Lee descendant steps away from his congregation

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The Revd Robert Wright Lee IV is a descendant of Robert E. Lee and an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ in North Carolina. His unique personal standing, and his preaching against White supremacy, led to an invitation to speak at the recent MTV awards. That appearance led to some unwanted attention, for Lee, his family, and his congregation.

Late last week, he wrote for his local paper, the Statesville Record & Landmark on “the cost of discipleship:”

I never thought I would be on a worldwide platform like MTV’s Video Music Awards this past Sunday. I’m quickly realizing that I have quickly become a lightning rod for all kinds of hate and fear surrounding perceptions of the Black Lives Matter movement and the Women’s March on Washington. But my friend and mentor Bishop Karen Oliveto has this to say about lightning rods:

“You are drawing harm that would be directed elsewhere in the house. Remember that the best thing about a lightning rod is that the house will stay intact as long as you stay grounded.”

The cost of discipleship as a minister and any person for that matter is a high one, especially when it comes to condemning evil and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. I wish I could say I didn’t lose anything out of this, I wish I could say it was easy to speak up and speak out in God’s name. But it wasn’t. It’s been scary and hard to bear for both myself and my family. In the end though I would do this over and over until people hear the good news that there is a different way. …

I take very seriously the idea that God redeems this world through our actions and how often we fail by our inaction. Through a theological lens, we must speak, because we have been given dignity and power “for such a time as this.” (To borrow from Esther in the Hebrew Bible) I ultimately don’t know what the future holds for me or countless others who are speaking up, but I’m ready to see change and to work for change. …

We have a moment and a mission. It may be 30 seconds on MTV’s VMAs or it may be a conversation at a coffee shop that lasts two hours. Wherever we sit and whatever social location we have, may we use it for the fruition of a beloved community. One where social action is valued and racism is condemned and sent packing. This is our moment, this is our time, may we respond to history’s call with grace and with dignity. Thanks be to God.

Read the whole piece here.

Lee’s UCC congregation had difficulty dealing with Lee’s MTV remarks and their aftermath, and called for a tenure vote, which might have ended Lee’s pastorate. Lee instead resigned, moving the lightning rod away from the house, one might say. In a piece for the Auburn Seminary, he writes:

I’m writing this statement to make sure that people are able to read in my own words what has happened to me over the last three weeks so that the events of my leaving Bethany United Church of Christ might be understood from my perspective.

It began when MTV invited me to speak out at the Video Music Awards in Los Angeles as a descendent of Robert E. Lee who is committed to speaking out against white supremacy and the hatred that had permeated our country.   The event was in the immediate aftermath of the gathering of White Supremacist in Charlottesville who were rallying around a statue of my ancestor Robert E. Lee. I strongly support the removal of these monuments to the Confederacy and feel it is my duty as a descendent to speak out against White Supremacy. …

My presence at the church as a descendent of Robert E. Lee and an outspoken opponent of White Supremacy had already attracted attention, but with my appearance on MTV the media’s focus on my church reached an all time high. A faction of church members were concerned about my speech and that I lifted up Black Lives Matter movement, the Women’ s March, and Heather Heyer as examples of racial justice work.

I want to stress that there were many in the congregation who supported my right to free speech, yet were uncomfortable with the attention the church was receiving. The church’s reaction was deeply hurtful to me.

I want it to be clear that I feel a deep love for this congregation, and gratitude that they were willing to hire me as my first church out of seminary. I believe with all my heart that God did good work in my life there. That being said, when the church wanted to vote on my tenure, I tendered my resignation. …

I do not want this episode to be a distraction from the sacred work of confronting white supremacy in all its forms. My calling and my vocation has led me to speak out against violence and oppression in any form, and I want to especially challenge white Christians in America to take seriously the deadly legacy of slavery in our country and commit ourselves to follow Jesus into a time of deep reflection, repentance and reconciliation.

Lee’s full statement was difficult to load this morning; a cached version of the page is here.

Has your church received unwelcome feedback after standing against racism?

Featured image: MTV awards on Twitter
This post has been edited for clarity

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