Wednesday evening I attended a conversation at National Cathedral about its stained glass windows honoring Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. In 2015 the then cathedral dean publicly called for removing the windows. A task force subsequently decided last year that the windows would remain, for now, but two representations of the Confederate battle flag would be removed from the windows, which they have been. And the windows would serve as catalysts for further conversation about history and race.
This compromise was probably the most reasonable outcome to be expected, and Wednesday evening’s panel talk, as part of the task force’s hopes for ongoing reflection, was thoughtful. The new cathedral dean, who introduced the panel, seems less prone to prophetic controversy than his predecessor. Cathedral canon theologian Kelly Brown Douglas, whose bio describes her as “a leader in the field of womanist theology, racial reconciliation and sexuality and the black church,” said church stained glass should point to God. “It’s important to know their stories,” she said of Lee and Jackson, “But do they belong in stained glass?” She added that the Exodus story, which identifies God with the oppressed, i.e. the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, should be instructive.
Panelist Jonathan Horn, former speechwriter to President George W. Bush, wrote The Man Who Would Not Be Washington, which recalls General Lee’s decision to resign from the U.S. Army ultimately to become Confederate commander. He noted that Lee himself after the Civil War disapproved of monuments to the Confederacy and its leaders, believing them obstacles to national reconciliation. Although Lee had initially opposed southern secession, and he had acknowledged slavery’s injustice, Horn said Lee’s lifelong habit, later reinforced by religious faith, was to yield to what he understood to be duty. In 1861 that duty as he conceived was fidelity to his native Virginia.
A 1952 National Cathedral news release about the impending Lee/Jackson windows declared the “memorials will honor the two Civil War generals not as soldiers, but as Christian gentlemen” who “placed faith in God always in the foreground of their military lives.” The panel Wednesday night did not much discuss their faith, which features prominently in the windows, with both generals preparing for eternity with God. Cathedral Canon Douglas wondered about the hypocrisy of their faith while fighting for a social system enshrining slavery and white supremacy.
She’s right to wonder. But the conversation would have been deeper had it theologically explored the constant tension of Christians, even the devout, conforming to their surrounding social and cultural mores. Very few are the rare sanctified saints of any era who approach embodying God’s perfect justice. The closest approximations are often martyred. There are few if any Christians in public life of decades ago much less centuries who fully conform to modern expectations of human social and political equality. And doubtless future generations will look upon our own times as morally inferior.
Do Christians rightly condemn past generations for their sins? Yes, but only while admitting that we are today intrinsically no better, and we too fall miserably short of divine glory. To the extent there is greater appreciation of human equality and dignity today, however imperfectly, it is only by divine grace measured out across generations, working through always flawed instruments. God’s mercy abounds even while fallen human nature abides.
In critiquing the past, Christians today can’t rightfully claim contemporary moral superiority. Instead we can strive to judge according to constant standards based on Christian anthropology and human dignity. Nobody fully lives up to those holy standards. But grace-filled persons, movements and eras at least point in that upward direction, while realizing their own grievous flaws. Ultimately, the only hope before the Supreme Judge is mercy.
Canon Douglas movingly cited the biblical promise that the last shall be first and the first shall be last, which she interpreted as an egalitarian vision in which nobody is first or last. I’m unsure she is completely right, as even in the restored creation it appears there will be hierarchies, not of oppression, but of love and service, possible through mercy.
Whatever their hypocrisies and failures, it appears that Lee and Jackson admitted their need for divine mercy. At the heavenly throne, they would have met countless other seekers of mercy from every race and station, including slaves from the Confederacy, who were now their brothers and sisters. This vision of restoration and equality through God’s mercy and grace should inform Christian historical reflections.
Reprinted from Juicy Ecumenism