The Presbyterian faith is grounded in confession. So as an act of penance, two local pastors are calling for the removal of a Robert E. Lee monument that their churches were complicit in erecting.
The Rev. Alex Evans of Second Presbyterian Church and the Rev. Amy Starr Redwine of First Presbyterian Church say their churches raised funds, advocated and rallied on behalf of the Lee monument cause.
“I think those monuments have been in a way a form of idolatry for Southern culture,” Evans said. “And we’re trying to confess their divisiveness and their message of white supremacy and oppression and move beyond that — repent and find new life that lines up with God and God’s justice.”
In my interview with both pastors Friday, Evans said his predecessor, the Rev. Dr. O. Benjamin Sparks, prompted him “to confess our complicity and our forebears’ complicity in this and find a way forward.”
The pastors unspooled the historical connections between their churches and the Lee monument.
In November 1870, the sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church — then in Capitol Square — was filled with Confederate veterans, including 30 former generals. This inaugural meeting of the Lee Memorial Association, a month after the general’s death, required an exception to the church’s rule against use of the sanctuary beyond religious worship, according to the church history.
Richmond newspapers described the meeting as the “grandest gathering of Confederate soldiers which had met since the war.” When former Confederate President Jefferson Davis entered the church, “every person in the house rose to his feet, and there followed such a storm of applause as seemed to shake the very foundations of the building.”
When the time came to unveil the statue on May 29, 1890, the Rev. Moses Hoge, pastor of Second Presbyterian, offered prayers on that occasion.
Hoge led the church from its inception in 1845 to 1899. When Richmond burned in 1865 and Davis fled Richmond, Hoge — chaplain to the Confederate cabinet — left with him, Evans said.
“This was his life. This was his identity. And it’s a reminder of how powerful cultural forces and cultural ethos can shape you — even shape you away from the Christian gospel he’s supposed to be preaching every Sunday.”
Added Redwine: “At the time, even though the church and the gospel was used to defend the practice of slavery and even going to war to perpetuate it, there was this very strong position that certain things should not be talked about in church from the pulpit.”
To this day, churches still view faith through an often-myopic cultural lens or fail to apply what should be a living word to our lives during moral crises.
“Jesus says blessed are the pure in heart, and here we go passing laws that limit so many African Americans through the years,” Evans said. “Jesus says blessed are the meek, and we keep the boot on the neck — either symbolically through these monuments or literally with George Floyd.”
Both these congregations are involved in racial justice work, seeking a better understanding of these issues and our history.
It’s urgent. Whereas previous generations might have ignored the disconnect between God’s word and man’s deeds, members of a restive younger generation are walking away from organized religion, viewing it as hypocritical or irrelevant to social justice.
“We’ve got to talk about it,” Evans said. “We’ve got to relate it to our lives of faith. We can’t be sitting on the side talking about God. We need to realize how much God cares about justice.”
“We keep our blinders on. And I think what’s happened lately is our blinders are being pulled off.”
Racism is not so much about interpersonal relations as it is a system we are all born into. For Redwine, naming and claiming this sort of uncomfortable and tragic space is a step toward justice. “It’s about repair,” she said.
In the meantime, we are navigating change amid toppled monuments, property damage and ongoing tension between police and protesters. Some individuals are doubling down on hate. As people experience an array of feelings — anger, disgust, disorientation or exhilaration — Redwine sees God at work.
“This all was happening around Pentecost. And at Pentecost ... the Holy Spirit came with wind and fire, and those are incredibly destructive forces. And I do believe that that’s part of what we’re seeing right now.”
“Part of maturing is learning to hold conflicting emotions at the same time,” she said. “So I can feel sad and afraid and frustrated and worried and hopeful and joyful that something’s happening.”