By: Rev. Christopher Burcham | August 17, 2017
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Having been blessed with an incredibly diverse group of friends who transcend virtually every demographic (age, gender, sexual orientation, ideology, race, and religious belief) but who, without a single exception, command my love and respect—I try hard to avoid taking any position likely to alienate or offend any of them.
For reasons I’m not sure I fully understand, however, I feel strangely compelled to wade into the current debate on racism, white supremacy, and the symbols of the South—despite the fact that, in so doing, I am almost guaranteed to lose some friends (on one side or another) and run the risk of being misunderstood (on one point or another) by virtually all.
I will acknowledge up front that I am still struggling with some of these issues and that my understanding of all this continues to evolve. My hope in making such an admission is that those of you who disagree most vehemently with my conclusions might not write me off completely but, at the very least, take the more charitable view that my thinking is still subject to change and that I might yet be reclaimed!
In the interest of full disclosure (particularly for those of you who know me primarily from my decade of ministry in the Midwest), I readily admit that I am a “son of the South”—having been born and raised in North Carolina, where I have spent 33 of my 50 years. I am directly descended from Confederate soldiers on both sides of my family (in North Carolina and Virginia). These facts undoubtedly color my views even now in ways that even I, my best attempts at self-awareness notwithstanding, fail to fully recognize or appreciate . . . tho’ my relationship to my heritage has always been (and remains) somewhat conflicted, at best.
As any of my close boyhood friends could attest, I was never particularly sympathetic to the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy growing up (in spite of the fact that the belief that “the South is gonna rise again” was a much more prevalent and widely-held and expressed view 35 or 40 years ago than it is today). From the time I learned to read, my biggest hero was Abraham Lincoln—which led me to many impassioned arguments with childhood chums in defense of the Union. By the time I’d reached my teens and early adulthood, I absolutely detested and despised the Confederate flag, seeing it as nothing more than a disgusting symbol of racism and redneck rebellion, none of which held even the slightest appeal for me!
To this day, I loathe and abhor racism (and bigotry) in every form. Though I was born white and have, through no merit of my own, enjoyed certain privileges historically accorded that demographic by our society, I firmly believe that neither I nor any member of my race are in any way superior or more valuable than any member of any other. I heartily agree with Dr. Alveda King (niece of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) when she says that “the big lie is that we are separate races—when the spiritual, scientific, and biological fact is that we are one blood; one human race.” After all, the Bible clearly states (in Acts 17:26) that “from ONE blood [or one man], He made EVERY nation of men.” We are all, every person of every nationality and ethnicity, uniquely created in the image of God and, as such, enjoy an inherent worth unparalleled in all creation. The very fact that Jesus Christ (the Son of God) DIED to save people of every tongue, tribe, and nation in and of itself renders moot the argument than any one is superior to any other.
In his book, One Blood, Dr. Ken Ham suggests that, in many modern instances at least, racial discrimination has been bolstered by the belief that, having evolved separately, different people groups “are at allegedly different stages of evolution, and so some people groups [supposedly remaining closer to the animals] are more backward than others” and may thus be considered less than fully human. “This sort of thinking,” Ham writes, “inspired Hitler in his quest to eliminate Jews . . . and to establish the ‘master race.’” Any/all such beliefs are abhorrent to the true follower of Christ!
While denouncing any/every form of racism as vehemently as possible, however, I am not at all convinced that racism (or white supremacy, specifically) in America is on the rise! I read an article over the weekend pointing out that, a century ago, when the KKK was at its height, it boasted 4 million members—which, at the time, was nearly 4% of the total U.S. population (then just over 100 million). By the beginning of this century, however, most estimates put the current Klan membership at no more than 6-10 thousand—still a few thousand too many but, out of a population that now stands at more than 325 million? You could multiply the entire Klan membership by 10 (and it’s highly doubtful that there are even as many as 100,000 white supremacists in America today—from all such like-minded groups COMBINED) and the percentage of white supremacists in the United States would still be a mere 0.03%! Granted, even ONE white supremacist is one too many but, if 99.97% of our population agrees that such views are disgusting and repulsive, why should such a tiny and misguided minority be granted such an inordinate amount of attention and publicity and be allowed to drive our national conversation?!
President Trump has drawn considerable fire over the last few days for daring to suggest that, repugnant as the beliefs and activities of “alt-right” white supremacists are, there are similar groups on the left that bear some measure of responsibility for what took place in Charlottesville this past weekend (and now seems to be spreading rapidly across the country) as well. But, while membership statistics for any extremist group (right or left) are notoriously hard to come by, he may very well be correct. There are a number of equally violent and disgusting so-called “Alt-Left” groups (such as Antifa) that were present in Charlottesville this past Saturday and, if anything, have (until recently, at least) been far more active than their counterparts on the right. I’m neither minimizing nor defending the deplorable activities of either side—only appealing for a bit of balance and perspective. I don’t deny that there remains much progress to be made, but we should not overlook the considerable progress that already has been made!
