After the Charlottesville riots, America was thrown into a fit of iconoclasticism. Tearing down statues of Confederate leaders, demanding the renaming of streets named after “white supremacists.” When did American history become so binary? I always thought that there were more groups than just white supremacists and good people.
It’s ironic that, just as our culture began to complicate binary choices, it began to simplify complex ones. Ten years ago we were men or women. Now, as Facebook might say, it’s complicated. Gender seemed so simple, but now it’s complex. On the other hand, ten years ago Robert E. Lee was a highly admirable man who was the product of another time. Now he’s a white supremacist. This inversion of simple and complex is a widespread phenomenon in 2017 America.
As a Christian I may say, for example, that God created us male and female (Gen. 5:2), and that’s why we should reject any claims that he may have created some of us as xes and xers. Many would call me out on that, saying that it’s not that simple. Some of us are born men in a woman’s body, or vice versa. Some are born men but have days where they internally sympathize as women. The days of simplistic dichotomies are gone, they’d argue. God wouldn’t want that anyway; it’s too restrictive, and his main concern is our happiness.
In the same breath they’ll turn and say that there’s no getting around the fact that the Confederacy was a racist hate group. Yet the Civil War was fought over many different things. Lee had complex reasons for leaving the US Army to which he had devoted half his life, and in the service of which he won much praise. The Civil War is a conflict that is impossible to understand with the mindset of 2017.
First, we reduce everything to a matter of race relations, at least when it’s convenient. (It’s not too hard to find a defense of Che Guevara’s racist writings; apparently being from a different time is an acceptable excuse for being a racist if you’re on the left.). But since everything comes down to this test, any historical figure who we want to slander, we can slander. They were racists! When looking at a conflict like the Civil War, we can’t take these claims on face value. By today’s standards, was Robert E. Lee a racist? Yes. But by today’s standards almost everyone born before 1970, born south of Maryland, or who like memes is a racist, so that charge doesn’t carry much weight, does it?
The long and short of it is that we’ve decided to be thoughtful when it suited us, and take a self-righteously proclaimed “no BS” approach when it didn’t. Because of this, people can say that Christian belief in the number of genders is complicated and up for debate, but admiring Robert E. Lee is a punchable offense. They say it’s clear that the Confederacy was made up of a bunch of white men who didn’t want to lose their slaves. We have moved so far from scholarly pursuit of truth that we don’t even attempt to understand why else they may have wanted to rebel. We’ve stopped attempting to learn, and chosen rather to simply feel our way to a comfortable truth.
I recently posted a piece in defense of Lee on Facebook. A woman shared it with the goal of refuting it. She claimed that for Lee to side with the Confederacy meant that he obviously didn’t care about black people. He was clearly complicit in the selling, beating, raping, and destruction of black lives. She didn’t tell me to read up on it—she told me just to watch 12 Years A Slave. There is value in understanding the emotions and humanity of the slaves, a goal which this movie no doubt achieves. However, in all the comment sections on Facebook, there seems to be a movement away from studied books on the Civil War, and a movement toward the dramatized accounts such as 12 Years A Slave. These movies are made for entertainment, not education. It is dangerous to use a modern movie to interpret a past event; we run the risk of retroactively applying our thinking to people of a different era.
Let me say in no uncertain terms that it is good slavery is over. The chattel slavery of the United States (which is highlighted in movies like the aforementioned) was a cruel practice. But any good history teacher will inculcate in his students the ability to criticize a group’s actions in the past, while understanding that some people involved may be admirable in many respects.
The question of who Lee was, and how we should think of him, is complicated. Lee was a slaveowner for several years. He believed that slavery was an evil, but said that for blacks the “painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction.” In modern times we would call someone with those sentiments a racist. I’ll grant that openly, because there’s no way around that.
But is everyone who’s racist by today’s standards to be denounced? Are there not things that we can learn? Lee was neither the finest man that ever lived, nor was he a proto-Hitlerian figure. He was a man caught up in a war between his country and his home, who is now being slandered by a people that has erroneously conflated the Union with freedom and the Confederacy with oppression. Both sides had grievous sins. Both sides felt justified in their fight. I am not trying to convince anyone that Lee is worthy of worship, or that he is as blameless as many believe him to be. Rather I’m imploring us to try and understand why the North and the South came to hate each other. It is impossible to reduce this war to a battle for white supremacy, but that’s exactly what is happening.