140 Characters, History, & Racism

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Published on: August 13, 2017

I am deeply saddened as I have watched what has taken place in Charlottesville, VA today and can’t help thinking that it did not have to be this way and yet coming to the realization that this display of violence was the inevitable result of all that has taken place in our culture over the last several decades. How has our country gone from the early civil rights movement where we had historically memorable quotes about judging one another on the content of character and not outward ethnic features to the dominance of “identity politics” in such a short time. I believe our desire for two things, simplification and modern superiority, have played a major role in this shift. What do I mean by these two things?

  1. Simplification: We seem to want everything to fit into neatly organized categories that can be reduced to simple black-and-white (yes that was intentional) issues. We despise nuance and reject the notion that people and their motivations are messy and complicated and do not just consist of one thing or another. We insist on everything being portrayed in terms of winners and losers, antagonist and protagonist. We cannot entertain the idea that people we principally disagree with may nonetheless have something meaningful to say that is worth of caring enough to actually listen too. To make matters worse, we have no patience for complex idea and thoughts. If we cannot express our views in 140-characters we give up and just hang out in our mutual echo chambers of clever (sometimes) memes and attempted snippets of wit.
  2. Modern superiority: This is the notion that people who lived before the age of the Internet were bigoted, ignorant neanderthals who have noting much to contribute to the “enlightened” modern society we live in today. This is often expressed in anti-religious rhetoric in which we are ridiculed for believing in ancient myths rather than prostrating ourselves before the clearly superior altar of modern science. We also view history through completely anachronistic eyes, and cannot fathom how people behaved the way they did “back then”. We pay lip service to the panoply of innovation and invention that define the majority of human history (especially in western culture) because they had the naive views that God was the one who provided the foundations for science and discovery and other silly antiquated beliefs. We fail to learn from history because we don’t see ourselves as essentially just like those who came before us, but we hold ourselves up as having “evolved” beyond those frailties and weaknesses that were part of past cultures. After all… we have iPhones and Facebook and so of course we’re different from people who had nothing to do all day but (gasp) read books!

So if we look at todays events and how these two factors played a part we need to look at the civil war. If you ask 100 people what the civil war was about I would guess that 99 of them would answer “slavery”. The problem here is not that slavery did not have a major role in the conflict, but that we have created the simplified formula (civil war = war against slavery) when the facts are that the civil war was a very complex event that involved people on both sides with multi-faceted motivations and goals. You have issues of states rights vs. federalism, you had economic factors and yes, you has slavery.

Why do I bring up the civil war? I bring it up because the focal point of the initial “white supremacist” rally today was over the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a park. There was another statue mentioned in the news conference by VA Gov. Terry McAuliffe, that of Thomas Jefferson.

The Washington Post reported in their article HERE

“They (the white supremacist protesters) were met by counterprotesters at the base of a statue of Thomas Jefferson”.

So we have two statues each functioning as symbols that each side wanted to protect and defend and clearly one of the people memorialized was a patriot and founding father who believed in racial equality and the other was a war-mongering racist facist whose memory needs to be expunged from the American consciousness, right? Well perhaps it is not that simple.

According to THIS Wikipedia article on Jefferson we find the following…

“In his Notes, Jefferson contemporarily described blacks as inherently (fixed nature) inferior to whites in critical reasoning and beauty,[126] but superior in musical ability.[126] Jefferson believed that the bonds of love for blacks were weaker than those for whites.[126]According to one scholar, William Peden, this idea about fixed nature was Jefferson’s rationalized justification for the racial caste of slavery.[127]

Another article HERE on Robert E. Lee includes this quote from Lee’s 1856 letter to his wife…

In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.
— Robert E. Lee, to Mary Anna Lee, December 27, 1856

These men seem to have views that would be more similar than different, which is not surprising given that both men were (in part) products of a particular time and place, and shared common human sins.

In the WaPo article previously cited we read that

…was among the counterprotesters at the pedestrian mall, chanting “Black Lives Matter” and “Whose streets? Our streets!”

So on the one side you have BLM people promoting their views, which can be found HERE and include the belief that black lives are “systematically and intentionally targeted for demise”, and see the Lee statue as a symbol and confirmation of that view. On the other side you have the white supremacists who, according to the WaPo article…

marched through the campus of the University of Virginia, chanting “White lives matter!” “You will not replace us!” and “Jews will not replace us!”

So on both sides of the conflict you have these absolutized ideas where each side is out to get the other and of course when we take positions that preclude the possibility of conversation, the only thing left is violence.

I think racism is a wicked evil that is incompatible with the Christian message and should be opposed at all times. We must not make the mistake however of reducing all societal conflict, historically or in the present day, to literally black and white issues. Not all of the people protesting the removal of the Gen. Lee statue hate blacks and not all the counter protesters hate whites. The issues are complex at times and it takes empathy and patience to get to the root of things and try to have productive interactions. Will there always be those who destroy attempts at understanding through their own prejudice and hatred, not always. One day the Lord will return and judge His creation and we Christians ought to be about the work of the kingdom until that day comes.

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