A Cacophony of Days

It’s a busy day in Virginia . . . . well, for some people at least.

State employees are on holiday today and on Monday, too, so they may be less busy than usual. The reason state offices are closed: Lee-Jackson Day today, and Martin Luther King Day on Monday.

And today is another special day, too: Religious Freedom Day. Nobody gets that day off.

religious freedom whould work two ways -- John IrvingThe confluence of these three days feels rather amazing, and confusing, to me. I am feeling out of sorts about some of this, and not sure what to say. But here are a few observations.

Some folks are celebrating Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, two Virginia-born heroes of the Confederate forces in the Civil Wars–you know, that war that was about whether a major share of the country should be allowed to continue enslaving people–while on Monday, some folks–probably not the same ones–will be celebrating the birthday of the man who had more to do with ending the legalized oppression, Jim Crow and segregation, which was the aftermath of that slavery, than just about anybody else.

And then there is religious freedom.

Robert E. Lee by Robert Wilson
Robert E. Lee by Robert Wilson

What many who came here from religiously oppressive Europe wanted–to practice their religion their way, and what many of those of the dominant religious tradition did not want to share with others who believed differently (or did not believe at all).

Freedom. What the slaves wanted and the planters feared. And what Generals Lee and Jackson, and a host of other generals and leaders and plenty of ordinary folk fought to preseve: enslaved Africans making profit for their masters. Note: to his credit, before the Civil War, Stonewall Jackson taught free and enslaved Africans how to read the Bible, even though it was against the law to teach slaves to read.

Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale

Two of the planters who opposed freedom for Africans were the architects of religious freedom in Virginia, and thus, in the nation. Jefferson and Madison authored the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom which ended the religious monopoly of the Anglican (Episcopal) Church in Virginia and which became the model for the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. We owe them an enormous debt. People became free to exercise their consciences, including to not believe in any deity or religion. That was, and is, a big deal.

Sadly, however, these architects of freeing consciences were not the architects of freeing bodies. So, as we celebrate them and their achievement in one area, we are reminded of their failure in another.

Martin Luther King equality poster by MalteBlom
Martin Luther King Equality poster by MalteBlom

And every year, when the state persists in honoring those who fought their own nation to preserve the enslavement of others we are reminded of our painful heritage. Some don’t see the pain–then or now. If you go to the City of Lexington today and tomorrow, you can participate in a well-planned celebration of Lee (he lived there after what the local organizers call “The War Between the States” and built up what is now Washington and Lee University) and Jackson (who lived there before the same war)–scholarly talks and a buffet lunch and dance, and a parade, too.

I love Virginia. It is simply a grand place to live and work. I could spend the rest of my life here, happily.

But I also must say we remain a badly fractured people. I live in Richmond, and the divide between it, with its large African-American population, and the surrounding counties, far more white, is stark. Poverty rates, HIV infection rates, joblessness, inadequate housing and homelessness–Richmond “wins” every time.

So, although we have much political freedom–although LGBT Virginians still suffer legal discrimination–we need social and economic freedom.

Its time to stop glorifying Lee and Jackson–and the Confederacy generally. Its time to admit that every time this is done, African Americans feel the injury. It is our history, so we need to study it and learn from it, but we need not be proud.

James Madison by Everett
James Madison by Everett

Lee-Jackson Day is now the Friday before Martin Luther King Day. Thank goodness we no longer observe Lee-Jackson-King Day!

If we must have this observance, perhaps we should keep state government open and ask all departments to use the day to inventory and publish how they help and/or hinder the progress of African-Americans. They could have open houses to showcase their findings.

Stonewall Jackson by Ken Hendricksen
Stonewall Jackson by Ken Hendricksen

The Governor could go to Shockoe Bottom in Richmond–he could take the Mayor with him–and participate in a prayer vigil of remembrance and repentance for all the slaves sold (and the ones who died) at Lumpkin’s Jail.

And maybe, in a burst of religious openness and freedom, Christians and Jews and Muslims could visit the houses of worship of each other, to learn something about the faith that is not their own. They could even go to meetings organized by atheists to learn more about why so many don’t believe any more.

I don’t have great answers, but I do know this: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Lee and Jackson did not understand that, nor did Jefferson and Madison. Dr. King did.

And if you read him, as I do, you understand that it was his faith in a God of love that provided the base for that belief. And he knew that God was not a Christian God. And he knew that sometimes those who do not believe in God were better allies for freedom than those who do.

That’s what we need to celebrate, and work for: ending a world overrun with injustice, creating a world filled with justice, a world where whether you believe in God or not, all are treated as the beloved of God.