Confederate Monuments, a Counterpoint to My Previous Post


See the picture. One of the ways I walk in my neighborhood goes by a fenced property, and on the fence is a sign, “Beware of Dog.”

That sign provides information, useful information I think as the dog looks to me sturdier than the fence, but also warns and intimidates. The sign not only reminds me that the property is not mine to enter but also serves to threaten me with harm if I foolishly choose to enter anyway. When I have walked by on the sidewalk, the rottweiler to which the sign refers has jumped against the fence and barked at me until I have passed. Neither my walking in the street nor speaking softly to the dog made any difference. Since I could not sooth the dog, I took its picture, and now I walk on the other side of the street or go a different way. Would the rottweiler really bite me? I don’t know, but neither do I intend to find out, which is the whole idea of the sign.

While I am not retracting my previous post about the Confederate monuments that have become focal points for controversy throughout our nation and do continue regard them as more about intimidation than history, I am taking a step to one side so I can look from a slightly different perspective. Maybe, with the help of a friend from our days as classmates in seminary, I am attempting a half-step away from my whiteness. Or maybe it’s just a reality check. Or both.

I said and say again that the monuments represent white dominion. What I need to remind myself, however, is that they are not the reality of white dominion but merely its representations. Without societal forces behind them, the statues would be just statues. Removing them is, I contend, the right thing to do, but doing so will not remove the realities they represent to living people, white and black. Neither is the needed change only about individual minds and hearts, important as such inner change is. Behind the statues are many layers of real systemic injustice that continue in our society.

My friend and former classmate Jon is black, and I am white. Jon’s skin, of course, is not truly black and mine, though pale, not truly white, but so we are labeled in society. One day as we were talking about race-related events of that time (around 1970), Jon told me something so obvious as to not need saying, except that it did need saying. I am paraphrasing as I don’t recall his actual words. He said something like, “Dick, you don’t have to think about race or skin color very often. You can go days or even weeks without paying any attention to your race or even having it come to mind. But whenever I have forgotten about race even briefly in public, out there with white folk, I have paid for it.”

I suspect most black people on most days walk by those Confederate monuments without really noticing them, until maybe they experience some sharp reminder of the white dominion those monuments represent and suddenly see them again. Certainly, just removing the monuments won’t improve their lives much, any more than removing the “Beware” sign would remove the dog.

I am not suggesting those intimidating monuments to the continuing force of the Confederacy don’t matter. I am saying the monuments themselves don’t matter enough for their removal to be enough of a change. Do hearts and minds need to be changed? Yes, which is why countering hatred and violence with opposing hatred and violence will not help. But the devils of racism and injustice are not only in the minds and hearts of individuals but also in the very structures and systems of society – of economics, business, real estate, finance, religion, and education. Racism is systemic, built into our systems, and so it continues to work its evil even without anyone’s deliberate thought or intention.

We must oppose the rampant hatred and destructive false pride of white supremacy. We must rescue black, Jewish, and immigrant children from its violence, and we must save white children from its seductive power to destroy them by playing upon their own fear, pride, and need to belong. We must also preserve our history, but the real history which includes the many ways in which slavery was indeed replaced with systemic racism. Otherwise, I can easily imagine that a black person might just caution us, “Leave the monuments alone. Unless you’re ready to make real changes in the way life works for people, in the way things are arranged to work for some people and against others, don’t just take down monuments and walk away patting yourselves on the backs as though you had just done something great for which I should thank you. I won’t thank you because, unless you do more to tame the dog of racism in our systems, I’m the one that dog you’ve angered is going to bite.”

That previous post: here

Images of the Confederacy in Public Squares


In his commentary on Genesis, the renowned biblical scholar Gerhard von Rad writes in partial explanation of the declaration that humanity is created in the “image and likeness of God”:

Just as powerful earthly kings, to indicate their claim to dominion, erect an image of themselves in the provinces of their empire where they do not personally appear, so man is placed upon earth in God’s image as God’s sovereign emblem. He is really only God’s representative, summoned to maintain and enforce God’s claim to dominion over the earth. (58)

The statue of the king is erected to remind friend and foe alike who rules the land and under whose dominion its people live. The image is placed to bestow pride upon those who believe they share in the king’s greatness and thrive under his authority. The image is placed also to instill fear in any who rebel against the king’s system or challenge his rule.