When one remembers the shameful segregation that rigidly governed much of our society a mere half-century ago, it is nothing short of remarkable (if not miraculous) that, within a single generation, we came so far as to put an African-American in the Oval Office—not once, but TWICE (and by comfortable and growing margins each time)! Though there are, sadly, still far too many racists (of every stripe and skin color) in our society, I am optimistic enough to believe that we are not nearly as racist in America today as much of the mainstream media would have us believe. And while a part of me certainly understands the felt need to atone for past sins, there comes a point at which endless self-examination, flagellation, and repeated apologies and attempts at reparation become overkill—and we run the very real risk of making a situation worse by insisting on making it our continued focus.
I tend to agree with (the reluctantly conservative) screenwriter Roger L. Simon who wrote on Saturday that “what happened in Charlottesville isn’t us. It’s just a small group of real bad people” whom we should indict, convict, and lock up for as long as possible “while the rest of us . . . move on.” My concern is that allowing such a tiny, misguided minority to drive both the national conversation and agenda will only make it more difficult for us to move on.
Let’s not forget that this whole tragic incident in Charlottesville this past weekend was initially sparked by the proposed removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee—who, from the time of the Civil War until quite recently, enjoyed considerable (if not universal) respect in both the North and South. Those early friends who remember my youthful disavowal of the Confederate cause might be surprised to know that I do NOT support the current push to remove all remaining Confederate monuments & memorials. In fact, I’ve been sickened to see a mob of angry hoodlums tearing down such a statue in nearby Durham this week and hope that such inexcusable vandalism will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
Tho’ I have no desire to glorify (much less deify) bigots and slave owners, I’m not sure it’s helpful to erase all reminders of our admittedly checkered past (or even to relegate such reminders to museums where they would be less easily seen). There’s something to be said for keeping the evidence of who we have been (good, bad, and ugly) squarely in front of us—if only to remind us that, like every generation that has gone before, we too have our blind spots and that, for all the progress we have made, are undoubtedly staking out some positions now which we will one day view very differently.
Every generation of Americans—from the Founding Fathers to our Antebellum Ancestors to the most famous (and infamous) leaders and citizens of today—is (and always has been) made up of often well-meaning but complicated and flawed human beings who struggle but somehow manage to hold a lot of conflicting ideals and ideas in uneasy tension.
Returning to Trump Tower yesterday for the first time since his inauguration, the President exasperatedly put the question to the press: “This week it’s Robert E. Lee . . . is it George Washington next week and . . . Thomas Jefferson the week after? Where does it stop?” That’s a good question—and one which the Bible seems to answer by showcasing a procession of men and women who followed God imperfectly (if at all). I’ve always felt the fact that it makes no attempt to hide their foibles and flaws makes it eminently easier for you and me to put ourselves in their sandals and find ourselves in their skins, hopefully able to learn the lessons of their long-ago lives (and potentially bypassing their pitfalls).
Of course, I will always sacrifice ANY symbol or statue before I would have it stand in the way of the Cross—which is why, in spite of my personal appreciation of my own Southern heritage, I lent support last year to the call of my denomination (the Southern Baptist Convention) on our members to discontinue all use and display of the Confederate flag, so as to avoid any potential misunderstanding or offense to those still in need of the Gospel. Yet there are times when our calling attention to things inadvertently does more harm than good.
In my 11 years as a classroom teacher, for instance, I was privileged to preside over a racially diverse group of students who seemed genuinely unconscious of their differences . . . until February rolled around each year and its observance of “Black History Month” inevitably plunged them into heated arguments and discussions that seemed only to exploit and exacerbate those differences, creating a division that was all-but-nonexistent the rest of the year. I fear we’re making that same mistake in our society right now—with a relentless focus on a racism that, thankfully, has been confined to an increasingly miniscule and marginalized minority.
I have often reminded my congregation that, despite our current polarization, we are nowhere near as divided as we were a century and a half ago—when we actually split in two, pitting brother against brother in the War Between the States. Yet I fear we are now inching ever closer to that same point and level of division than we have been at any point since. A war—not between the Blue and the Gray . . . but the blue and the red!
In the earnest hope that we are not now moving toward yet another civil war, I can think of no better or more appropriate note on which to close than the words with which Abraham Lincoln concluded his first inaugural address, immediately upon taking the oath of office as the 16th president of a nation teetering on the brink of civil war (then barely a month away). Those words are perhaps more timely today than at any time since they were first uttered by the Great Emancipator, who reminded us that: “We are NOT enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.”
I fervently pray that, in the immortal words of Lincoln, “the mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave [both Union AND Confederate] to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
About the Author:
Rev. Christopher Burcham received his degree in Biblical Studies from Bryan College in 1990 (going on to graduate work in Christian Ministries at Huntington University), Burcham has spent the past 27 years in vocational ministry—both as a pastor and classroom teacher—in Illinois, Florida, and North Carolina. He is about to begin his 10th year of service as the Senior Pastor of Union Hill Baptist Church in Clemmons, NC. Burcham is joined in ministry by his lovely wife Amanda—who was raised Mormon until a series of traumatic events led her to dabble in witchcraft and eventually become a flaming agnostic before being radically saved and serving as a missionary (with YWAM Int’l) in Hawaii, China, and Tibet—prior to becoming a pastor’s wife. Aside from ministry, Burcham has one primary hobby: an avid history buff, he has traveled to more than 350 presidential sites in all 50 states and been privileged to meet the last nine presidents (from Richard Nixon through Donald Trump)—all in connection with a book he is currently writing, entitled: Heads of State; Feet of Clay.
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