Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Signs of the Crimes and the Forgiving Victim

On Sunday, August 2, 2015, I attended the 10am service followed by the Prayerful Conversation at St Paul's Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia. This isn't just any church. Built in 1845 right next to the capitol building it earned itself the title of "Cathedral of the Confederacy." The fittings and fixtures in the sanctuary proclaim this fact. It was the church of Robert E. Lee and of Jefferson Davis and their pews are marked with brass plaques. The walls and windows bear their memorials.

Five weeks earlier, on Sunday, June 28, following the shootings at Mother Emanuel in Charleston SC, Rev. Wallace Adams-Riley, the priest at St Paul's, questioned his congregation from the pulpit: 
What if in this the last summer of the Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War, we begin a conversation here at St. Paul’s about the Confederate symbols here in our worship space?
Adams-Riley contacted a fascinating organization Justice and Sustainability Associates (JSA) to facilitate this discussion at St Paul's. On August 2, Adams-Riley stood at the front of the church.

"The question before us this morning is one of discernment. . .  Given our mission, we need to discern what would God have us do about the Confederate memorials and symbols?"

He was followed to the lectern by JSA's CEO Don Edwards who, in a gentle voice, laid out the ground rules for the small group discussion that was about to happen. The congregation then split into 11 groups  (each had a facilitator and a scribe) and shared their feelings about the monuments and their understanding of the mission of the church. This is an ongoing conversation and I was an observer on the understanding that I would not share the content of the discussion. I will say that the spirit of openness was remarkable. Participants seemed relieved and perhaps surprised that they could have this conversation.

When we gathered back in the sanctuary, the reports from the groups were encouraging and included creative suggestions for the sanctuary as well as a concern for the future ministry of the church. Many noted with concern the complete absence of any memorials to, or mentions of, slavery -- not even to the slaves who must have built the church.  It was evident too that this conversation was only in its early stages with a lot of work still lying ahead.

Don Edwards encouraged the congregation. "We can all be winners in this process."

It will be fascinating to see how this congregation comes together to address these issues, in part because they have such an extreme case of Confederate imagery, but also because they are such an unusual congregation:
  • This is a highly educated congregation: I wouldn't like to hazard a guess at the number of advanced degrees per member, but I suspect it is absurdly high.
  • It has a history of being a politically powerful congregation: the members consider themselves to have a tradition of being "involved in the community." I understood them to mean that they had influenced the politics of the city of Richmond as well as been involved in the more standard social ministries.
  • It is a politically progressive and theologically liberal congregation: The famously theologically liberal Jack Spong was the rector from 1969-1976 and many of the folks in my group dated their involvement in the church from his tenure. They told the story of Spong removing the Confederate flag from the church's portico. Today the church is proud to welcome same-sex couples and celebrate their marriages.
  • The congregation is racially integrated: This is a historically white congregation but I observed somewhere between 5-10% of the participants in the Conversation that morning were African American and one of the three priests is African American.
  • The church is wealthy: It owns the city block on which it stands in the heart of Richmond and, I was told, it has a very impressive endowment. The endowment is so healthy that pretty much anything they decide to do, they can do.
To help facilitate the conversation, the church had produced an illustrated catalog of everything in the church that explicitly mentioned the Confederacy. In the discussions I heard, everyone saw these as a collection of individual objects. They were understood as memorials placed by family members--faithful members of the congregation--to deceased loved ones.

I did not hear anyone consider what theological significance these memorials have today when they are gathered together in a sanctuary. More specifically, I did not hear anyone try and understand what theological messages those loving people who put these memorials in place intended to communicate to those who came after them to sit in the pews of St Paul's.

I have spent the last eighteen years of my life studying and writing about the history and theology of white churches in the American South. I teach courses on religion and the civil rights movement and on theologies of reconciliation. I want to share with you what the sanctuary of St. Paul's in Richmond preached to me that Sunday morning.

I feel a little bit like a character from a Dan Brown novel--a 'symbologist' from Ashland University. But let me 'decode' the theological messages on the walls of St. Paul's and describe what was for me an intense and disturbing experience.

