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Monuments men

As the question of Confederate statues sharply divides people, the gospel of Christ quietly brings them together in the heart of the old Confederacy

Monuments men

The Confederate Memorial at Stone Mountain Park(Raymond Boyd/Getty Images)

CLARKSTON, Ga., and AUGUSTA, Ga.—On a steamy Sunday morning in northern Georgia, joggers toting water bottles huff up a steep hill next to a massive granite rock soaring 800 feet into the humid Georgia air.

Stone Mountain Park is one of Georgia’s most visited tourist attractions, with its hiking, camping, ropes courses, railroad, water attractions, dinosaur-related exhibits, and one other notable display: the largest Confederate monument in the country.

These days, the massive carving of Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and President Jefferson Davis overlooks park employees manning shops with blown glass and hiking gear.

It’s a quiet morning here, but a controversy is brewing. Should the giant sculpture go on the chopping block?

Officials in more than a dozen cities removed Confederate markers or monuments in the wake of a violent weekend of demonstrations and counter-demonstrations in Charlottesville, Va., where white nationalists converged to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from a local park.

Proponents of the changes say it’s offensive to retain monuments to Confederate figures who fought to uphold slavery. But others say the statues are part of the nation’s history, including its darkest chapters. A Marist Institute poll shortly after the Charlottesville violence said 62 percent of Americans thought the monuments should remain in public places.

When it comes to the issue of white supremacy, the subject isn’t complicated: Racism of any kind is abhorrent and evil and antithetical to Biblical Christianity. Christians should say this clearly and unequivocally.

When it comes to monuments, the question is more complex. Christians recognize any statue will display a sinful person since all people are sinful. But it’s still legitimate to discuss what a statue memorializes, where it’s located, and how it affects other people.

One thing is clear: Monuments—and the division over them—are powerful symbols of deeper realities. Even Robert E. Lee saw the potential for discord: He opposed erecting Confederate monuments, saying they would keep open deep wounds in the nation.

Beyond the debate of whether to remove markers and statues, another question arises: How can Christians be a living display of a gospel that transcends racial divides?

On a summer Sunday in Georgia, you don’t have to wander far from the shadow of Confederate monuments to find at least a couple of examples.

Alan Band/Keystone Features/Getty Images

A sculptor works on the gigantic deep relief carving of Robert E. Lee in 1966. (Alan Band/Keystone Features/Getty Images)

HERE AT STONE MOUNTAIN, it’s difficult to convey the magnitude of the sculpture to one who hasn’t seen it in person.

The entire carved surface measures three acres—larger than a football field or Mount Rushmore. The three Confederate figures carved on horseback reach 90 feet high and recess 12 feet into the mountain.

Workers used dynamite to blast the surface, and the carving was so immense, sculptors could duck inside the carved mouth of one of the horses to escape rain showers.

The mountain’s history is far less impressive.

In 1915, a former Methodist preacher led a small group of men to the top of Stone Mountain, and at the summit they set a cross ablaze. After decades of dormancy, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) was reborn. By the mid-1920s, the white supremacy group had drawn some 5 million supporters nationwide and held initiation for hundreds of hooded Klansmen at the foot of Stone Mountain.

A local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy helped spearhead efforts to carve a Confederate memorial into Stone Mountain, and after decades of delays and disputes, the carving was completed in 1972. Forty-five years later, a Democratic candidate for governor, Stacey Abrams, says the state should obliterate the sculpture in the wake of Charlottesville violence.

It’s an unlikely scenario, and it’s unclear how much Georgia citizens would push to eradicate a carving of this magnitude—a job far harder than pulling down a statue or a flag.

Andrew Young, a former mayor of Atlanta and an African-American civil rights leader who was with Martin Luther King Jr. when he was assassinated, has challenged the idea of battling to take down Confederate monuments. “I think it’s too costly to re-fight the Civil War,” he said at an Atlanta press conference in August. “We have paid too great a price in trying to bring people together.”

When asked about Black Lives Matter activists who might disagree with him, Young told NPR, “I’m saying, these are kids who grew up free, and they don’t know what still enslaves them—and it’s not those monuments.”

Some do disagree with Young, but on a recent Sunday morning, joggers and walkers in Stone Mountain Park included whites, blacks, and Asians. Meanwhile, a black employee and a white employee headed into the park gates together at the foot of the mountain that once hosted KKK rallies.

‘These are kids who grew up free, and they don’t know what still enslaves them—and it’s not those monuments.’ —Andrew Young

A few miles away, churchgoers gathered for worship at the Clarkston International Bible Church (CIBC). Every weekend, worshippers from some 12 to 15 different nationalities pour into the campus for worship services.

Clarkston—known as the Ellis Island of the South—is a hub for refugees from around the world, and CIBC has embraced an opportunity to reach out to Christians and others fleeing persecution in their home countries.

At a 10:45 a.m. worship service, Christians from Africa, Asia, and the United States sit together in wooden pews and listen to a call to worship. Twenty-year-old Sam Abebe, whose parents immigrated to the United States from Ethiopia in the 1980s, greets the diverse gathering: “It’s really a joy to see people from so many places in the same building worshipping the same God.”

It wasn’t always this way.

William S. Perrin, 85, is a longtime elder in the Southern Baptist congregation founded in the 1800s. Perrin grew up in Clarkston and has attended CIBC his entire life, except for time away as an officer in the U.S. army.

He remembers most of Clarkston—and his church—as completely white during his childhood. His only interaction with black children came in the summers when he joined with young black boys who lived across a creek near his aunt’s property. Together, the children would dam the creek in the summer and build a swimming hole: “We didn’t really know we were white and black.”

