, and museums to keep those stories alive.  Remembering our history is important, so that we learn, grow, and strive not to repeat it.

Perhaps we do need monuments – monuments on behalf of the victims – as reminders of our sins.  But, why would we maintain monuments to honor the perpetrators of our darkest moments?

Though trivial by comparison, my college drinking is a dark chapter of my life.  I’ve worked hard to overcome that part of my history.  I can’t change it.  And, I won’t hide it.  But, I certainly won’t memorialize it.  The neon beer signs had to come down.

They had to come down.

 

 

Charlottesville – Symptoms of a Deeper Disease

Charlottesville – Symptoms of a Deeper Disease

As yesterday’s events, in Charlottesville, VA, were unfolding – white supremacist rallies and counter rallies, leading to violence and death – I happened to be finishing T.H. White’s novel, The Once and Future King.  The Once and Future King is White’s retelling of the Arthurian legend of King Arthur, Merlin, Camelot, the round table, Excalibur, Lancelot and Guinevere.

A young Arthur discovered that he was the rightful King, when he successfully pulled the sword, Excalibur, from a stone – a task only possible for the one who was worthy.  Having been trained by the sorcerer, Merlin, Arthur believed in building a kingdom of peace and law, founded on the principles of chivalry.  He would rule his kingdom, equitably, from a round table surrounded by knights, committed not to war but to fighting evil and defending good.

By the end of the novel, King Arthur was a defeated, old man.  All of his closest relationships were broken.  His kingdom was at war.  All that he had worked to create, was in ruins.  In the final pages, Arthur wrestled with what had gone awry.  Considering numerous philosophical possibilities, he wondered…

Was it the wicked leaders who led the innocent populations to slaughter, or was it wicked populations who chose leaders after their own hearts?  On the face of it, it seemed unlikely that one Leader could force a million Englishmen against their will… A leader was surely forced to offer something which appealed to those he led?  He might give the impetus for a falling building, but surely it has to be toppling on its own account before it fell?

David Duke, the former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, said of Saturday’s events, “This represents a turning point for the people of this country. We are determined to take our country back, we’re going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump, and that’s what we believed in, that’s why we voted for Donald Trump, because he said he’s going to take our country back and that’s what we gotta do,”  

But, later in the day, President Trump said,“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides. On many sides. It’s been going on for a long time in our country.”  

While I am not a fan of President Trump, I take him at his word.  Donald Trump did not cause the events in Charlottesville, VA.  And, in fact, my fear is that the thousands of white supremacists gathered in Charlottesville – with their Klan robes, swastikas, and Confederate flags – were merely symptomatic of a much deeper ill.  What we witnessed in Charlottesville is the extreme outward and visible sign of a much deeper, wide-spread disease, infecting the roots of our society.  I honestly fear that what we’ve witnessed is representative of a reality far more broken and insidious than most of us have realized is still possible in 2017.

If there were several thousand overt racists in Charlottesville, publicly espousing their venomous hatred, how many more do they represent who were not in attendance?  Or – a more disturbing possibility – how many of us publicly condemn groups like the Klan and Skinheads, but privately hold to our own racist ideologies?

The roots of prejudice, racism and hate run deep in this country.  It is a dark and shameful blot on our national story.  While progress has been made to ensure the civil rights of all people, and to confront and cure myriad racial injustices, the events in Charlottesville reveal that changing laws may be easier than changing hateful hearts.  While we might be able to elect an African-American President – which was truly a momentous, historic event – how much more racial hatred grew and intensified as a result of that election?

Is Arthur right?  Might a person, a group, an event, a demonstration… “give the impetus for a falling building, but surely it has to be toppling on its own account before it fell?”  Perhaps the events of Charlottesville, and other’s like them, are merely a falling building; but, the building has surely been toppling on its own account.

In the last year, I accepted the challenge to expand my reading to include more diverse authors.  As a result, I’ve read John Perkins, Bryan Stevenson, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Lisa Sharon Harper, Gustavo Guttierez, Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu, and Trilla J. Newbell. Needless-to-say, I’ve been challenged.  My eyes have been opened to the reality of white, North American privilege, and the inherent advantages I’ve had as a white male.  My eyes have been opened to the institutional racism that has existed in our nation in the form of unjust laws.  I’ve been forced to face, over and over, the prejudicial lies that have lived in my own heart and mind.

I’ll be honest – I’m ashamed.

So, where do we go from here?  Simple shock, outrage, and condemnation about an isolated event – though justified and understandable –  won’t cut it.

More of us, who are white and hold positions of power and influence, must make conscious decisions and choices to confront the prejudices and stereotypes that exist within ourselves, and leverage whatever influence we have to encourage and support those who are on the front lines of change.  We must pursue and nurture authentic friendships with diverse peoples.  We must be willing to lead when we must lead and be willing to follow when we need to follow.  We must be willing to listen when we need to listen, and to speak prophetically on behalf of the voiceless.  We must be patient with what we do not understand, and impatient with those who refuse to understand.  We must learn, and act on what we learn.  We must love, expanding our hearts to include those we might have previously feared.  We must be willing to repent and change.

And, we must name the evil of racism when we see it.  What we saw this weekend was evil.

I’m still inspired by the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr – perhaps now more than ever – and I sense a deepening conviction to not only be inspired, but to do my part to fulfill the dream…

I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. 

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today. 

I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification”, one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.