Has the National Cathedral in Washington, DC replaced Confederate windows with Black Lives Matter (BLM) windows? Some are claiming so. But the windows, which portray black people marching for justice, do not in any way cite BLM. The artist says the new windows “are not dependent on any period of time or any movement in history or any particular individual.”
It’s more attention getting, of course, to claim the worst. The National Cathedral, which is an Episcopal church, is often faddish. But not everything it does is necessarily terrible.
The Cathedral in 2017, before the 2020 rise of BLM, removed its windows honoring Confederate generals Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee. The removal came after the 2016 shootings at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina and the 2017 “United the Right” rally in Charlotteville, Virginia. These windows were installed in 1953, as a gift from the United Daughters of the Confederacy, to foster national reconciliation between north and south. Critics can rightly claim the windows glorified Jackson and Lee. Jackson is shown reading the Bible and being resurrected into heaven. The Lee window commends him as a “Christian soldier without fear and without reproach.”
The National Cathedral should not have removed these windows after 70 years. Old stuff should generally be left alone because it can teach about the past. Old stained-glass windows can only offend if allowed. The Cathedral explained the windows had become a “barrier to the mission and ministry of this Cathedral, and prolonged the suffering caused by the nation’s original sin of racism and slavery.” It also explained that “there is a difference between remembering our history and celebrating it,” and “some monuments can become an impediment to prayer.” It said, “iconography should point us to God, not distract us from that divine encounter.”
True, but pointing to God includes understanding the tragedy of the human story. Lee and Jackson were indisputably devout Christians who had many pious virtues amid their martial skills. They also participated in dividing the country through a murderous civil war in order to perpetuate slavery. Lee reputedly opposed both succession and slavery. If so, he should have spoken publicly. Lee and Jackson illustrate that even very devout Christians can make disastrous decisions.
Both windows for Jackson and Lee cite their hope in Christian resurrection. If the Gospel is true, Lee and Jackson are now both in heaven as redeemed servants of God, alongside many of the U.S. soldiers they killed, and many of the slaves whose misery they would have perpetuated. Such imagery is hard to contemplate but it relates to the core of Christ’s work on the Cross. Perhaps the Cathedral could have retained the Confederate windows by explaining this theological insight. The Cathedral is full of windows portraying other persons, most from the Bible, who did terrible deeds and yet looked to God for mercy. We all can learn from these scenes.
The National Cathedral strives to serve American national life in part by portraying American history in its art. It is a temple to American civil religion. There are statues of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. There is Woodrow Wilson’s tomb. A war memorial includes many stained-glass scenes of America’s great moments: the Pilgrims on Plymouth Rock, William Penn founding Pennsylvania, defiant patriot Nathan Hale about to be hanged as spy by the British, Lincoln emancipating the slaves, a U.S. aircraft carrier in the Battle of Midway, U.S. paratroopers on D-Day, liberated French people greeting U.S. troops, U.S. troops raising the flag at Iwo Jima. (An exterior sculpture also portrays Darth Vader from Star Wars among the gargoyles.) These scenes don’t relate to Christian salvation history, but they do illustrate America’s providential history.
The black struggle for equality and justice is part of that providential history. The new windows show black protesters with signs pleading for “fairness” and “no foul play.” These pleas for justice are central to the American story and are shaped by Christian purposes. Although the windows are not based on any particular time period, they more resemble the 1960s Civil Rights Movement than BLM of 2020.
Sadly, the Cathedral missed an opportunity to reference the Civil Rights Movement’s closeness with black churches and its many biblical themes. The Civil Rights Movement was successful because it was hopeful, mostly Christian, embraced the promises of America’s founding, and sought to befriend enemies. In contrast, BLM was a disastrous failure. It stoked resentments without offering hope or redemption. Its accompanying calls to defund the police were destructive. Police retreats in many of America’s cities led to more murders, rapes, robberies, and more disorder, in a huge setback for urban life from which the nation has not recovered. The cathedral windows do not reference any BLM slogans.
Societal equality for all, an aspiration of the new cathedral windows, is a theme for all Christians. Deriding any such calls as necessarily BLM implies disinterest in justice for all. A great national cathedral should illustrate the nation’s greatness and failures. The new windows, despite their spiritual oversights, do so. Removing the old windows was a failure to interpret divine redemption amid human failures.