The Difference Between Robert E. Lee and George Washington

The President made some remarks today about Robert E. Lee, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, basically an ongoing attempt to divert the negative publicity he has been getting because he can’t seem to get it right when it comes to the Alt-Right, the Neo-Nazi movement, and the issue of white supremacy.  Among the many levels of help he needs when it comes to making public statements, he needs someone who can help him get the history correct.  One of the qualifications of a president should be a thorough knowledge of American History, or at least, the ability to do some research in advance before speaking about it.  The current President needs a lot of help in this area.

Trump questioned whether statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson would now be subject to removal like those of Robert E. Lee because they also owned slaves.  The answer is no, because the point he was trying to make, that taking down statues of Robert E Lee is political correctness running amok over culture and historical tradition, is not supported by historical fact.  Merely owning slaves isn’t the real issue.  Washington, Jefferson, and others among the founding fathers, were part of a culture in which slavery was an accepted institution.  The incongruity that exists because the author of the Declaration of Independence owned slaves has long been a topic for discussion in countless history classes.  But there are vast differences between Washington and Jefferson on one side, and Lee on the other.

There are some interesting, quirky connections between Washington and Lee.  Lee was born on a Virginia plantation in an elegant home owned by his parents, but during his childhood, his father went broke, and eventually moved the family to a small house in Alexandria. Lee attended Christ Church, the Anglican-turned-Episcopalian church in Alexandria of which George Washington had been a member, and had attended.  Lee married Mary Anna Randolph Custis, the great-granddaughter of First Lady Martha Washington and her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis.  Mary’s parents owned Arlington Plantation, directly across the Potomac River from Washington, DC, and the mansion at the top of the hill became their residence.  That’s quite a pedigree, and those connections should have served to make Lee, who attended West Point for his commission, a patriotic and loyal American.

So you don’t think there’s a difference between Washington, who served the country and devoted his later years to building the nation, Jefferson, who authored its foundational documents and helped define and build democratic principles into the nation’s government, and Lee, who took advantage of the resources his country had given him, trained as a general in its military academy, and then turned against it in rebellion, siding with his state’s defense of the institution of slavery, instead of defending the constitution and the unity of the country?  Yes, all three men owned slaves.  Washington recognized how degrading it was, and there is evidence that he cared for his slaves as well as the times allowed, freeing them in his will upon his death.  There is also documentation that Jefferson treated his slaves very well, freeing many of them, and providing for their well being.  Both men took action, within the limits of the restraint of the social fabric of their time, which promoted the eventual demise of institutional slavery.  Lee is also said to have treated his slaves well, but he chose to turn his back on his country to defend his state and its decision to go to war to protect the institution of slavery, and the white supremacy that was a philosophical foundation of the practice. Why does that deserve having a statue made of you?

The statues of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis and other confederate leaders that dot the South were put up during a time when the effects of Reconstruction, mainly the government’s intervention to protect the civil rights of African Americans in the period following the Civil War, were being rolled back by a succession of Presidents and Congresses, beginning with Woodrow Wilson.  The Ku Klux Klan, sensing political support, grew larger and more bold, and helped to create an atmosphere in which such statues and monuments were built with public support and with tax dollars, in public places.  Prior to this time, it would have been very difficult, perhaps impossible, to put up a statue of Lee, or a monument to Davis.

We’re not going to take down statues and monuments to Washington, Jefferson, or other founding fathers.  They were slave owners, as were most of the wealthy and powerful men of their time.  They were caught up in the ideology of the day, time, and place, which relied heavily on the use of slave labor to produce a profitable plantation.  We recognize the history of slavery, and its impact on American settlement, economic and social development, politics, and just about everything else.  Yes, they owned slaves, but the ideals and principles which they built into the American democratic republic were eventually interpreted as applying to everyone, and the groundswell of support that was received as a result of that interpretation led to the eventual abolition of institutional slavery, and the extension of the guarantees of individual rights to all citizens, regardless of their race.  Did they foresee the day when that would happen?  I believe the evidence points to the fact that they did.  They were certainly major contributors to the ideals which made it possible.

