It was announced last Thursday that the six story tall statue of Robert E. Lee on Richmond Virginia’s Monument Avenue is going to be removed. It is a response to the murder of George Floyd and the following week of protests and riots in the city. The news says that the rest of the Confederate monuments in that neighborhood will likely be relocated too. I know those monuments well. I passed by them every day on the bus to high school. 

Once the capital of the Confederate States of America, Richmond has long been a hotbed of racial inequality and white heritage advocacy. It’s a city that continues to live in the shadow of what’s now pejoratively dubbed The Lost Cause. And by virtue of my childhood there, I grew up in the shadow of The Lost Cause too. I thought I would share the story of how that worldview manifested itself in my childhood, and how God delivered me from it.

Here’s the mythos of The Lost Cause according to its advocates. The Confederacy was formed by honorable men who stood up for honorable values (not slavery though, because slavery is terrible), even when the odds were against them. Adherents to The Lost Cause myth seek to be paragons of virtue who would rather fight a losing battle than meekly acquiesce in matters of conscience. Confederate leaders like Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee became venerated figureheads who modeled the virtues Lost Cause followers should emulate. It is a uniquely Southern attitude and ancestry, a nationality of sorts that preserves the culture of a country that no longer exists.

To outsiders, The Lost Cause narrative is an attempt by modern White Southerners to distance themselves from the sins and failures of their ancestors. Lionized by movies like Gods and Generals, the narrative is an ahistorical PR move to paint the Confederacy in a sympathetic light. The myth functions as absolution; White Southerners who use the narrative avoid culpability for wounds in the black community caused by slavery, segregation, and Jim Crow. It perpetuates modern day racism under the guise of heritage and history.

To grow up in Richmond is to see this fight played out firsthand. Monument Avenue is a main thoroughfare in the city, boasting statues of confederate heroes that are the size of large houses. It’s where that big statue of Robert E. Lee is located. In ‘96, the City of Richmond was bitterly divided over a proposal to add local hero and black tennis pro Arthur Ashe to the street’s list of monuments. His statue was indeed erected after a season of political strife, and it remains the only non-Confederate statue erected on the city’s storied thoroughfare. The contrast between his statute and the nearby monument to CSA president Jefferson Davis is stark.

It’s not just a fight that took place in the realm of the symbolic either. In fifth grade, my teacher had us all remember “the five causes of the Civil War,” which we were later tested on. It wasn’t just slavery, she told us, that started the Civil War. There were other economic, geographic, and political matters at play. In fourth grade, I was assigned to do a history report on a famous Virginian. I chose Robert E. Lee. My grade school self was mesmerized by Lee as presented in the world of The Lost Cause. He was a brilliant military strategist who could win against larger and better equipped armies. He was also humble and virtuous. Sure, he owned slaves, but it was a forgivable flaw on his otherwise stellar character. This was a season my family spent away from the church, so I’m not surprised to remember my young self praying, “God, I want to be like Robert E. Lee when I grow up. Make me into an honorable man like him.”

Richmond overflows with Revolutionary War and Civil War history. One day on summer vacation, my grandfather took me to visit the White House of the Confederacy. It’s now a museum, and in the gift shop, tourists had the option of purchasing a cheap replica of the iconic grey hat worn by confederate soldiers. I was enamored, and my grandfather bought it for me on the spot. That night, the two of us went out to dinner, and I wore my new grey confederate hat into the restaurant. As my grandfather and I ate together, another senior couple came over to our table. “Nobody wears those hats anymore, and it’s a shame, really,” said the man. “Glad to see your grandfather is raising you right.”

There are other stories I could tell, but these are enough to paint the picture. The Lost Cause provided a potent life narrative for me. I was born into a long line of Southern men who would rather die in virtue than live in compromise. Even though it was important for good virtuous Southern gentlemen to attend church, for a season of my impressionable young life, The Lost Cause served as my real religion. It was my #Seculosity, my guilt management system that claimed the virtue of my ancestors for my own. It was my attempt to align with a tradition of honor and strive for righteousness. The Lost Cause provided an unblemished family ancestry which, by extension, predestined me for a future of glory.

Skip forward to my teenage youth group years. My younger sister and I enjoyed our church’s annual “beach reach” outings that were typical of early 2000s Evangelicalism. We’d pass out frisbees and bottled water with bible verses printed on them to vacationers at Myrtle Beach. The boardwalk in those years was lined with little booths where vacationers could pay for cornrow braids in their hair. As my sister and I were walking down the boardwalk, she found a booth staffed by a young black woman in her mid 20s. She sat down to get her hair braided, and I joined in with the intent of “witnessing” to the young woman styling her hair. Before long, we were engaged in a lengthy conversation about life, faith, and whether we thought demons were haunting this woman’s house.

The conversation turned, however, when a loud and lifted pickup truck without a muffler drove by. A group of young white 20-somethings were partying in the truck bed, cheering as the big truck’s engine roared, drawing the attention of nearby tourists. Two large confederate flags were affixed to the trucks tailgate, flowing upright in the breeze as the truck rolled by. Our new hairstylist friend looked down in dismay. “Those flags,” she sighed. “If they only knew how those flags made us feel. It makes me so mad to see them flying that flag. They have no idea what it means to us.”

My little evangelical heart froze at her words. The Lost Cause had taught me that faith, particularly faith in Jesus and going to church, was an indispensable part of what it meant to be a good person. But now that very same faith which The Lost Cause had commended was forcing a decision which would impact my past, present, and future. If I kept my faith in The Lost Cause, I would be unable to preach the gospel to the woman sitting next to me. If I wanted to share the gospel with anyone who wasn’t white, I would have to abandon the secular faith of my ancestors. The two were irreconcilable.

When The Lost Cause functions as a secular religion, it offers its followers justification if they renounce the ever-changing fashions of the world and cling firmly to the past. To those who embrace the old ways, especially when it is a costly sacrifice to do so, The Lost Cause promises an immortality of sorts, as if one’s spirit will be forever counted among a timeless fellowship of virtuous ancestors. It’s understandable how The Lost Cause is often conflated with Christianity, which also boasts a virtuous rejection of the world and a communion of saints to join. But in that moment on the Myrtle Beach boardwalk, I discovered The Lost Cause has at least one fatal flaw that made it incompatible with the faith it had pointed me to. 

Unlike Christianity, The Lost Cause can only extend its promise of salvation and immortality to white people.

On that Myrtle Beach boardwalk in 2003, Jesus began to remove the Confederate monuments in my heart. And I am here to tell you I am better off for it. My identity can be informed by my past but it is not dependent on it. My justification no longer requires my ancestor’s honor to be unblemished. I can engage with the notion that I am privileged from a posture of serenity, reflection, and acceptance. I can ask forgiveness for when I am racially insensitive. Now that my salvation is no longer linked to the works righteousness of my family tree, I can spend more time reflecting on what I can keep from my family past and what I want to leave behind. And when it does come time to talk about my faith with other people, I can discuss my faith in a way that is universally applicable.

Maybe it’s too much to hope that a city like Richmond will experience a similar shift in heart, but that will be my prayer regardless. The God we pray to is, after all, the gracious and loving King who gladly welcomes the surrender of the defeated soldier. There is no prison or punishment for those who wave their white flag before the heavens. There is eternal honor in store for the combatants who lay down their arms. Those who defect to the kingdom of God are granted immediate citizenship with all the rights granted thereunto. There will even be a banquet thrown in honor of heaven’s newest citizen.

When that banquet does arrive, I can’t wait to try the grits. I hear they’re the best I’ll ever have, and they won’t make me homesick.