The current era is a time when truth is critically important, although dimensions of deceit still distort our reality. Slowly, the triumph of truth is emerging regarding the legacy of slavery and the onerous impact of white supremacy that President John Quincy Adams described as “the great and foul stain.”
Confederate symbolism is now being dismantled in New Orleans, Richmond, Virginia, and other cities. America is increasingly recognizing the complicated racial factors related to the history of our racial past of oppression and injustice. Many college campuses and state and local governmental sites have removed memorials venerating the sponsors and sustainers of slavery. These recent actions of removal reflect new and intentional efforts of inclusion, sensitivity and decency.
The Washington National Cathedral, however, has shamefully yet to become a part of this truth-telling trend two years after Dylann Roof murdered nine people in a prayer service in a black church motivated by his abiding allegiance to the confederate past and its purpose. Shortly thereafter, it was discovered that the “house of prayer for all people,” as some refer to The Cathedral, also strangely lauds the legacies of Gens. Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, two Confederate leaders who fought to preserve the perversion of slavery. They are depicted among more than 200 stained-glass windows, which are also adorned with confederate flags. The former Dean of the Cathedral, the Very Rev. Gary Hall, urged that the window be replaced. He maintained that those symbol and personalities were contradictory to Christian values and had no place in a sacred space. He further suggested that the Confederate flag still represents white supremacy and racism.
The Episcopal Bishop of Washington, however, maintained that the windows would instead be utilized as a source for conversation about racism and to foster better racial relations. Cathedral leaders suggested that a new narrative on faith and justice would result from such conversations. This perverse alternative is without merit and reflects a grossly inadequate response. It is probable that members of the Cathedral staff missed former President Obama’s recent comment, “Somebody says we have to have a conversation about race. We talk a lot about race. There’s no shortcut. And we don’t need more talk.”
Martin Luther King once observed, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Confederate personalities and symbolism are wholly antithetical to Christian values that promote the dignity of all people. Confederate symbolism represents another vestige of white supremacy. The memorial tribute is also an affront that especially assaults African-Americans. It is difficult for people of faith to be “the beloved community” when such symbolism reduces our witness to dismantling racism in the church and society.
Other secular sectors such as Georgetown University have made drastic efforts to remove evidences of our nation’s vile racist past. Other elements of institutional racism, however, still plague this landmark site. There are only two black females on the senior staff of 13. Most worship services rarely reflect communities of color among those who preach or the music sung by overwhelmingly white choirs. Three schools are connected to The Cathedral and the overwhelming majority of their leaders, teachers and students are white.
The Cathedrals prior legacy is today at odds with its current mission to a more diverse society. The loss of the privilege of the powerful is also a gain in the dignity of the powerless. Many people are still anchored in past privileges and prerogatives rather than willing to venturing to shape a better future, one that respects the dignity of all people. Harvard’s president, Drew Gilpin Faust, insightfully commented, “Only by coming to terms with history can we free ourselves to create a more just world.” The writer James Baldwin once testified, “In the church in which I was raised, you were supposed to bear witness to the truth. Now, later on, you wonder what in the world the truth is, but you do know what a lie is.”
The Cathedral’s leadership needs to join the truth squad and speak with prophetic power. How The Cathedral resist racism will also demonstrate whether the faithful take seriously its role as disciples of Christ. Racism gives the faith community the opportunity to join in bearing witness to the truth and the struggle for liberation.
Raymond Blanks is the director of The Gerasene Group, a nonprofit social justice advocacy organization. He resides in Washington.