A few thoughts on Robert W. Lee IV, because I’m a Christian, I’m a UCC pastor, I oppose White Supremacy, I don’t believe BLM is a terrorist group, and, on a lighter note, I remember when MTV mattered.
First, my criticism of Lee (and MTV), which has nothing to do with anything he said after his first few words.
“My name is Robert Lee IV, I’m a descendant of Robert E. Lee, the Civil War general whose statue was at the center of violence in Charlottesville…”
Robert W. Lee IV is Robert E. Lee’s fourth-great-nephew. I believe the wording of this introduction was meant to make W. Lee seem like direct descendent of E. Lee. I don’t know why MTV or W. Lee chose that wording or wanted that framing. And maybe I’m wrong. Maybe that’s just how I’m hearing/reading it. Being a fourth-great-nephew and bearing the name Robert Lee and speaking out against supremacy is no less compelling to me than being a direct descendent, but I feel like the statement started from a less than clear place, which is a shame. Also, saying that the statue itself was the center of violence makes it sound like most of the so-called Alt Right protestors were really there because of the statue. As evidenced by their own propaganda, we know this to not be the case.
“We have made my ancestor an idol of white supremacy, racism, and hate. As a pastor, it is my moral duty to speak out against racism, America’s original sin.”
“Today, I call on all of us with privilege and power to answer God’s call to confront racism and white supremacy head-on. We can find inspiration in the Black Lives Matter movement, the women who marched in the Women’s March in January, and, especially, Heather Heyer, who died fighting for her beliefs in Charlottesville.”
If you’d asked me in 1996 if I ever thought I’d see a pastor talking about God’s call on the VMAs, I would have laughed in your face. Lee is absolutely right here: we must answer God’s call to confront racism and supremacy head-on. The same is true for any injustice.
I have seen absolutely nothing to make me believe that Black Lives Matter is what its most vocal detractors say it is. I’d welcome a one-on-one discussion with anyone concerned that BLM somehow promotes black supremacy or is engaged in terroristic activities. Yes, I believe all lives matter. So does BLM. If you know me personally and want to talk about this, please, let’s.
If there was any area of Lee’s statement that I could understand people reasonably taking umbrage at, it would be with regards to the Women’s March, and for reasons you might understand even if you don’t embrace them. Observers who felt that the March was primarily concerned with abortion, or that it largely ignored the concerns (and input) of women of color, might take issue with Lee’s reference to it as a model for confronting racism and supremacy.
Lee and his Winston-Salem church have received tremendous backlash for the appearance. He’s since resigned and issued this statement, which begins:
“I’m writing this statement to make sure that people are able to read in my own words what has happened to me over the last three weeks so that the events of my leaving Bethany United Church of Christ might be understood from my perspective.”
“It began when MTV invited me to speak out at the Video Music Awards in Los Angeles as a descendent of Robert E. Lee who is committed to speaking out against white supremacy and the hatred that had permeated our country. The event was in the immediate aftermath of the gathering of White Supremacist in Charlottesville who were rallying around a statue of my ancestor Robert E. Lee. I strongly support the removal of these monuments to the Confederacy and feel it is my duty as a descendent to speak out against White Supremacy.”
Let’s be clear: Lee is right about his duty, not just as a member of the Lee family, but as a Christian and a child of God. He also strikes me as a young, 24-year-old pastor seemingly blindsided by the reaction from within and without his congregation. I have no idea whether he talked to his church about his statement before he made it. I hope he did. If he didn’t, he should have. We don’t know what did or didn’t go on behind the scenes. Whether or not it would have made a difference isn’t the point.
My assumption, and it is only an assumption, is that the faction at Lee’s church taking issue with his statement were more upset with his lifting up of BLM than with the fact that the Women’s March had less overtly in common with combating white supremacy and racism. I may also be grossly underestimating how much of the negative response is from people who don’t want the statues to come down. And lest anyone think there’s no such thing as a liberal or progressive that opposes abortion, I know many people like Melissa Linebaugh. The seeming near-zero-tolerance policy among many progressives for people who oppose abortion is likely part of the backlash. While the Women’s March wasn’t “a march for abortion,” as such, it’s not hard to see why many people have that sort of view of it. It’s part of Lee’s pastoral job to understand that, and to be in conversation with his church before he goes on national television. And maybe he did and maybe he was. Again, at this point, we don’t know.
I haven’t seen a statement from the church. I’ve looked. Its Facebook page is down. Its website isn’t very current. This piece from the Chicago Tribune has a few more details, and some important elaborations from Lee: “‘The uncomfortable media attention and differing views with me by some of the congregation — and I want to make it very clear that it was not all of the congregation — made it clear that I was no longer welcome there,’ he said, adding that he’s also received positive messages.”
If Lee left the church because most of its members can’t abide the idea that he supports bringing the statues down, or because they’re so convinced that BLM is covertly in favor of black supremacy that they can’t see themselves to conversation and resolution, they should be called to task. We don’t (and likely won’t) know the specifics of their broken relationship, nor how long it’s been broken. That’s partly to Lee’s credit.
Because there’s much we don’t and won’t know, let’s say what we do know:
Racism is evil. Racial supremacy is evil. America is divided in ways we don’t even understand and are perhaps much further from understanding than we’ve been given to think. Robert W. Lee is right to use his family name to fight racism and supremacy. All people are right to fight racism and supremacy. Even agreeing on that, we won’t always agree on the best ways forward. All ways forward require forbearance, listening to each other, respecting each other, and upholding each other’s dignity and worth. In times like these, those basic precepts seem sadly radical. We have more work to do than we know, and more than we have the strength for. Build us up, Holy Spirit. Build us up.