A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

What To Do With the Civil War?

When he was younger, our one son, Joshua, liked collecting flags. When we would go on vacation he would always use some of his souvenir spending money to buy small flags of the states we visited.

On one occasion we were visiting Monitcello, the plantation of Thomas Jefferson. At the end of our tour we were in the gift shop. Joshua approached me with a small Confederate flag in his hand asking me if he could buy it. Inside myself, I recoiled. It was an interesting first response on my part since I had never really thought about the issues generated by the Confederate flag before. In my gut I knew I could not let him casually purchase the flag with no consideration of its history, which for many, is not romantic nor sentimental. I told him he could not buy it and that I would explain the reason later. That "later," which comprised a two-fold discussion over the Confederate flag and Thomas Jefferson the slaveholder, led to a wonderful discussion with our four children on slavery and an era of American history that only can be romanticized by those of us whose ancestors weren't dragged to a new world away from our homeland.

For the next four years we have entered into the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. In USA Today David Person deals with the very appropriate question that will face all of us over these next months:
To be black and live in the South means making some concessions. You stop getting worked up over every Confederate battle flag car tag you see because if you don't, you'll only give yourself an ulcer. You also learn to accept that all history should be recognized and deserves some commemoration.

But after 30 years of living here as I have, you also realize that there is a big difference between commemoration — and celebration. This difference — and its impact — is often ignored or dismissed by some of my fellow Southerners. Not even 150 years can erase that fact.

So it's probably not surprising that tensions are simmering over this year's events marking the anniversary of the Civil War. After President Obama's election, many people spoke hopefully of a post-racial era. But not here in the South where old battle lines are being redrawn. Some groups are planning joyous parties to relive the glory of the old Confederacy and the days of secession. Other groups — primarily African American — see such festive galas as repugnant and dismissing the major reason for the war: slavery. As Bernard Simelton, president of Alabama's conference of the NAACP, pointedly noted: "It's almost like celebrating the Holocaust."

There is no denying the facts of one of our nation's most divisive and bloody wars — and the painful lessons should be remembered, not glorified or sanitized.

In December, the Sons of Confederate Veterans sponsored a Secession Ball in Charleston, S.C. The NAACP protested it, and should have. As Lonnie Randolph, the president of the state's NAACP chapter told ABC News, a commemoration would be appropriate, "but to throw a big party, sip juleps, play Dixie, and wear costumes is downright wrong."

Saturday here in Alabama, the Sons marked the 150th anniversary of the inauguration of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy. They paraded through downtown Montgomery in uniforms and regalia, ending at the Capitol on the very steps where Davis was sworn in — again, much more celebration than commemoration.

A commemoration acknowledges and documents, but a celebration affirms. It gives a blessing to what happened, suggesting, on some small level, that the celebrants are longing for those days.

Not me. And not most Southerners I know — black, white or otherwise. We only need to look back in history to understand and remember why celebrations are not in order.
I find myself in complete agreement with Person-- commemoration is important and necessary, but there is nothing to celebrate over a war that happened because of an atrocious evil that forcibly took people from their homeland and brought them to a strange land where they and their ancestors were treated no better than cattle and perhaps even worse.

I am a history buff, particularly early American history. After reading theology and biblical studies and philosophy, etc. I relax by reading American history. We human beings are intrigued and captivated by all things military, but especially, it seems, wars of long ago. Perhaps part of it pertains to the stories of great courage and heroism displayed in battle and by people least expected to show such bravery. Perhaps part of it is all the pomp and circumstance of marching armies playing fife and drum and marching in uniform. Perhaps it also the irony and the tragedy that so often seem to come together-- brothers on opposite sides meeting on the field of battle, a war beginning on someone's farm and ending years later on another farm, now owned by the same man who, at the beginning of the war, owned the first property.

The problem with nostalgia and romance is that it can cover ugly facts. Indeed, we can so fall in love with the recounting and reenactment of a war that never existed, except in modern imaginations, that we ignore by choice the real war in all of its horror and misery... a war where many died because of a great injustice that began centuries before... that needed to be corrected because the land itself, that was forced to harbor the evil, cried out for its remedy.

So, as we ponder and reflect one hundred and fifty years later on a time in history that could have been avoided, but yet seemed so inevitable, let us indeed remember... let us indeed commemorate... But let us also resolve that the commemoration will not degenerate into celebration.

Our children need to know what happened so long ago; and they also need to understand that why it happened is no occasion for a party.


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John Meunier said...

Well said.

I once got in trouble in Kentucky for refereing to a statue of a Confederate soldier as a monument to the war to end slavery.

It may not go as far as Holocaust denial, but the Lost Cause is still alive and well.