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Charlottesville: Southern Identity in Whom?

The Arnold’s have been in Tennessee since the early part of the 19th century. On my mother’s side, the Harts have been in North America two or three generations before that and in Tennessee just as long. My family proudly fought in the Army of Tennessee during the American Civil War and continues to live in Tennessee and Northern Alabama’s Tennessee Valley to this day. My roots in Tennessee and the US American South run deep.

I’ve long had a difficult relationship with my native Southern culture and history, and my family’s part in that narrative. Though my ancestors were mostly poor farmers, there are a handful of small-scale slave-holders in my family tree. Though slavery is not unique to Southern history, it has always been greatly troubling to have such an awful evil so relatively recent in one’s past. — My great-grandfather personally told me stories he heard firsthand from his grandfather. I, born in 1983, knew a man secondhand who not only could have legally owned slaves, but assuredly knew people who did. —

Further, the American classic liberal republican side of me, appreciates and respects the secessionist politics of my ancestors. Indeed, if a political union with the New England states wasn’t in the best interest of Southern states, the entire basis of the founding documents of the Federal government and American independence movement support the idea of a state’s right to leave the federation. — The American Civil War wasn’t entirely about slavery, and I’m sympathetic to and proud of the non-slavery political ideals of my Southern ancestors.

I love the culture of my native Southern home. I love our language — written and spoken —, our food, our architecture, our communal and yet fiercely independent ethos. I love the blending of English, Scottish, and European culture that happened in the hot and muggy summers of the South. The South, specifically Tennessee, is my home and my people. This is my native land and I love my culture as much as any person can.

And, yet… Slavery.

This great evil cannot be overlooked. Yes, there were other reasons for the American Civil War. Yes, for some maybe even many slavery wasn’t even the primary political objective of secession. But, slavery was a cornerstone of the South’s economy, ingrained into the social fabric of Southern life, and accepted if not wholeheartedly supported by the majority of white Southerners.

The Southern culture is not just a European blend of cultural spices. African culture is mixed in, too. This invisible, overlooked ingredient is what has made the unique culture of the American South. African and European were both impacted by generations of close living and — for Africans — forced culture sharing. The Southern culture truly is one culture with two dialects; the dialect of the white “unownables” and the dialect of the black “ownables.”

My whole life I lived as if the white dialect of Southern culture was my culture. I revered the cause of the Confederacy and our generals. I saw the Battle Flag, statues of Robert E. Lee, etc. as defiant signs of holding to my cultural identity against the see of pop media and culture. To remove a statue of Robert E. Lee from a park or ban the Battle Flag was to dishonor my ancestors and an affront to the culture I loved so much.

Now, however, I realize the folly of my previous feelings. Though I think we should be careful about removing all signs of the past because of modern sensitivities, a Robert E. Lee statue is not what holds my beloved culture together. A century of segregation happened. Before that, slavery was an established economic system and a cause for war. Regardless of the associations I was raised with, monuments and symbols linked by moderns to slavery, racial segregation, and division hold Southern culture back from being all it could be.

Ours is a culture formed in unairconditioned — often forced — community with one another. Black and white, daily interacting, daily sharing. Slavery in the American South was a great evil that left deep scars and whose echo is still heard even today. But, in the darkness of slavery, I see the planting of a great seed of light.

Though the Church was coopted by evil and mostly supported or, at least, accepted the institution of human slavery in the American South, the light of the Gospel still pierced through. In the shared culture of white and black Southerners — true Southern culture — is the seed for a great world culture. A culture deeply impacted by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

So, who cares about a statue? If its holding me back from relationship and reconciliation with my black sisters and brothers, I’m glad to see it go. For the future of my shared Southern culture and — most importantly — in fidelity to the God who created all humanity equally in his image, obstacles to human and Divine reconciliation must be removed whenever we are able. In Christ, this is my new telos. I seek relationship and unity with all the beloved of God. I trust in God alone to form a culture after his holiness and his beauty.

So, I stand in opposition to those who find their identity in the sins of the past and not in Christ Jesus. I stand in opposition to those who reject the workings of God within us to bring about his New Creation.

If contemporary culture and politics concern you — and they really should — do not cleave to the idealized past, racial or cultural superiority, and torch-lit gatherings. Seek and cling to the Great Shepherd of Israel. In him alone is peace, safety, and life. Through him alone is there a future.