In the army, he interacted with black adults on a regular basis for the first time and developed good relationships and respect. “Human beings are human beings,” he says. “It don’t make no difference what their color is.”

Some in the church didn’t always agree. By the early 1990s, as refugees poured into Clarkston, Ga., and the demographics of the town changed, Perrin says, some church members left. As the church decided to share space with refugees and later merge with a Filipino congregation meeting on the property, others left because they didn’t want to mix with minorities.

The church lost hundreds of people from its peak membership. “The Lord pruned this church like He was pruning an olive tree,” says Perrin. “And He pruned the prejudice out, and it left us with about 20 families.”

These days, hundreds worship at CIBC each weekend, including some groups holding their own worship services in classrooms on the property. The North American Mission Board recently partnered with the church to make it a hub for outreach and training for other congregations in the area.

Pastor Trent DeLoach hopes the church can be a monument to the gospel, particularly in divisive moments: “Our response is to keep doing what we’re doing. Every day we bring together a multiethnic tapestry of people that love each other and that worship side by side. I think it’s a powerful message.”

After morning worship, congregants gather in the nearby gym for a weekly lunch, and Sam Abebe gets ready for an afternoon youth Bible study. Abebe grew up in Clarkston too, and he came on staff last year as the church’s recreation coordinator. Each Sunday, he meets with young people from different cultures to talk about the Bible.

Sometimes those cultures clash, but Abebe says reconciliation flows from allowing different people slowly to identify with each other and become a family: “Then they kind of work it out in their own hearts.”

For Abebe, the events in Charlottesville are grievous, but he says it’s important to speak out against racism without becoming consumed by it: “Our identity is in Christ.”

That’s a tough line to walk, but Abebe commends something in short supply: humility. “We have to remember we were once walking in the powers of darkness,” he says of Christians. “And the people that are practicing racism are walking in the powers of darkness. That was us, even if it didn’t manifest itself as racism.” Abebe prays for the “love that points out people’s wrongs in a loving way.”

Underwood Archives/Getty Images

Young and old appear in regalia during mass initiations into the Ku Klux Klan at Stone Mountain in July 1948. (Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

THE CONTROVERSY over Confederate monuments doesn’t show signs of ending, and ongoing debates over statues will likely keep the discussion alive for months to come. Some cities have appointed commissions to study what to do about Confederate monuments on public property.

In some Southern cities, memories of the Confederacy are embedded into the fabric of graveyards where Confederate soldiers are buried and church sanctuaries where they worshipped.

In Augusta, Ga., a historical marker outside First Presbyterian Church (PCA) describes the congregation’s connection to the Civil War: The church grounds served as a hospital for wounded soldiers and a temporary detention center for prisoners of war.

In the same hand-carved pulpit that stands at the front of the sanctuary today, Civil War–era pastor Joseph Ruggles Wilson aggressively defended slavery. These days, the church’s attitude toward its neighbors has changed. A handful of members started a Christian school for low-income children. A doctor in the congregation started a medical clinic for the community in a building that once served as a home for Confederate widows. The church partners with other congregations and civic leaders on projects to serve the city’s residents.

On a recent Sunday evening, John Farmer, an African-American intern at the church, climbed into the high pulpit to preach a sermon to hundreds of worshippers in the mostly white congregation.

He stood in the same spot where a pastor in another era condoned the slavery of black people. He glanced up into the balcony where slaves once sat during worship services at the church.

And Farmer preached the gospel.

He preached from the book of Galatians about how Christ offers freedom from any kind of sin. And how those freed from sin can help others still struggling. He pointed to the example of Harriet Tubman: “She escaped the bondage of slavery, but when she tasted freedom, she couldn’t keep it to herself. Freedom was so good that she would risk her own life to help others experience it.”

How did Tubman endure? Farmer quoted her own words: “’Twant me, ’twas the Lord. I always told Him, ‘I trust you. I don’t know where to go, I don’t know what to do, but I expect you to lead me.’ And He always did.”

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the political beat and other topics as national editor for WORLD Magazine. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

Comments

  • Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Sat, 09/02/2017 08:40 am

    Stone Mountain's teaching opportunities:

    Black father to son:  "Those men fought for the right to enslave our ancestors.  That was a great sin, which we cannot forget.  We cannot remove these sculptures--just like we cannot remove our own sins.  Now, son, we have a choice:  we can wallow in fear and hatred of their descendants for sins which their descendants did not commit; or we can pray for God to bring reconciliation to our nation--just as we ask for reconciliation with people against whom we have sinned."

    Southerner to his son:  "Those men fought for the right to enslave black people.  That was a great sin, which we cannot forget.  It is a part of our heritage.  We cannot remove these sculptures--just like we cannot remove our own sins.  Now, son, we have a choice:  we can wallow in fear and hatred of those who wish to remove statues that honor these men; or we can pray for God to bring reconciliation to our nation--just as we ask for reconciliation with people against whom we have sinned."

    Northerner to his son:  "Those men fought for the right to enslave black people.  That was a great sin, which we cannot forget.  We cannot remove these sculptures--just like we cannot remove our own sins.  Now, son, we have a choice:  we can wallow in fear and hatred of those who seek to split our country apart again; or we can pray for God to bring reconciliation to our nation--just as we ask for reconciliation with people against whom we have sinned.

  • Dick Friedrich
    Posted: Sat, 09/02/2017 11:15 am

    Much easier to get rid of monuments than cleanse ourselves of our sin. Attaching ourselves to monuments or ridding ourselves of them will do nothing except confirm our own self-righteousness. Better to humbly admit the truth as found in God's Word and spend our effort building relationships instead of building monuments or tearing them down. Our only sure hope is only found in Jesus and Christians of all stripes have the high calling of sharing this. God says so.