Confederate Monuments, Charlottesville, and Contemporary Culture

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The statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, VA served as a flash point among protesters Aug. 11-12. WIKIPEDIA COMMONS

My wife and I were appointed as Southern Baptist missionaries in 1983. In January of 1984, we attended missionary orientation at Callaway Gardens in Georgia. During our first week­end we drove to a neighboring town.

To our horror, Ku Klux Klansmen in their “dress whites” manned every intersection handing out racist literature. This occur­rence shocked us, especially because in two months we were traveling to Tanzania to be­gin a lifetime of service in Africa. The Hadaway family spent 18 years over­seas as IMB missionaries, including serving in Tanzania, Kenya, a closed north African country, and Brazil.

 Like all Southern Baptists, I was shocked by the recent events in Charlottesville. All Christians, especi­al­ly Southern Baptists, condemn the Ku Klux Klan, White Nationalism, and Nazism. I voted for the Resolution against these hateful beliefs at this year’s SBC in Phoenix. Racial discri­mina­tion is not only wrong, it is unchristian.

I remember the separate rest­rooms, water fountains, and lunch counters as a teenager growing up in Talla­hassee, FL. The “whites only” policy of hotels in the Deep South hit home when our high school’s star African American basketball player (and straight A student) had to stay with the janitor instead of the local hotel with me and my teammates for an away game. I told my par­ents as a 16-year-old boy, “That’s not right.”

So let me be clear. I am ethnically inclusive. I served as the senior pastor of an SBC church in a Chinese-majority city in Los Angeles County. My son is married to a sweet Russian girl. During our 12 years as missionaries in Africa, my family always belonged to African-majority churches with African pastors. I have camped, shared communal drinking vessels, and eaten from common bowls in a number of African countries. I am still fairly fluent in Swahili. Were it not for our mentally handicapped child that brought us home from the mission field 14 years ago, I would return to Africa to work and retire. I spent four weeks there this summer.

During the trip, I toured the national museum in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I was very sur­prised to see a picture of former president and Marxist dictator Mengistu Mariam in a promi­nent place with the other presidents and emperors of Ethiopia. Mengistu ruled from 1977-1991 in what was called the “Red Terror,” where tens of thousands of political opponents were killed, including the aged emperor, Haile Selassie. Mengistu was convicted of genocide while in exile in Zimbabwe, where he still lives today.

I asked our Ethiopian guide, “I can’t believe Ethiopia would have Mengistu’s picture in such a prominent place.”

“Well, he is part of our history,” the guide replied.

During the last several days the discussion about the events of Charlottesville has mov­ed on to a debate about the removal of Confederate monuments all over the United States. On August 17, both the governor of Virginia and mayor of Richmond called for the removal of the Civil War statues along Monument Avenue near the headquarters of the IMB.

I am troubled by this stampede to erase history due to the isolated acts of a few racists. Yes, the Southern states of the Confederacy were on the wrong side of history – but it is still part of our history.

I lived in Richmond two different years when I served in the administration of the IMB. My son grad­uated from high school there. Richmond was the capital of the Confeder­a­cy and many historical sites understandably remain there. Monument Avenue fea­tures statues of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, J.E.B Stuart, and Jefferson Davis.

On July 10, 1996, a statue of African American Richmond native Arthur Ashe was unveiled along Monu­ment Avenue. Controversial at the time, this was a genuine attempt to incorporate cur­rent history by erecting a statue to a tennis player who made a difference in his community. Is this not a better solution – building new monuments rather than tearing down old ones?

What does the future hold? Will slave owners such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Ben Franklin be next? Will these lose their statues around country and their pictures on the one, two, and hundred dollar bills, respectively? Should we abolish daylight savings time because Ben Franklin invented it?

On October 7, 2015, many students at the University of Missouri called for the removal of a statue of Thomas Jefferson because he was a slave holder and al­leged­ly abused women. Jef­­ferson was the founder of the University of Virginia at Charlottes­ville, the site of this past weekend’s riots. A very large statue of the former president stands in the rotunda of the insti­tu­tion.

Interestingly, the Jefferson statue does not offend Virginians at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, but is an af­front to some Missouri students in Columbia, MO.

That’s just the point – taking offense is very arbitrary. What’s offensive to one person is not to another and vice versa. Contemporary culture in America seems to be sliding toward a personalized view of history where society can erase the past by simply overturn statues of persons they do not like.

In 1935 the great Missouri painter Thomas Hart Benton was commissioned by the Mis­souri House of Representatives to produce a mural about the history of Missouri. The painting depicts the Lewis and Clarke expedition, traders, trappers, and wagon trains going West. Ben­ton, however, also included images of slavery, prostitution, gambling, political bosses, and drew African-Americans in a favorable light.

The Missouri legislature overwhelmingly despised it. Re­presentatives extinguished their cigars on the painting to show their disgust. One member made a motion to white­wash the entire mural altogether, although they had paid Benton more than the gov­ernor’s annual salary at the time for the work.

Fortunately for the art world and today’s society, better heads prevailed and Thomas Harts Benton’s mural about the history of Missouri remains open to the public in Jefferson City, MO (Yes, that Jefferson) despite attempts to destroy it in the 1930s.

Rather than attempting to whitewash or topple the past, destroying the parts of history we do not like, we should learn from the Ethiopians. Although they dislike parts of their past, these Africans are facing the future by learning from the mistakes of their former leaders. We should do no less. Southern Baptists should lead the way.

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