Recent news headlines have reminded Americans that the history of the Civil War has not been settled. Cities across the American South, like Charlottesville, Virginia, and New Orleans, Louisiana, have begun the process of removing confederate memorials from public spaces and the pushback has been significant. Statues of confederate general Robert E. Lee and monuments to the confederate president Jefferson Davis memorialize a rebellion that, according to the Constitution of the Confederate States, defended “the right of property in negro slaves.”
Last month in Charlottesville, self-proclaimed white supremacists rallied and carried torches in celebration of a heritage which they felt was threatened by the city’s plan to remove a statue of Lee from a public park.
“You’re not going to tear down our statue and you’re not going to replace us,” self-described “alt-right” leader and white supremacist Richard Spencer said. Such comments make clear that, by removing the statues, the protesters fear losing their identities. Their fear echoes the majority of white Americans (57%) who believe in “reverse racism,” that “discrimination against whites is as big a problem today as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.”
Confederate sympathizers held similar demonstrations in New Orleans a week after the Charlottesville incident, objecting that the monuments were historically significant and should remain standing. In a speech that has gained wide coverage, New Orleans mayor, Mitch Landrieu, stated:
“New Orleans was one of America’s largest slave market[s], a port where hundreds of thousands of souls were bought, sold, and shipped up the Mississippi River to lives of forced labor, of misery, of rape, and of torture. America was a place where nearly 4,000 of our fellow American citizens were lynched, 540 in Louisiana alone; where our courts enshrined ‘separate but equal’; where Freedom riders were beaten to a bloody pulp. So when people say to me that the monuments in question are history, well, what I just described to you is our history as well, and it is the searing truth.”
Remembering the ugly truths of our collective history is important, as is the act of memorializing. Still, there is an important distinction to make between remembering with reverence, or memorializing, and remembering with lament.
Religious people from a variety of traditions ritualize the remembrance of difficult moments. They also lament the consequences of transgressions from the past, but those transgressions are not to be revered. In the Christian tradition, Jesus taught his followers to revere him by breaking bread and drinking wine in remembrance. Participation in Holy Communion reveres the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ. In contrast, we lament as we remember Judas’s betrayal and the crucifixion.
My late liturgy professor, Lawrence Hull Stookey, taught that Holy Communion is a ritual of anamnesis, “a corporate act in which the event remembered was experienced anew through ritual repetition.” Communion is more than a historical marker; it is an identity forming and vision setting memorial. Through ritual and repetition, it teaches Christian communities to remember the one from whom we came and the future to which God invites us. It is a memory of pain and promise. It remembers the painful injustice of Christ’s death, but does not memorialize those who killed him. Instead, it memorializes the promise of new life in him. That is what makes memorials so powerful: they remind us of historical moments and inspire us into futures that honor their legacy.
Whether sacred or secular, memorials, even national memorials, are never simply about the past. The memorial meal of Holy Communion proclaims hope for a future of peace and justice. Statues of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, however, signal to each passer-by that they should proclaim the memory of soldiers who fought for an unjust cause. These statues encourage reverence for white supremacists who killed fellow citizens so that they could hold human beings as property, tear apart black families, and torture black people for pursuing freedom.
In his speech in New Orleans, Mayor Landrieu cautioned that failure to reckon with a painful part of our history would “render generations of soul-searching truly a lost cause.” His words should be read in the context of recent rallies and debates over memorials and flags in public spaces. These contests are over 50 years old but gained new energy after white supremacist Dylan Roof murdered nine black members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015.
Bree Newsome, a black Christian activist who was angered by Roof’s attack, scaled a flag pole on the grounds of the South Carolina state capitol and removed the Confederate flag. She explained that she defied local laws to remove the flag because, “For far too long, white supremacy has dominated the politics of America resulting in the creation of racist laws and cultural practices designed to subjugate non-whites. And the emblem of the Confederacy, the stars and bars, in all its manifestations, has long been the most recognizable banner of this political ideology.”
Apologists for the flag, and other Confederate memorials, demean such courageous acts of soul-searching when they fail to heed Landrieu’s advice to distinguish “between remembrance of history and reverence of it.” That’s precisely the problem with Confederate memorials; they revere a movement that, instead, should be lamented for its defense of racism.
A Mississippi lawmaker, Rep. Karl Oliver, demonstrated the racist violence associated with the statues when he threatened physical harm to anyone who tore down Confederate memorials: “If the, and I use this term extremely loosely, ‘leadership’ of Louisiana wishes to, in a Nazi-ish fashion, burn books or destroy historical monuments of OUR HISTORY, they should be LYNCHED!” His use of the plural possessive pronoun points to a history of white communities who taught their children to celebrate tying nooses around the necks of black people and hanging anyone who resisted their brutality. The history they memorialize is one in which white people lynched black people and then made post cards of these events for the world to see.
Communities who celebrated these terrors should be remembered, but never memorialized. “As with the evils of chattel slavery and Jim Crow segregation, blacks and whites and other Americans who want to understand the true meaning of the American experience need to remember lynching,” writes James Cone in The Cross and the Lynching Tree. “To forget this atrocity,” he continues, “leaves us with a fraudulent perspective of this society and the meaning of the Christian gospel for this nation.”
Lest we think reverence for racism is a problem limited to southern states, a white Upper Peninsula Michigan man demonstrated how such reverence can lead people to misguidedly defend causes that unquestionably oppress, terrorize, and degrade in the name of kinship. Wes Jones chose to display a flag that represents the Schutzstaffel, or SS, who ran the concentration camps in Nazi Germany. When a member of his neighborhood complained about it he responded to the local news: “It’s a battle flag. It’s no more no less. I’m not racist. I will never be racist. But I’ve also had an uncle who fought on the German side, so I’m supposed to disrespect him? Or, I’m supposed to disrespect my uncle who fought on the Southern side because of the Confederate flag? No, it’s not happening.”
People like Jones, who revere racist symbols, cannot ever adequately confront racism because their identity is wed to it, even while they deny their complicity. People who memorialize Confederate leaders in the form of statues or flags find it difficult to criticize the Confederacy, because the loss of those memorials threatens the core of their identity.
Not unlike what occurs when we participate in Holy Communion, memorials invite us to invest in a communal identity that honors past sacrifices and embraces a similar vision for the future. Honoring Confederate leaders and battle flags can be no more neutral than the idea that feasting on the bread and wine of Holy Communion can proclaim something other than the death and resurrection of Christ until he comes.
The act of memorializing is a proclamation of an honored past and an investment in a similar future. That’s the power of memorials; they invite us to conform our individual and collective identities to their vision. And that is why every publicly honored statue and flag of the Confederacy must be removed and replaced; they must be condemned, not consecrated, because communities whose identities are shaped and formed by a history of racism are threats to us all.