I walked into the sanctuary. "Where shall we sit?" asked my eight-year-old son.

"Easy," I say. "Let's sit here. If this pew was good enough for Jefferson Davis, it is good enough for us."

The red-cushioned pew is set in the middle of the sanctuary on the aisle. This places me exactly between the Jefferson Davis memorials and windows on my right and the Robert E. Lee memorial and windows on my left.

It is the familiar Episcopal service: prayers, hymns, readings.

As the sermon begins, I feel a growing pressure on my thoughts. My mind is not wandering -- it is a good sermon-- instead, it feels like it is being focused, it is being squeezed by a vise-like pressure.

On my left is the beautiful Lee memorial window. It depicts Moses leaving the court of Pharaoh. As the church's own walking tour pamphlet explains, "The subject matter of this window refers to Lee's decision to refuse command of the Union forces and to ally himself with the Confederacy."
"Moses Leaving the Court of Pharaoh" Holiday 1892

I am very familiar with the white Southern valorizing of the leaders of the Confederacy in the decades following the Civil War.  My former professor Charles Reagan Wilson explains in his classic work Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865-1920 how white southerners "portrayed Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis . . . as saints and martyrs. They were epitomized as the best of Christian and Southern values." (25). Here in St. Paul's is the most intense example of this that I have ever seen.

The theological message comes pouring out of the window.

Lee = Moses

But in what way is Lee like Moses?

Detail,"Moses Leaving the Court of Pharaoh," Holiday, 1892
In the bottom right corner of the window is an edited text from Hebrews 11:24-27. Here is the passage in full:
24 By faith Moses, when he was come to years, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter; 25 Choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season; 26 Esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt: for he had respect unto the recompence of the reward. 27 By faith he forsook Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king: for he endured, as seeing him who is invisible.
Lee is Moses because he feared God and chose "affliction" and "the reproach of Christ" (persecution for the sake of Christ), and the "wrath of the king" rather than side with the Pharaoh/President of the United States.

In the window, Moses is looking off to his left. At his eye level is a brass shield. A memorial to Robert E. Lee. The theological connection with the window is explicit. On the knight's shield bearing the St. George's cross--St. George being the epitome of the Christian knight battling the dragon (Satan)--are the words:
"To the Glory of God and in grateful memory of Robert Edwd. Lee. Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia and Christ's Faithful soldier and servant unto his life's end"
Lee's loyalty to Virginia in its secession from the Union to defend the peculiar institution of slavery was the will of Christ. The war he helped prosecute--the waste of 750,000 lives, the devastation of the region--this was his Christian duty. Jesus was commanding Lee to fight for the right of Virginians to enslave Africans.

The theology keeps streaming out of the window. If Lee is Moses, then who are the Hebrews he is commanded by God to lead?  The answer is obvious.

The Confederacy = Israel

This is a most blasphemous claim but it is being proclaimed here in the sanctuary of St. Paul's. It is all around me. Right there in the window it states that Lee/Moses chose "to suffer affliction with the Children of God"

But it is the children of Abraham, the Israelites, the Jews, who are the true "Children of God"! They are the ones with whom God has made an everlasting covenant (Gen17:7). We, the Gentile followers of the Jewish Messiah, believe that through God's grace we have been adopted into this family covenant (Gal 4:5) and grafted into the vine of Israel (Rom 11:17).

Recent scholarship has shown how European Christianity misappropriated this covenant. They believed that God forsook the Jews for the crime of killing his son and made a new covenant with the Christian church. Not only did this lead to nearly two thousand years of genocidal antisemitism, it was how white Christians came to understand their right to steal land in the "new world." How we came to categorize, kill, displace, enslave, and relocate darker skinned people. Willie Jennings's devastating book The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, shows how this heresy of supersessionism -- the failure of the European church to realize they are Gentiles, instead claiming to have superseded the Jews as the covenant people of God -- led to the modern construction of race and the terrible crimes of colonialism, slavery and white supremacy.

