I grew up southern. Even more significant, I grew up Virginian. The foothills of the Blue Ridge were my playground, the red clay of the Old Dominion was my sandbox, and the countless historical sites and landmarks were my classroom. I cut my teeth on the stories of the settlers of Jamestown. I can trace my lineage to some of the first members of Williamsburg’s House of Burgesses. I have stood in the same church where Patrick Henry delivered the ultimatum of “Give me liberty, or give me death!” I have walked the halls of Washington’s home in Mt. Vernon and Jefferson’s estate in Monticello. It seemed every year there was at least one field trip to some battlefield, historical marker, or memorial. As a result I developed a deep love for history. And for the confederacy.
Richmond was the capital of the Confederate States of America. The city that shares my name is also home to some of the grandest memorials to Southern leaders in existence. She even has a street that bears the name “Monument Avenue” which boasts statuary dedicated to the memory of men deemed as heroes of the confederacy. The names of Lee, Davis, Stuart, and Jackson are everywhere. They adorn street names, schools, colleges, and, of course, their bronze likenesses sitting proudly astride warhorses like the conquerors they never were.
I looked up to these images. I took pride in them. I aspired to them. This was my heritage. I, a descendant of confederate soldiers, even owned a replica gray cap of a confederate infantryman that I would wear as a youth playing in the woods with toy guns, pretending to defend my home against invaders from the North.
Not once did it cross my mind that others viewed these memorials differently. Not once did it occur to me to ask my black friends how they viewed those monuments. Not once did I consider the entirety of the history of the conflict in which these men engaged, much less the history since those days.
The South is a complicated place. Oh sure, we seem simple at times. We’re laid back, polite, and move at a different pace than the rest of the country. But our history is messy. Look in our shadows and you will see the dark skin of slavery. Open our closets and the bones of Jim Crow clatter. The attic of Dixie is filled with nooses and the basement with the ashes of too many churches and crosses burned. It is our shame to bear. And bear it we must.
“Now wait a minute,” the argument goes, “the Civil War was in the past. I didn’t own slaves. I’m not a racist. There’s nothing to be gained by living in the past.” You may not be a slave owner. You may not be a racist. But some wounds are too deep to leave in the past. Some hurts don’t go away. Some scars don’t heal.
Let’s go further back in history for a moment, to the days of King David. I know, this seems like a hard left turn out of nowhere, but bear with me. In the book of 2 Samuel, in chapter 21, there is a curious story. David, nearing the end of his reign, has his kingdom suffering from a famine that has been ongoing for three years. Being a Godly man David prays to God for help. God’s answer? The land is plagued because of how his predecessor on the throne, Saul, had mistreated the Gibeonites.
Gibeon was not Israel. In fact, the Gibeonites had fooled Israel in the days of Joshua. But Joshua made a covenant to live peacefully with the Gibeonites. Saul broke that treaty by attempting a genocidal cleansing. This angered God, even many years later after Saul was dead.
Saul’s reign was a different time; a different era. Why should David have to worry about something that happened so long ago? Why did God want David to dig up painful memories of the past and root around in the darkest corners of Israel’s history? Why all the fuss?
Because God is a God who hates injustice. Justice had not been reckoned, and it was up to David to seek it out. So David did what every lover of God should do in the face of injustice. He went to the injured party and asked, “What shall I do for you… how shall I make atonement?” (2 Samuel 21:3). And then he listened.
He listened to their grievances.
He listened to their pain.
He listened to their anger.
In all his listening David never argued, contradicted, or made excuses. He never said, “not my generation, not my problem.” He simply listened and acted. The price of atonement was to be the death of seven of Saul’s sons. It seems harsh to us today, but in an honor-based culture in the ancient near-east, this would have been considered normal and just. Only after the bodies were buried did God respond “to the plea for the land.”
Listening, then acting. That’s what we as a nation need to do. We don’t listen, except to make a rebuttal. We need to listen to understand. Hear the pain. Hear the injustices of the past 400+ years. Hear the cries of anguish over innocent men, women and children, used, abused, and killed for no reason other than the color of their skin. Hear the anger as four centuries of hatred fall on their back harder than any taskmaster’s whip. Hear the stories of violence, intimidation, separate-but-unequal, white-only water fountains, church bombings, and more. Hear and feel.
This isn’t about white shame. This isn’t about political correctness. This isn’t about left or right. It is about justice. Our God is a God of justice, and as a Christian I should be concerned about justice too. I should be able to empathize with anyone who feels wronged. I should be able to do what David did: listen and act.
And that action may be costly. No, I’m not calling for executions, and neither is God. We live under a covenant of grace, and thus we are to extend grace. What does grace look like in this instance? Honestly, I’m not sure. It may look like empty pedestals where statues once stood. It may look like sitting down with someone as they list grievances that I am generations removed from committing. But grace is costly. As one who lives in the shadow of the cross, I know that grace costs.
It may cost me my heritage. But grace promises an inheritance.
It may cost me some friends. But grace promises a family.
It may cost me some status. But grace promises sonship.
It may cost me comfort. But grace promises rest.
It may cost me my reputation. But grace promises a future.
As wonderful as grace is, it would be the height of all sin to let something as simple as a statue stand between me and a potential brother in Christ. The thing we often miss about grace is that grace has to be given and received. If I give it freely, but there is something worldly, something temporary, that prevents another from receiving it, then I need to be willing to kill off that worldly, temporary thing. If I’m not, then that object has become more important than the command of God to me; it has become an idol, and idols must be toppled if I am to please Christ. Only once we remove our idols, in whatever form they take, can we bury the bodies of our past and move forward.