24 August 2017

Confederate Episcopal Church?

(Note: See footnote at bottom of article)

As much as I blame Little Penis for the rise to the surface of American fascism, I blame even more the covert racism that has been a growing feature of white liberal centrism and of the Democratic Party since at least the bicentennial in 1976.  Terms and phrases like “pragmatic progressive”, “fiscally conservative, socially liberal”, “tough on crime”, “welfare reform”, “balancing the budget”, “privatization”, and the like are all dog-whistles calling to Southern racists and other white supremacists. 

Brother Martin’s remarks in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail included the following:

The Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white liberal, who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers the absence of tension to the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season”.

I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas.  He writes: “All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry.  It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth”.

That is what the Episcopal Church in effect said to its Afro-American members in 1991, the year voters in Arizona shot down a referendum to establish Dr. King’s birthday, 15 January, as a state holiday.  Rather than moving its general convention in January that year from Phoenix, Arizona, to another venue at the behest of the church’s Afro-American members, then Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning ordered that the convention be held in Phoenix as scheduled, saying that doing so was “the strongest testimony against ‘the blatant sin of racism’”.  Which was really just another way of saying what Dr. King’s Texas white friend told him in that letter, or, to put it more honestly and plainly, “Go to the back of the bus, sit down, shut up, and wait until we decide it’s convenient to us for you to move forward”.  Or, as the Dead Kennedys put it, “Give me convenience or give me death”.

Two years later, the NFL, which had scheduled the 1993 Super Bowl to take place in Tempe, Arizona, that year, moved the game to the Rose Bowl in California.  Imagine that, the NFL taking a more moral stance than the Episcopal Church.

Fast forward back to the 21st century, it’s clear that at least some parts of the Episcopal Church have not changed one bit from 1991.  “If the real Jesus Christ were to come back today”, before he was “gunned down cold by the CIA”, he might or might not go through Trinity Church on Wall Street in Manhattan with a whip of cords, but he would damn sure go to the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, with a sling and a shepherd’s bag containing four smooth stones. 

Out of its 215 huge stained glass windows, this cathedral, the second largest in the United States, hosts four that glorify and sanctify the Lost Cause of the Confederacy and that bless, praise, glorify, exalt, extol, honor, adore, and laud two generals who fought in the War of the Rebellion to rip apart the United States in order to preserve a white supremacist society whose economy and culture was based on the enslavement of African and Afro-American men, women, and children, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

In the aftermath of the bloodbath in Charleston perpetrated by Confederate flag-waving white supremacist terrorist Dylann Roof, Gary Hall, at the time dean of the cathedral chapter, called for the Confederate windows to come down, on 25 June 2015.  On 18 August less than two months later, Hall announced his resignation as dean and retirement from the priesthood, two years and six years early respectively, including the statement in reference to the cathedral and its chapter that, “The next decades will require…the continuing evolution of its internal culture as it contends with the changing face of American religion and our country’s increasing diversity”.

A year later in June 2016, the cathedral chapter announced that after a year of soul-searching it had decided to study over the next two years whether or not to stop endorsing white supremacy.  It also did the bare minimum of removing the two instances of the Army of Northern Virginia version of the Southern Cross battle flag.  However, it left in place the two Stars and Bars national flags which represent the planter aristocracy who seceded from the Union and began the war to keep their slaves in the first place. 

The blue Silver Moon battle flag which also remains is completely out of place.  It was the banner of Hardee’s Corps of the Confederate Army of Tennessee until January 1864 and retained by Cleburne’s Division afterwards.  From what I know of Pat Cleburne, the Irish-American general who formally proposed to free the slaves in the Confederacy (along with their families) in exchange for military service, he would be outraged that his division’s battle flag was being used to promote the Lost Cause.  The apotheoses of Lee and of Jackson are especially inappropriate for a religious setting. 

Such  symbols of adoration for the would-be slave republic around the country were all installed in the 20th century, mostly in two phases.  The first came in the 1920s and ‘30s in the wake of the movie The Birth of a Nation and the rise of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, like the statue of Confederate general A.P. Stewart on the front lawn of the Hamilton County courthouse in Chattanooga.  The second wave, in the 1950s and ‘60s, followed the short-lived Dixiecrat Party that introduced display of Confederate flags and other symbols as signs of defiance, this time in resistance to the movement for civil rights and human dignity of Afro-Americans. 

It was during this latter period that the Confederate windows of the National Cathedral were installed in 1953, paid for by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, then a leading proponent of the white supremacist Lost Cause myth.  And as Jane Dailey, associate professor of history at  University of Chicago, explained, “Most people involved were not necessarily erecting a monument to the past, but were rather erecting them toward a white supremacist future.”

In the days after the events in Charlottesville, municipalities and universities across the country moved quickly to take down these validations of the Lost Cause.  The city of Baltimore secretly removed all four of its Confederate monuments over night, Mayor Catherine Pugh saying, “With the climate of this nation, I think it’s very important that we move quickly and quietly.”  The University of Texas at Austin said it removed four statues tied to the Confederacy from its campus because they had become “symbols of modern white supremacy and neo-Nazism”.

Dean Hollerith, your statement that “Racism grieves the heart of God” rings a bit hollow to anyone outside your echo chamber in the light of the cathedral chapter’s dilly-dallying over its own Confederate idols.  I know there are “very fine people on both sides” of this issue, which has “many sides, many sides”, but as I heard on a TV show recently, those who sit on the picket fence are doomed to be impaled by it. 

As long as the apotheoses of Lee and Jackson, the two primary saints of the Lost Cause, and the veneration of white supremacism remain an integral part of the National Cathedral, it cannot be “a spiritual home for the nation”.  At least cover them up for Jesus Christ’s sake, and I mean that literally.  It’s time to stop telling Afro-American Episcopalians, with deeds if not words, “Go to the back of the bus, sit down, shut up, and wait until we decide it’s convenient to us for you to move forward”.  It’s time to stop saying to Afro-Americans, “You are in too great a religious hurry”.  It’s time for the white-splaining to end.

In the meantime, I implore Presiding Bishop Michael Curry: please, move your seat to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan, where your office is anyway.  I ask all those who give regularly to the cathedral to cancel your pledges until the Confederate windows are removed or at the very least covered.  Tourists, please cancel plans to visit the cathedral.  I call upon all activists for social justice in the Washington, D.C., to mobilize.  As for the rest of you out there, call the National Cathedral at 202-537-6200; write them at 3101 Wisconsin Ave., Washington, DC 20016; or email them at info@cathedral.org, to let them know how you feel.

The only places Confederate monuments and memorabilia belong are in Civil War military parks, museums, and cemeteries, just as the only acceptable place for Confederate cosplay, or for that matter Union cosplay, is at Civil War reenactments.

If the National Cathedral had really wanted to commemorate Confederate generals truly worthy of venerable remembrance, it would have used James Longstreet and William Mahone, both of whom worked hard to build a biracial society in the postbellum South.  Or Patrick Cleburne, who literally risked his life making his proposal to free the slaves.

Before you take this as a wholesale attack on the Episcopal Church, you need to know that I am a lifelong Episcopalian, and returned a few years ago after a lengthy absence.  This isn’t an attack so much as a call for certain elements in the church to pull their heads out of their ass.

(Footnote:  On 6 September (2017), this headline appeared on NPR's website): 

National Cathedral Is Removing Stained-Glass Windows Honoring Confederate Leaders


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