Thomas Jefferson. Robert E. Lee. Thomas Yawkey.
They have all been in the news this last week. Jefferson, the slave owner. Yawkey, the Red Sox baseball owner who adamantly resisted integration. Lee, a general in the Confederate army. Racists. Bad guys.
The proposed removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee was at the center of the fatal clash of white supremacist demonstrators, counter-demonstrators and Antifa in Charlottesville, VA last week. New voices are calling for statues of Thomas Jefferson to be removed. John Henry, the current owner of the Red Sox baseball team, called this week for the renaming of Yawkey Way, the famous street adjacent to Fenway Park. So, why the call to remove their statues and pull their names from street signs. Because they were racists.
I am glad we are talking about racism. The Bible condemns it. Racism is an evil, and it should be named and condemned. We don’t want to celebrate it. We don’t want to encourage it. Symbols like monuments and street names and statues have a weight and influence to them, and it is legitimate to question if certain ones should remain.
In the noble fight against racism and other evils, however, we risk making a dangerous—perhaps fatal—judgment, namely this: A person’s entire identity is defined solely by his or her worst behavior.
I have seen this when it comes to felons. That is the label we give them. Felons. I dislike the term because of what we do with it. “Felon” could simply mean “one who has committed a felony” but we struggle to leave it there. It subtly becomes a label that sums up the person’s life and identity. The worst thing the person has done becomes his or her core identity. “You know she’s a felon, don’t you?” “We can’t risk hiring him because he’s a felon.” Any other good the person is or does is buried under the label “felon.” All we want to see—or choose to see—is felon. It is all or nothing.
Labels have that “all or nothing” gravitational pull. The pull invariably creates a kind of separation. There are bad people like felons and there are good people, like me, who have not committed a felony. Good guys and bad guys. You are one or the other. No middle ground. This happens all the time with those who have committed felonies. It breaks God’s heart. In good moments, it breaks mine.
Some of you share my concern about how we characterize “felons.” But are we doing the same thing with racists? Jefferson and Yawkey and Lee had racist attitudes and behaviors. Jefferson owned slaves and likely fathered children by one of them. Lee, too, was a slaveowner and defender of the Confederacy. Yawkey’s team, the Boston Red Sox, was the last MLB team to integrate, reluctantly so. We need to call their behavior out. We need to name the evil. It is fair to use the term racist, but is it fair to summarize their entire identity by that? Is it fair to bury any good they did under the singular label “racist?”
Is that their only identity? Jefferson was a brilliant statesman who helped to craft our American democracy. Do we bury that entirely under his sins of slavery? Yawkey was a philanthropist whose foundation today helps families across all racial lines. Do we simply bury that under his racism as if it does not exist? That is easy and tempting, but is it fair? Is it how we wish to be treated…to have our lives singularly defined by our worst choices?
And doesn’t racism develop in good people? (Like me?) In the aftermath of Charlottesville, President Obama tweeted: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion,” a loose quote of Nelson Mandela. It garnered the single most likes of any tweet in Twitter history, 3.8 million likes. But if his statement is true, doesn’t it beg a certain grace for the Jeffersons and Yawkey’s, who were influenced by their own parents and culture? Were they not also good kids who were influenced by the significant people in their lives? Again, is it fair to ignore our own mantras and make their racism the sum of their lives?
I have asked if it is fair. I will also ask if it is healthy. Is it good for the world? Is it good for Charlottesville? Is it good for us? Is it good to label the bad people like felons and racists and white supremacists or Antifa and to then distinguish them from the “good people” like us? Does this “all or nothing” labeling and separating help us actually fight racism or does it end up dividing us, corrupting us and ultimately condemning us all?
The reality is that all of us are a mix of good and evil, and each of us needs the forgiveness of God and the righteousness of Jesus. This singular labeling of the “good” and the “bad” blinds us to the evil in us, inflates arrogance, and builds walls between us. This quest to identify those bad guys, to label them, to shame them and eliminate them is its own kind of evil. It is also self-defeating. After all, once we get rid of all the bad guys, who’s left?
I think some statues need to be toppled, but if in the tearing down, I am erecting the idea that people should be defined solely by their worst behavior, eventually the demolition crews will be coming for me. As Jesus soberly warned: “For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (The Bible, Matthew 7:2, New International Version)
[The feature picture is from James DeMers on Pixabay.]