And here is the proof of Jennings's tragic thesis beautifully presented in the stained glass all around me! God has made a covenant with White Southerners the glass proclaims. This theological crime, according to Wilson in Baptized in Blood, was a common theme in southern postbellum theology. He quotes the opening of a prayer from a veterans' gathering, "God of Israel, God of the centuries, God of our forefathers, God of Jefferson Davis and Sidney Johnston and Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, God of the Southern Confederacy." (33)

"Moses on Mount Nebo," Henry Holiday, 1892
This alignment of the white southern cause with Israel continues in the second memorial window to Lee directly above the first. It is called "Moses on Mount Nebo." The pamphlet explains, "Moses is shown as an old man with a beard, resembling Lee's appearance at the close of the Civil War. The children of Israel are depicted as a  sea of faces in the lower portion of the window." The catalog adds some more detail from the book Windows of Grace, A Tribute of Love (2004): “This is where God allowed Moses to view the Promised Land shortly before he died."

The account of Moses on Mount Nebo is in Deuteronomy 34.
1 And Moses went up from the plains of Moab unto the mountain of Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, that is over against Jericho. And the Lord shewed him all the land . . .
And the Lord said unto him, This is the land which I sware unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, saying, I will give it unto thy seed: I have caused thee to see it with thine eyes, but thou shalt not go over thither.
Here we have the covenant promise to possess the land being made to the White South/Israel but Lee/Moses won't live to see it: Lee died in 1870  before the end of Reconstruction.

At this point it is important to pay attention to when these windows were put in the sanctuary. They were installed in 1892. This is the time that southern states are passing Jim Crow laws to disenfranchise and legally segregate African Americans and to establish the caste system of White Supremacy. Is this apartheid South the promised land that Lee fought for but did not live to see?

There is a story currently in circulation at St. Paul's of an incident in 1865 when an African American, breaking with the immutable racial conventions of the racial caste system, went forward to receive communion at the altar rail. The shocked congregation stayed in their pews. Breaking the impasse, Robert E. Lee went up to the altar rail and knelt down near the trespasser of sacred white sacramental space. This "eyewitness" story that started circulating the decade after the windows were installed was not originally told as an example of Christian reconciliation--far from it. Here is how the story originally concluded:
This lofty conception of duty by Gen. Lee under such provoking and irritating circumstances had a magic effect upon the other communicants (including the writer), who went forward to the communion table.
By this action of Gen. Lee the services were conducted as if the negro had not been present. It was a grand exhibition of superiority shown by a true Christian and great soldier under the most trying and offensive circumstances.

This story was an inspiring example of Lee maintaining the peaceful dignity of white supremacy.  An unyielding genteel Christian Virginian white supremacy: this is the cause celebrated in these windows from the 1890s. This is the promised land their parents fought for in the Civil War and that is yet to be fully attained.

"Paul before Herod Agrippa," Tiffany 1898
I turn and pay attention to Jefferson Davis's memorial windows on the other side of the church. These are some of the Tiffany windows in the church. The Davis memorial windows were installed in 1898. The lower one titled "Paul before Herod Agrippa" is exegeted in the pamphlet:
This biblical event alludes to Confederate President Davis's own two year imprisonment following the Civil War, which most Southerners felt was unjust.
With the idea of the Southern Confederacy as the covenant people of God ringing through my mind, this window has new significance.

Paul's fateful audience with Herod Agrippa is in Acts. His opening words to his judge lay out his impeccable Jewish credentials and then he invokes the covenant, "Now I stand and am judged for the hope of the promise made of God, unto our fathers" (26:6).

"The Angels of Goodness and Mercy," Tiffany, 1898
Jefferson Davis = St. Paul

Paul is "an Hebrew of the Hebrews" (Phil 3:5) whose only crime is to proclaim God's covenant fulfilled in Christ.  Davis is the confederate of confederates whose crime is to stand by the twisted notion of a God-ordained Anglo-Saxon civilization whose livelihood and survival is rooted in white supremacy.

The angels of goodness and mercy look down from the higher window upon the fettered Paul/Davis.  Beneath their feet are Job's words: "Let me be weighed in an even balance that God may know mine integrity" (Job 31:6).

