Of all the statements made following last Saturday’s horrific events in Charlottesville, one of the most helpful and on-target was that of the Rev. Robert Wright Lee IV, ironically, a great-great-great grand nephew of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. It was the general’s statue that served as a rallying point for the neo-Nazis.
Quoted in the HuffPo, Rev. Lee said, “It broke my heart to see a symbol of my family being used to allow such hate. All in the name of what my relative stood for…These statues have morphed into a symbol of racism, a symbol of bigotry, a symbol of the alt-right, a symbol of white nationalist movements. That is not okay and that can never be celebrated or honored in any way, whether you believe you should honor legacy or ancestors or not.”
Wait. It gets better. Lee, a minister in the United Church of Christ in North Carolina, also called out his fellow Christians for their silence and complicity in perpetuating racism.
“It was not safe to be black or a person of color in Charlottesville yesterday. So I have to ask you, what were you doing yesterday? God, who calls us not to silence but to redemption was watching, and if you didn’t see the oppression, if it somehow missed you on social media or the nightly news you only have yourself to blame… If you are silent at a moment like this, if you do not condemn the racism you see through whatever channels and avenues you have, you can leave church now because you’re doing church wrong… When we don’t acknowledge that white bodies matter more than black bodies in America right now, it’s a gross mishandling of the gospel of Jesus Christ. People are dying because we have been complicit in our silence or in our action.”
This is exactly what white Christians needed to hear on Sunday. As pastors we do not have to preach from the headlines every Sunday. That would not be healthy. But there are teachable moments, especially when all eyes, both here and abroad, are fixed on a single event– historical moments, when people both inside and outside the church look to us for wisdom, comfort, and moral direction. Most pastors have sadly abdicated this prophetic role, which is why the church is so often considered as irrelevant (at least) or even part of the problem. This silence and complicity empowered slavery and Jim Crow and made them so long lived; it even helped lead this nation into Civil War, as it may again.
Update 9/5/17: There is a cost to speaking out against racism, especially when your target is Christians. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/robert-e-lees-descendant-run-out-of-church-after-denouncing-white-supremacy_us_59aea7d9e4b0b5e53100dad2