Such is the function of the statues placed throughout the American South in the 1920’s or during the “civil rights era” as images of such champions of the Confederacy as Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis. They proclaim to white people and black people alike who it is that continues to hold ideological and practical dominion over the city or state and its peoples, under whose sway they live and work. Robert E. Lee was a complex man, but it is not his complexity or his place in history that is proclaimed by the statue; it is, rather, the dominion of the Confederacy’s insistence upon the superiority of so-called white people and the inferiority of so-called black people. The statues declare whose land the South is presumed to be – not Lee’s or Davis’s, but the Old South’s. To the white they say, “You are more, no matter your station in life, your place in society, your education, or your successes and failures.” To the black they say, “You are less, no matter your station in life, your place in society, your education, or your successes and failures.”

If Robert E. Lee was indeed as great a man as some claim, then is such use of his image not an abuse of his likeness and his name? I have no desire to debate Lee’s character because it is irrelevant to the function of the statues which represent, not his greatness, but white dominion’s persistence and the expansion of it white supremacists desire.

Should the Confederacy be forgotten or hidden from people? No, like other realities of history, it should be remembered, studied, and questioned. Neither South nor North should be idealized or utterly demonized. We need to learn from what we have done and what has been done to us, from the good (and good for whom) and the bad (and bad for whom), and from the complexities of people and choices. I contend, however, that such was neither the motivation for the statues nor their effect, and I notice that those marching with guns and shields to protest their removal were not history scholars. The issue is dominion not knowledge or wisdom.

Note: I argue as do some modern biblical scholars, theologians, and other ministers that humanity serves as God’s image in creation, not by exploiting the earth’s resources and slaughtering its creatures, but by caring for them and representing for the whole human race God’s compassion and redemptive justice. The biblical metaphor of image and likeness is one of responsibility and stewardship not of privilege and sanction for greed or cruelty.

Not Racist?


It was back in 2012, earlier than the election, that I read on Facebook what I considered an extremely racist comment made by a man I did not know. In reply to him, someone had called his comment racist, to which he objected strongly and then reversed the charge by saying the person who had raised the issue of racism was the true racist. That illogic led me to check the man’s homepage to see how he presented himself to the world on Facebook. There it was. His profile picture was a red circle with the familiar red slash of negation through it. Within the circle was a picture of President Barack Obama, and beneath it the admonition, “Don’t re-nig in 2012.” But that man, according to his own assessment, was not a racist.

Recently I finished reading Arlie Russell Hochschild’s book, Strangers in Their Own Land, subtitled, “Anger and Mourning on the American Right, a Journey to the Heart of Our Political Divide.” Hochschild is a sociologist at Berkley. Her book is complex (though not hard to read), and so are my thoughts and feelings in reaction to it.

At the heart of what she learned from her new friends in rural Louisiana is what she calls their “deep story” or “the feels-as-if story” of their being caught in a cultural squeeze. Racism is by no means the whole story, but Hochschild discovered, “Race is an essential part of this story.”

But the people, all white, she came to know, respect, like, and in some ways admire rejected the label of racist imposed upon them by people they believed were misjudging them and trying to shame them. She writes:

When the topic of blacks did arise, many explained that they felt accused by “the North” of being racist – which, by their own definition, they clearly were not. They defined as racist a person who used the “N” word or who “hates” blacks. (146)

Even by that definition, the Facebook man with the “don’t re-nig” slogan seems to fit the charge he denied, but the definition itself is interestingly self-protective because it leaves out so much. Hochschild offers a definition she and others in her field use.

As I and others use the term, however, racism refers to the belief in a natural hierarchy that places blacks at the bottom, and the tendency of whites to judge their own worth by distance from that bottom. By that definition, many Americans, north and south, are racist. And racism appears not simply in personal attitudes but in structural arrangements – as when polluting industries move closer to black neighborhoods than to white. (147)

I might add to Hochschild’s definition the tendency to assign certain negative attributes to another race as though characteristic of that race and the tendency to generalize negative perceptions from one person of that race to the whole of the race. The former is, “They’re like that” (by racial definition). The latter is, “That’s what they do” (because one person was perceived as having done it). But the contrast remains. People who refuse to admit to their own racism excuse themselves by severely limiting the definition, which seems to work for them, convincing them they indeed are not racist and so are wrongly accused by people prejudiced against them (in their eyes, the true bigots).