Lee’s background, and his connection to the Washington family provided him with the same opportunity.  And at a critical moment, when the country was coming to the conclusion that slavery was an immoral affront to a Holy God, he made a choice to turn his back on his country, the principles of his faith, and his military oath and commission to defend those who were rebelling against the United States, and who held to the ideals of white supremacy.  He took command of the largest, and most effective military division of an enemy country, gave orders leading to attacks on American soldiers, and fought to defeat its principles of liberty by denying it the opportunity to prosperity.   More than 400,000 people, mostly soldiers of both sides, died as a result of his decision making ability.  At war’s end, the President of the United States, Andrew Johnson, had him arrested for treason.  Read the constitution’s definition of that principle, if you want to know why.  It was Ulysses Grant, Lee’s fellow West Pointer, who got him off the hook.

How would you feel if, in the wake of World War 2, statues had been erected honoring Alfred Jodl, Wilhelm Keitel and Adolf Hitler in public parks and in front of courthouses in the United States?  That’s exactly what it is like for African Americans, and for any Americans who are sickened and disgusted by the ideas of white supremacy, represented by the Confederate States of America and promoted by those who fought for it.  Our country exists as it does today, with a constitution proclaiming liberty and justice, and defending the “inalienable rights” of humanity, in spite of the Confederacy’s attempt to destroy and defeat it.  It is only the initial origin of the confederate states as part of the United States which forces us to share a common history.  During its existence, it was an enemy state not unlike Nazi Germany in ideology, including the belief that slavery was the natural product of a “social order” that determined white people were superior to dark skinned people.  If individuals want to display the symbols and monuments of that disgusting part of our past, free speech under the constitution they tried to destroy permits them to do so, on their own property.  But get it off public property and the tax rolls.

And let’s get this straight.  There were no “good” people in the mob in Charlottesville who marched through town carrying torches, and baseball bats, deliberately attempting to provoke people to violence, and shouting Nazi and anti-semitic slogans.  Good people protesting the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue, Mr. President?  Hardly.  And there wasn’t any violence until some of the white supremacists provoked it.  Many of those there to protest against the alt-right were clergy, or associated with a group of local churches who organized the protest.  The white supremacists were completely responsible for the violence, and for the death caused when one of their number rammed his vehicle into the crowd.  Their leader took responsibility for that, and promised more deaths resulting from their hatred and vitriol.   Hearing him speak so hateful toward anyone who doesn’t share his race or his ideology brought one word to mind.






Revisiting Ferguson

St. Louis county is made up of dozens of small and mid-sized municipalities.  It’s hard to tell when you cross from one into another, unless they’ve put up a sign, which most of them have done.  The city of St. Louis itself is crowded into a bend of the Mississippi River south of its confluence with the Missouri River, bowing out toward the east in a long sweep of about 15 miles or so, to the River DesPeres on the south side.  St. Louis County wraps around the city, to the north, west, and south, and is mostly suburban.  While some of the municipalities are small, with populations of less than 5,000, Ferguson is one of the larger ones on the north side, between the I-270 loop and I-70.

Originally a small town in a rural area outside St. Louis, with a core of historic buildings in its business district, and historic homes in a residential neighborhood, Ferguson was in the path of “white flight” growth as people left the city because of bad schools and high crime, and moved to the suburbs.  Ferguson developed into a working class community, with small bungalows and brick homes characterizing the neighborhoods.  And during the 70’s, as the African American population began to move out of the city because of bad schools and high crime, they came north.  Ferguson’s smaller homes, with better property values, was a big attraction.  The African American population, concentrated on St. Louis’ north side, kept moving north, and over a twenty year period, Ferguson went from being a predominantly white suburb to a predominantly African American one.

My wife is a native of St. Louis, and I met her while serving as a summer mission worker in a community outreach ministry of her home church in the city.  We both watched with concern and horror as the events unfolded in Ferguson following the Michael Brown shooting.  My wife has a close friend and several relatives who live near there.  Growing up in St. Louis, in the inner city, she was familiar with ongoing racial tension that came to a head from time to time.  Her church was located in a neighborhood that had been the scene of rioting and violence, and had taken precautions to protect the congregation during services.  Located virtually on the very street that was a defining boundary between races, it also tried in many ways to reach out to the community as a means of being able to preach the gospel, and bridge the tensions in the community by building relationships between its members and its neighbors.

I came to St. Louis in the summer of 1977 to work in the church’s community outreach.  The church was just a few blocks away from one of the largest public housing projects in the city.  Go north and cross the street on the north side of the park, and you were in an African American neighborhood.  To the west, across Jefferson, also African American.  To the south, along Gravois, and going south along the interstate and east of Jefferson, and it was a white, working class neighborhood where three breweries were the major employers.  Several of the areas to the west had pockets of Asian and Slavic groups. It was quite a change for someone who grew up in a small town in Arizona, very intimidating and frightening at first.  But after a few days, we got into a good routine and it wasn’t long before we knew the streets pretty well, where it was safe and where it wasn’t.

