The Washington National Cathedral has decided to remove two images of the Confederate slavery flag from a set of stained glass windows commemorating the lives of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee. We bet nobody will make a big stink over the decision, because why would you have that thing in a house of worship, after all?
The decision came nearly a year after the racist murders of nine worshipers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and the resulting national fuck-tussle over whether the Confederate flag is a racist symbol of Southern heritage or an innocent signifier of white supremacy. The Confederate battle flag is displayed in two of a set of eight windows that were installed in 1953 with funding (and lobbying from) the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
Last year, the then-Dean of the National Cathedral, Rev. Gary Hall, called for the removal of the Lee/Jackson window display altogether, saying that although the (official) intent of the windows was to “foster reconciliation between parts of the nation that had been divided by the Civil War” — which is, of course, what Confederate “Heritage” groups were all about in 1953 — they no longer belonged in a place of worship:
While the impetus behind the windows’ installation was a good and noble one at the time, the Cathedral has changed, and so has the America it seeks to represent. There is no place for the Confederate battle flag in the iconography of the nation’s most visible faith community. We cannot in good conscience justify the presence of the Confederate flag in this house of prayer for all people, nor can we honor the systematic oppression of African-Americans for which these two men fought.
For now, only the Confederate battle flag will be removed; a five-member task force has been working to decide how to deal with the entire set of windows, which depict various scenes from the lives of the two generals. None of the images include any slaves, for some reason.
Hall told NPR last year that the windows needed to go, and that the inscriptions on the windows inappropriately celebrate Lee and Jackson as “exemplary Christian people,” a message that distorts the historical record. As Yr Wonkette has noted, rightwing Christianist textbooks portray the two as exemplary Christians; one eighth-grade text called Lee “a man of prayer” and a “Great Christian General,” and devotes a large text box to “Stonewall Jackson: Soldier of the Cross,” in with we learn the good pro-slavery general’s “courageous faith in God carried him through many dangerous battles”:
For example, after First Manassas an aide asked General Jackson how he managed to remain so calm as bullets and shells whistled about him. Jackson replied, “Captain, my religious belief teaches me to feel as safe in battle as in bed. God has fixed the time for my death. I do not concern myself about that, but to be always ready no matter when it may overtake me.” He paused and then added, “Captain, that is the way all men should live, and then all would be equally brave.”
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The task force decided that instead of quietly covering over the battle flag, the cathedral should use the windows and the question of what to do with them as the starting place for a wider discussion of slavery and history, as well as how churches played a role both in fighting and perpetuating racism:
“[T]he windows provide a catalyst for honest discussions about race and the legacy of slavery and for addressing the uncomfortable and too often avoided issues of race in America,” the task force found, according to a press release from the National Cathedral.
One member of the task force said the windows raise a question about race and slavery in America, “and instead of turning away from that question, the cathedral has decided to lean into it.”
A series of panel discussions and events exploring race and racism will kick off next month.
While those public discussions move forward, the windows will stay in place, but the Confederate flags will be replaced with a pane of plain glass; private donors will pay for the replacement. In that NPR interview last year, Rev. Hall explained:
I’m not trying to whitewash our history. I’m trying to celebrate our history. But since the cathedral tells the story of America, and just as America is trying to come to terms finally with the Civil War and slavery and racism and segregation, it seems to me that it’s more appropriate for us to have windows that tell that story in all of its complicated fullness than just present a kind of public relations picture of a couple of Southern generals.
Despite the inevitable complaints about censoring history that will come when the windows are replaced (we presume they’d eventually go into a museum setting, though there’s been no final decision yet), that desire to replace them with something that isn’t merely pro-Confederate propaganda seems like exactly the right way to let the light in.