This bogus defense makes helpful, healing conversation about race and racism (personal and structural) nearly impossible. My own contention is that it is impossible or nearly so to grow up in America without at least some tinge of racism and some feelings that accompany it, and the feelings may be stronger and harder to shake off than the beliefs themselves. But how can we manage such feelings and come together in mutual respect if we defend ourselves by denying the reality of the problem and our roles, active or passive, in it? On the other hand, how can we come together in mutual respect if we merely point out each other’s faults but remain conveniently blind to our own?  My questions, of course, assume a desire to come together in mutual respect.

Black Lives Matter


When the minister called for a sharing of joys and concerns, a man asked for the families of the slain New York City police officers to be included in the ensuing prayer, and he completed his request with the declaration, “All lives matter.” The man requesting the prayer is black.

If I, being white (as we say, although I’m not really quite that pale), had made the same request and concluded it with the same declaration, would the same meaning have been conveyed? Or might identical words from my mouth have sounded, rather, like a spiteful counter to the declaration made in protest, “Black lives matter”?

All speech is uttered in context, and the context always makes a difference in the meaning, often a great difference. One trick of speech is using a general statement to weaken and almost contradict a specific statement it pretends to cover. For example, when an elected official has been caught in some sort of crooked behavior, many will quickly dismiss concern over the matter by declaring that all politicians are crooked. The generalization is used, not to heighten concern over the official’s behavior or call for change, but to dismiss the flagrant offense as insignificant and certainly not worth prosecuting or even reprimanding. So it is that the worst are excused by the widely accepted generalization, and the state of our nation worsens as crooked behavior goes unquestioned and uncorrected.

Black lives have been an exception.

In protest against the centuries long devaluation of the lives of dark-skinned people and the most recent slayings of black men by police officers, people have put before us the declaration that “black lives matter.” Why single out black lives rather than declare that “all lives matter”?

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More on the Bogus “Clash of Civilizations”


Men who don’t already know it may find that in prison they must belong to a strictly if crudely defined group in order to survive, a prison gang. Where I live, teenage boys tell of the difficulty of saying “No” to gang membership urged upon them day after day in the high school and the neighborhood. In J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, “pure blood” wizards speak contemptuously, not only of “mud-bloods” (wizards or witches with non-magical parents), but also of “blood traitors,” meaning pure bloods or half-bloods who associate with mud-bloods. I have known the feeling of being regarded as a blood traitor (race traitor, actually) and have seen the hate stares. But let me share, rather, a less intense incident from my youth.

One day when I was in college in western Pennsylvania in the 1960’s, I was walking through town with an arm around each of two girls who were friends of mine (neither was my girlfriend), when an elderly man stopped on the sidewalk, stared at me in disbelief, and said aloud, “But you’re a white boy.” He seemed dazed. One of the girls was black. My response was adolescent and less than kind, which I later regretted, but clearly for the man my being white was far more significant to my identity than any sense of solidarity I might share with my college friends. It seemed he could scarcely imagine such a thing — that a white boy should be walking with one arm around a black girl.

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Ex-offenders and Federal Voting Rights


On a day when I’m already feeling happy about legislation, I’m pleased to read the New York Times editorial supporting a bill that would restore federal voting rights to ex-offenders, meaning people who have “served their time” and returned to the community. Whatever the problems may be in our criminal justice system (and they are many, particularly with regard to incarceration), the assumption is that when convicted criminals have served their sentences, the law has fulfilled its requirements as they presently exist. We want the people released from prison to integrate back into society and live responsibly, and responsible participation in society includes voting. Besides, I’ve never seen the connection between criminal conviction and voting as I might see it with, say, owning and carrying a gun. Voting does not seem to me to enhance the possibility of repeated criminal behavior.

The ban on voting does, as the editorial points out, have racist implications and, therefore, political implications, also. That’s another good reason to support the bill.