A few weeks ago, my wife, Sarah, and I attended The Texas Country Music Festival in Tomball, 15 minutes from where I was born and raised. Sarah used the occasion to muscle me into visiting antique shops before settling in to listen to the music. In a small shop off the beaten path, we found a little wooden plaque with a poem about God’s children red and yellow, black and white. We thought it could help our daughter’s sparsely decorated room.
As Sarah paid, my eyes caught sight of a Confederate flag. My mind spun like a disoriented top. I cannot say where it went first. Did it go to the grey uniform and musket of Private Elijah Goza, a father of mine who fought alongside Stonewall Jackson and followed Lee to Appomattox? Or did it go to the stories of terror and rape, slave shackles and lash marks that attempted to break the forefathers and mothers of our 5th Ward and Pleasant Hill communities?
Did it go to both places at once? I do not know, but somehow in the spinning of my mind, the Confederate flag brought to mind the Nazi flag. A question arose I didn’t desire to face: “Would you buy merchandise from a shop selling Nazi flags?”
The spinning of my mind slowed, and something inside me broke.
Wrestling with Private Elijah Goza’s legacy is difficult.
We desire to defend family legacies, not crucify them; to focus on their better angels, not their demons; their virtues, not their vices. But what became obvious to me under the Confederate flag in Tomball that afternoon is that some things gotta die. If we are to honor and pass along the virtues of our heritage, we must kill the lies that perpetuate and pass along the worst of our heritage from one generation to the next.
In the South, we are indoctrinated into the sins of our fathers through wordsmiths whose lies are wrapped in suave rhetoric that is as small-minded as it is evil. We learn to say our forefathers were fighting not for slavery but for states’ rights. That rhetoric is so strong, we feel no need to finish the sentence truthfully – the states’ right to decide the legality of institutional slavery. The wordsmiths forced us to ask, do we really think that states should have the power to decide if slavery is right or wrong? And more importantly, do we even have the integrity to answer?
We speak of the courage and marksmanship of the under-resourced Confederate soldiers who fought against all odds. We love to learn of the courage of our forbearers. But our tutelage in this mythology lacked the moral depth perception to perceive the tragedy of the soldiers’ courage, to understand that despite all the courage our Confederate soldiers possessed on a battlefield a deeper courage was needed. The courage our soldiers failed to find was the courage to stand against the injustices and atrocities of the culture that reared them. Lacking this courage, their marksmanship was employed against freedom and justice. Conforming to a culture’s evil and defending a culture’s hatred, hard-heartedness and injustice is not a unique courage but a common tragedy. (To read the Confederacy’s intentions in their own words, click here.)
Rhetoric has a life of its own – it becomes a form of poetry that forms our life – even to the point of transforming our faith. On the Christian tongue, the poets of hate claim the name of Christ and the mission of love, truth and righteousness but carry in their words the poison of the anti-Christ. The poetry of the Confederacy is a virus of hate that travels from the mind to the heart, from the heart to the bloodstream, a virus that is not finished with us until it infiltrates our marrow and hollows out our souls. We become pawns in a dehumanizing system. The poetry of hate need not make us active agents of evil; it only needs to make us indifferent spectators. God’s Kingdom is not the byproduct of indifference.
One hundred and fifty years after the Civil War, new pundits tell us we have a sin problem not a skin problem. The failure to see the South’s relationship to people of color as anything other than sinful is small-minded, oblivious and evil. It is through accepting such wordplays that we blind ourselves to the fact that it is no more courageous for Southerners to be silent in the face of slavery and to fight under the Confederate flag than it was for Germans to stay silent in the face of the Holocaust and fight under the Nazi flag. Because of our lies soaked in suave rhetoric and powerful poetry, our minds are often too small, our hearts too hard, and our vision too impaired to understand the fundamental fact that evil travels the paths of least resistance. Good folks, folks much like Elijah Goza, are cogs in the machines of history’s most horrendous evils.
Despite my fury when I see good people living under the enchanting spell of small-minded wordsmiths, I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like to meet Elijah Goza before the war. I imagine he loved Jesus but still cussed a little bit – or maybe a lot. I imagine his delight in watching his wife, child and dog was as deep as my own. Knowing our similarities, I wonder whom I would stand with if I were in Elijah’s boots. Would I stand for an evil I assumed was essential for my community and culture? Or would I stand for those my culture fought to keep nailed to the cross of slavery?
I ask these questions not because I desire to destroy the legacy of Private Elijah Goza, but because I do not want to pass his sins or my own to my daughter Naomi Goza.
I desire Naomi, who is currently using my legs as an obstacle course, to have the freedom to pursue a more perfect way, a way that makes the world more beautiful. I want her to learn from my failures and the failures of my fathers and have the courage to refuse to repeat them.
I will tell Naomi of the tragedy of the Confederate soldiers. But I will also tell her there was a courage in the Confederacy that was not tragic. There was a brand of courage in the Confederacy that can transform the world, the inexplicable and ever-present courage not of the soldiers but of the slaves – slaves who refused to give up on their lives and dignity, their laughter and love despite the Confederacy’s best efforts to grind their very humanity into the dust. I desire Naomi to have the courage of the slaves to keep the faith when the dots of God’s love and the ways of this world fail to connect, the courage to hope when hope is absurd, the courage to refuse to allow this world’s hate to have the final word even when the language of love seems bankrupt.
This is the courage I hope penetrates into Naomi’s marrow and very soul. For if she learns from the Confederate slave rather than the Confederate soldier, she will have a heritage and faith worth passing forward. After 150 years, it is not too soon for the South, and the white Christians in the south, to learn from the courage of the slave. Such courage could make the blind see and bring a much-needed transformation to how we approach our tragic heritage.