For the past two years, there has been a debate at Yale University about Calhoun College. Named after John Calhoun, who graduated in 1804, Calhoun was a South Carolina congressman, who became a senator, the secretary of war, secretary of state and vice president. With so many accomplishments, no one thought to check his other credentials. More than any other figure in his time, he was a vigorous proponent of slavery. He passionately promoted slavery as “a positive good.” Calhoun’s writings are still cited as the basis for white supremacy.
As Yale looked into Calhoun, they discovered seven other residential colleges named after slave owners. The college namesake Elihu Yale profited from running a thriving slave trade of children for the East India Company.
After a period of study and debate, a committee recommended leaving his name on the college, but a few months later, the president rescinded their recommendation and removed the name.
We are at a time in our national life where the positive changes we are going through to become a multicultural and diverse society are causing us to look closely at some of our heroes, and re-evaluate the underpinnings of their actions.
As we learn to look toward the future differently, we are developing a more critical eye toward the past. Some say it involves developing keener sense of history. Some say it is finally coming to terms with our nation’s racist past.
History is often written by the ruling class, and painted in broad strokes of approval so no one will look too closely at the details.
What constitutes heroism and who, in our eyes, is a legitimate hero, is a real question. How shall we view generals like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, who fought for the Confederate Army? Does our opinion of Washington or Jefferson change because they owned hundreds of slaves? Should we indict the men for the times they lived? Or put an asterisk by their names in the annals of history? Should we continue to celebrate them in the public square? Or retire their statues to a museum?
It’s a teaching moment about “the complexity of history.”
But it’s not just an academic debate, with detached and dispassionate dialogue, as we objectively discuss the merits of each figure in our search for the truth of a consensus.
Six weeks after Charlottesville, we are coming to the point where we can separate out what happened and our response to it.
These statues are not just nostalgic symbols of a benign way of life long past. These statues represent an ideology still with us.
People are attached emotionally to the vision of life they represent. People still cling fiercely to these values; and strike out in hostility at anyone who wants to remove them.
The past is still with us and still continues in many parts of the country today.
We in this congregation know these statues and flags are reminders of racism, calling to mind the painful times of the middle passage, the break-up of families on the auction block; symbols of an era when black people had no rights and couldn’t vote, and were only viewed as 3/5 as a person. Lynchings and systematic violence perpetrated against people of color. Back of the bus seating, colored restrooms and water fountains, separate but unequal schools.
Racism in the past was unacceptable. White supremacy in the past was unacceptable.
These social sins still beset us today.
I believe that these debates are a sign of our national health, when we carry them out in a civil, caring and constructive way.
It is estimated that there are over 1500 monuments to the Confederacy and military in our nation, many of which were built in the 1940s and 1950s to shore up claims of segregation.
Carvings in Stone Mountain Georgia
Tableaus at the National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia
Stained glass windows at the Washington National Cathedral.
Statues in Birmingham Alabama
Stained-glass windows at Duke University.
In New Orleans, the mayor and city council removed many of the statues from public squares, because it was the right thing to do.
After eight church people were gunned down in the South Carolina church, the governor of Virginia removed the confederate flag from license plates because it was the right time to do it.
In New Mexico and California, they are reconsidering statues of early Spanish conquistadors and missionaries, who colonized the new world, but at the same time, terrorized the Pueblo Indians
As we debate what these symbols really stand for, I believe that we should judge these statues not on the basis of what their historical context was, but on the basis of what we aspire to be as a people.
We should re-evaluate what is in our past on the basis of what we want our future to look like.
We have long believed that God is a God of history. God inspires prophets and teachers to interpret our times and bring the word of God to bear on our current age. God works through the historical consciousness of every age, revealing ideas that are life-giving and holy—ideas and values that should propel us forward into the future God intends.
At the same time, God through the Spirit inspires us to see clearly when old ideologies no longer work; when old values are longer socially useful. Or just plain idols we hold on to.
When we fear, we look backward. When we face the uncertain and unknown future, we hunker down and try to find security in what worked in the past.
Our Lord will never allow us to look with yearning on an oppressive past; nostalgically hoping to restore slavery or racism.
We are not turning around.
We are not going back to Egypt.
We are not returning to the old Jim Crow or even the new Jim Crow.
No more separate but equal anywhere.
No more voting restrictions anywhere.
We have to go forward in faith, knowing the old adage that “if God brings you to it, God will bring you through it.”
“Do not be afraid. Stand firm and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today” (Exodus 14:29).
I believe that just as God clogged the chariot wheels of Pharoah’s army and cavalry, so God will confound the minds of those who want to continue racism and violence. Ultimately God will break down the hearts of those who hurt others– so we all can enter into the promised land together.
Part of the promised land is, gradually over time, letting these statues go and putting them away into a museum. Confining them to the proper sphere of study in the context of history.
Part of the promised land is raising humanity to a higher level of moral conscience, to help us think together in order to mend our broken world.
Part of the promised land is identifying public figures who help raise our level of awareness. Heroic individuals who help heighten our nation’s moral conscience; leaders we can all believe in.
In Richmond, they have begun to erect new statutes: Arthur Ashe, the tennis star and activist. Maggie Walker, the first African American to charter a bank.
At Yale, Calhoun College was renamed after Grace Murray Hopper, a woman who pioneered the first computer program. A new residential hall was named after Anna Pauline Murray, a civil rights activist and Episcopal priest.
As we choose new heroes to symbolize the new chapters of our nation’s history, we can be assured that God in God’s goodness goes before us still, to lead and to guide.
“Tell the people to go forward!” God told Moses. . .
As the Red Sea parted, Moses led the people Israel forward to the promised land.