Robert E. Lee on the Portal of Duke Chapel
Over the past few weeks, officials in New Orleans have begun to remove Confederate monuments around the city. This past weekend, protests erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia at the idea of removing statues of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and Robert E. Lee and renaming a prominent thoroughfare after someone other than General Jackson. The protestors in Virginia, made notable by the presence of white nationalist leader Richard Spencer were met by a chorus of Black Lives Matters marchers and others who take issue to these monuments.
History is complex. Even today, debating Civil War history is a mess; as the President’s attempts to explain the economic and social origins of the Civil War revealed. Good, bad, and indifferent people disagree about the cause of the war and what place the war should hold in American society. On one side, so the argument goes, the war is part of our past, it’s who we are. The other side argues that public art and statuary glorifying a military to struggle to preserve a way of life built on racism and slavery no longer deserves a prominent place in American culture.
I’m of the mind to agree with those who want to remove and replace the statues. (On a side note, when the Russians took down most of the Soviet era statues of Lenin and Communist era figure heads in Moscow they placed them in a public park. In the larger provincial towns outside of Moscow, Lenin still stands in far too many places.) So, if we’re in the mood to remove grand edifices which were built as temples to segregation, racism, slavery, and a way of life no longer existing in 21st century in America, we need to dismantle the United Methodist Church.
One of my favorite books is entitled, “Surely Mr. Feynman, you must be joking?” No, I’m not. It’s time to remove ourselves from the public square, sphere, space, and reconstitute as something new. I’m the pastor of a church chartered in 1943. Before that, my previous congregation was chartered in 1941. Here in the rural south, where opposition to change in the Book of Discipline is greatest, are hundreds of churches born in the Jim Crow era. Our churches are monuments, statues, temples, constructed in a pre Civil Rights Act, Brown vs. Board of Education, and in many cases, a Plessy v. Ferguson United States of America.
Our ancient buildings (many with the name Centenary-signifying their foundation in the late 1870’s) represent the past as much as a statue of Stonewall Jackson. It’s no accident that Robert E. Lee stands shoulder to shoulder with Martin Luther, John Knox, Sidney Lanier, Thomas Jefferson, and John Wesley. On Methodism’s cathedral, in the heart of the North Carolina Annual Conference, Robert E. Lee and John Wesley are separated by a few feet of Virginia stone.
Yes, Virginia, churches are monuments to the Civil War. This is a much larger quandary at Duke University than Professor Paul Griffiths being forced to attend a diversity seminar. What do you do with the Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia on your big fancy church? If those at Duke’s Divinity School (from which I graduated) or the university proper really want to address racism they should look across the quad. Similarly, if United Methodism wants to be indignant at racial or sexual discrimination we can start by looking at ourselves before waging war with the culture at large.
Robert E. Lee should be removed from Duke Chapel. You want to know the truth, having two reluctant slave owners on the front of Duke Chapel is two slave owners too many. That’s the most racist thing on Duke’s campus. If you’re going to get mad and tear everything down, let’s do it all; including the monumental legacy of United Methodism. The Book of Discipline must first be removed from its pillar. The revolution will start in the small churches. The new Methodism, the conversations about the past, the future, and living into the resurrection will be locally led.
Will it happen? Will revolutionaries tear down the United Methodist Church? No. We may fall apart but we don’t have enough on the ball to come apart with insurgent aplomb. However, we might stop using words like schism. We do not need schism. Finely tuned doctrinal arguments over disciplinary angels dancing on the head Wesleyan Covenantal pins will only turn United Methodism into a dying subsidiary of an already co-opted American evangelical movement.
We need revolution from the ground up. The selective use of righteous indignation is killing our credibility to be effective witnesses to the Good News. Are we only mad when Ann Coulter goes to UC Berkeley or Richard Spencer goes to UVA and touches our guilty nerves? Why are we not angrier with ourselves when we live within institutions unwilling to address their own history? Why are we so surprised that discrimination against innocent people who want to serve Jesus remains the most threatening idea the church can undertake? I know why. It’s far more fun to dissect emails from crotchety old professors. Statues in Charlottesville seem a long way from the front steps of the divinity school. We’re wearing blinders. And like the Civil War, both sides are certain God is with them. Although, after the past year, I’m not sure God would invite any of us over for dinner.