We hauled a projector, screen, puppets, cookies and a cooler full of red kool-aid around in a bus to a different neighborhood every morning, gathered dozens of kids, showed cartoons, had a puppet show and told Bible stories, then served the kool-aid and cookies. Afternoons were pretty busy, too.  We worked with a team from another church, packing donated food into boxes, and delivering them to apartments in the projects.  I’d never seen poverty up close.  It was pretty shocking, and it bothered me.  It was an existence of survival.  I tried to understand the circumstances that brought these people to this place, and why they couldn’t seem to escape them.  It was pretty overwhelming.  More than 7,000 people lived in the 10 story apartment buildings in the project, and the list of needs was endless.  People lived there because their circumstances forced them to.  It wasn’t a place you’d go if you had other options.

The woman who ran the social ministry in the church across the street from the projects helped me put things in perspective.  “Don’t question why,” she would say.  “Just try to love people the way Jesus loves them.”  I tried.  I made friends with some of the kids who came to the VBS we had at toward the end of the summer.  Some of them weren’t very trusting, understandably, though I didn’t know why at the time.  But there were a few with whom I did share a genuine friendship.  From them, I learned a lot.

One of the things I learned is that I can try as hard as possible to understand the circumstances and situations that have brought a person of another race, in poverty, to the place where they think and act as they do, but I can’t ever get to the place where I can feel what they feel, know what they know, and understand what they do.  I grew up white, in an overwhelmingly white community, relatively prosperous, at least, not ever being in a position where I didn’t know where my next meal would come from.  Most of my family was raised in a church, or at least, connected to one, and no one ever denied me anything because of the color of my skin.  I cannot point to relatives who were horsewhipped, or lynched, or who lived in fear of their lives and their property, or who were denied a job and a means of supporting their family because of their skin color.  My Dad was never without a job and a means of supporting his family, nor have I ever been in that position for any extended period of time, and I never experienced the disappointment of not being hired for a job for which I was well qualified because of the color of my skin.

No one ever burned a cross in my yard, or torched my church.  I was never turned away when I registered to vote because I could not pass an impossible test.  I was never told I had to sit at the back of the bus.  I was never turned away from a restaurant, or a bathroom, or a drinking fountain.  I might think I’ve had a few employers who didn’t pay me what I thought I was worth, but I never had to take a lower wage because of my race or skin color.  I was never turned away from the door of a school.

We visited Ferguson this past week.  It doesn’t look much different than it did in the 70’s.  The houses and schools are a little older, the trees have grown up, but it looks pretty much the same as it did in the 70’s, last time I was there.  It also doesn’t look anything like it did on those nights when the news coverage showed businesses ablaze and police cars overturned.  The damage is repaired.  The streets are quiet, and the historic downtown area, where protests crowded the streets in front of the police station and municipal buildings is as quaint as ever.  It’s still a nice looking St. Louis suburb.

What you can’t see, from driving through, are the scars left by generations of racial discrimination, the battles and fights for many of the city’s residents to get the housing they have, and into the schools where their children now attend, and to get away from the poverty and deprivation that they experienced simply because there isn’t a level playing field when it comes to race.

Jesus said, “Do not judge, so that you won’t be judged.  For with the judgment you, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”  Matt. 7:1, HCSB  Supposedly, there’s a native American saying that has a similar interpretation.  “Do not judge a man until you have walked a mile in his moccasins.”  If you interpret Jesus’ words literally, you can’t get a better interpretation than that.  At this point, I haven’t walked the full mile, so I’m not going to point a finger and judge.  I’m going to listen to what you have to say…

If you believe in the sanctity of human life, you must come to the realization that it is more than just a catch-phrase for a political faction pertaining only to the nine month period of human gestation.  Don’t get me wrong, it most definitely does pertain to that, but that’s just a small part of the whole spectrum of the gift of human life, in God’s image, to which it does pertain.  Indeed, all life does matter.  To insist that Black Lives Matter is just a euphemism for a racist perspective is to lack an understanding of the affects of generations of racism on those black lives, and it invalidates your credibility when you claim you believe in the sanctity of human life.