A few years ago, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts had an exhibit of the works of Kehinde Wiley. I had not seen his work before, and found his pieces in the exhibit shocking to the eye. Wiley managed to take traditional poses and settings from art history and infuse them with images of modern African-Americans. The pieces were jarring to the senses. As I made my way through the exhibit, it began to dawn on me why my senses were so jarred. By consistently seeing classical art featuring people with light-colored skin, I had been enculturated to expect certain images in art. The prominence of one kind of subject also created unspoken messages about value, beauty, and power. Wiley’s vibrant pieces were like an earthquake. And as someone who considers herself fairly self-aware, I found myself humbled by his work, and sorrowful for my ignorance.
I think that is why I was so surprised by an experience last week. Last Tuesday night, our family went up to Richmond to take a look at the Robert E. Lee statue and the surrounding damage to businesses and monuments. For those of you who have not been following the story, as part of the protests about George Floyd’s death and the Black Lives Matter cause, the prominent Confederate monuments in Richmond have come under fire. The statue of Robert E. Lee’s large stone plinth has been covered in graffiti, protesting George’s death, the treatment of African-Americans by the police, and systemic racism. As I took in the visceral, pain-filled cries of graffiti, as I looked at pictures of black victims of police violence surrounding the statue, whose names I have prayed for over the years, as I watched families of color take pictures in front of this once pristine, but ever-controversial, statue with a new sense of pride and defiance, what I began to understand is those who are harassed and feel helpless have been begging for our compassion for a long time – cries that could no longer be ignored when staring at that powerfully altered statue.
But mostly, I mourned again for my complacency and blindness. As a descendant of Confederate veterans, student of African-American history and politics, and pastor of a church built long before the Civil War, I know the issue of Confederate statues and monuments is sensitive. But watching what was happening at the Robert E. Lee statue created the same feeling as Kehinde Wiley’s art work: an earthquake for all in positions of privilege and power. Standing there with my family, I felt like I was on unstable ground, my complicity in systemic racism exposed, and the weight of the question pressing on my chest: what are you going to do about it?
For my brothers and sisters of color, I am sorry. I am sorry that you have had to do the work to awaken my senses instead of doing that work myself. For my brothers and sisters of European descent, we have work to do. Hickory Neck Church has been posting ways for you to engage this issue – not necessarily telling you what to do, but inviting you into the position of making yourself vulnerable to listening, learning, and acting. This is our work to do. It is hard and uncomfortable, and this post may even make you defensive. Please know that I am here – here to walk with you, here to encourage you, and here to hold us all to Jesus’ message of love. What you do next will vary widely. Maybe you can only do one small thing to start. Our invitation is do something – and keep doing something until we find ourselves doing the work of the kingdom Jesus has desired for a long time.