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Never forget, never again: Keeping Civil War memorials

You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. —Ex. 22:21

At the heart of this command is memory. Israel is called not to forget its years of oppression in Egypt, but to remember it. By remembering their oppression, Israelites are being called to live lives that honor and respect the dignity of others, refusing to perpetuate the evils of oppression that were done against themselves. If you do not know where you have been, how do you know where you are going? The direction to which Israel is to go, God makes very clear. “He has told you, O man, what is good … to do justice … love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Mic. 6:8).

Since the killing of nine innocent people by an avowed racist inside Charleston’s historic Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on June 17, 2015, there has been a movement in many Christian churches and institutions in the American South to erase any and all remaining vestiges within them associated with the former Confederacy. The reason for wanting to do so is quite understandable: the shooter looked to such images as encouragement for his motives; so churches and institutions with Confederate memorials and images wish to remove them in order to signify that they have come to a different, more positive place regarding race; they do not want to be identified with any form of hatred and bigotry.

For churches in the South still discerning what to do regarding their remaining Confederate memorials, I would like to offer an alternative view. While I am in no way, form, or fashion an admirer of the Confederacy, I believe that Civil War-era church memorials should remain. I say this out of a belief that, just as the Israelites were called to remember their past oppression, so that they would guard against doing the same toward others, these old plaques and images make us mindful of the past from which we came. They remind us of how far we have come and where we should not return.

We must acknowledge the good, but also the bad, of our past — memories of deliverance, but also that from which we were delivered. These old memorials help us do just such a thing today.

At this point, I’m sure those reading this post who know me well are wondering what the heck is wrong with me. I am a 32-year-old African-American man originally from Alabama now living in Louisiana. Many people would assume I am inclined to support erasing these images from an era long past. But I am also a historian who believes that all things of the past can teach in the present: to try to erase negative history is both irresponsible and feeds into denial. We must own our history, no matter how much evil is part of it. It is the only way that we can effectively move forward with the firm resolve, Never again!

These plaques, stained-glass windows, and other memorials also keep before us those who were serious Christians, despite their involvement in such injustices; they therefore have a place in a local church’s past and in God’s kingdom. As Episcopal priest and American religious historian N. Brooks Graebner notes:

Addressing the topic of slavery and race in the antebellum Episcopal Church requires a willingness to probe beneath glib, sentimental versions of the past. It also means exploring the depths of a complicity that leaders of our church forged with a violent and cruel institution, a complicity they masked from themselves with various self-serving strategies. But if we do not tell the truth about our past, including the parts we might heartily wish to avoid, we cannot properly meet the distinctive challenges and opportunities for healing and reconciliation that lie before us today.[1]

I can perceive the conflict many may feel in affirming that Southern Confederates engaged in the injustice of slavery were serious Christians, for if they were, why would they participate in such an immoral institution? I do not condone the unjust actions done against my forefathers. But when it comes to the Church, these same people, flawed as they were in their actions, sought, in the best way they knew how, to be the hands and feet of Christ within their communities in their time. Many of them lived out their Christian commitment by establishing special endowments and contributing great resources to the erection of church buildings, among other generous acts, things that we ourselves benefit from today. We must ask ourselves, then: Should their memory be erased? Should their past contributions that allow such local churches to continue in future ministry no longer be honored? Do they no longer have a place? I surely hope not.

We share something with those who lived before us: we are broken, imperfect human beings, sinners all. Yet the good news is that God can use any one of us, even within others’ memories, to bring about his good purposes (cf. Rom. 8:28). In this is God’s grace and redemption. “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:15-16).

Instead of churches removing their Civil War-era memorials, I encourage them to remain. Let them be reminders of the injustices which we overcame. Let them help us remember where we have been that we may know where we are going, like the people of Israel, freed from the yoke of slavery. Let us not erase our negative history, but own it, striving to become better neighbors with one another. May we look at these memorials, representative of a time of great injustice, and with great resolve say, Never again!


[1] N. Brooks Graebner, “The Episcopal Church and Race in Nineteenth Century North Carolina,” Anglican and Episcopal History  78:1 (March 2009), p. 85.


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