Though Jefferson Davis and the South suffered like Job following the war -- the loss of children, health, and prosperity--it is not the Federal courts, the carpetbaggers, and scalawags who will ultimately judge the righteousness of Jefferson Davis's cause: it is God. And just as God eventually richly rewarded Job for his faithfulness through adversity, so too will God reward the white South for its faithfulness, even through defeat.

So the two upper windows, "Moses on Mount Nebo" and  "The Angels of Goodness and Mercy", both promise a restoration of the South and God's vindication of its cause.


The problem I am having is that I am not putting all these pieces together as an academic exercise at my desk. This is all crowding into my mind while I am participating in a worship service.

By now the sermon is long over and the priest is halfway through the Eucharistic prayer. My focus snaps to the front. To the altar. To the bread and the wine. I want to pull myself away from this evil theology of white supremacy.

Above the altar is King Jesus. But this Jesus does not throw me a lifeline. He is a white and oddly effete king. He is the genteel Virginian Jesus. He looks like one of the powerful friends of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee. He stands there offering a blessing over this temple of the Lost Cause. "My peace I give unto you."

Unlike the Nazarene Jesus who promises a powerful peace "not as the world giveth"(Jn 14:27), the peace this Jesus offers me seems all too much of the world of Tiffany glass and white hegemony. This Jesus does not challenge the violence and slavery and segregation and racism celebrated on the walls and windows of the sanctuary.

As I begin to wonder whether I can go forward to the communion rail to receive the Eucharist in this place, my mind starts re-imagining the window.

King Jesus's skin starts to change color.

In my minds-eye, he is now black.

He has broken chains still hanging from his wrists.

This risen Jesus--our judge and king--was one of the hundreds of thousands of enslaved people sold in Richmond's slave markets. This Jesus was despised and rejected and exploited by those who built this church and raised its memorials. By his sweat and blood and wounds the slavocracy of Virginia made a massive profit and yet here he is in the Cathedral of the Confederacy not seeking revenge but inviting us to come to his table and to receive life.

He is extending his wounded hands beckoning me forward.

This is Jesus the forgiving victim--our victim--who extends peace: the Jesus risen from the dead who confronts those who abandoned him with the words "Peace be unto you" (Jn 20:19).

To be confronted by our victim--one I have victimized--is a hard thing.

It is a hard thing to step forward from the nave where I am surrounded by the religion of power and exploitation, where we are dead in our trespasses. To take those steps towards our victim who offers us forgiveness requires us to confess that we have sinned against him in "thought and word and deed, through negligence, through weakness, through our own deliberate fault."

Yet it is only the Jesus who became a slave, the Jesus who confronts us as our forgiving victim, who can save us.

By his blood [we shed], he reconciled us.
By his wounds [we inflicted], we are healed.

It is this Jesus who works the true miracle of the Eucharist this Sunday morning. Descendants of slaveholders and descendants of slaves go together to the table to become one body because we all share in one bread.

Note: This blog was originally posted on August 5, 2015. It was taken down later that same day at the request of a priest at St, Paul's concerned about its potentially disruptive influence on the congregation's continuing conversation. It was reposted on August 23 following the congregation's second conversation.
UPDATE: On Sunday, November 22, 2015, St Paul's Episcopal Church announced they would remove all  Confederate symbols from the sanctuary.
The coat of arms will be retired, and the church will start to dig deeper in its history, the role of race and slavery in that history, and how parishioners can engage in conversations about race in the Richmond region, church leadership announced Sunday, three months after conversations began with the congregation.
The elected church leadership also said it hopes to erect a memorial to honor slaves in Richmond, especially slaves who were members of St. Paul’s Episcopal.
“While the Vestry does not believe that St. Paul’s should attempt to remove all symbols reflecting St. Paul’s past during the Civil War, the Vestry is united in agreement that it is not appropriate to display the Confederate battle flag in the church,” a church statement said.
Laura Kebede, "St. Paul's Episcopal Church to remove images of Confederate flags", Richmond Times-Dispatch, November 23, 2015

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