WASHINGTON – No one lost their heads 11 years ago when a select Brown University committee revealed that many of its 18th century board members, including a man whose family lent its name to the place, had been deeply involved in the slave trade.
The university’s modern leadership, then headed by Ruth Simmons, Brown’s first woman and first African-American president, issued a searing denunciation of the university’s founders who profited handsomely from this despicable enterprise.
But no one urged that Brown’s famed University Hall, completed in the 1770s, be torn down. No one seriously considered calls that name of the school (my alma mater) be changed to Smith or Jones or Stuart. Under Simmons’ leadership corrective actions followed, including changes in admission practices and the creation of a perpetual institute for the study of slavery in America.
Fast forward to Alexandria, Va., and Christ Church, founded in 1773.
About a week ago the rector and other officers unanimously ruled that a plaque honoring George Washington, along with that of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, be removed from the church’s worship space and placed in a yet-to-be-designated location on the church’s campus sometime next year.
The insidious hazard contained in this decision is that it opens the door to a round of vilification of Washington. Washington and his wife owned slaves. But he left a comfortable life down the road from here to lead the threadbare Continental Army, pledging his life, his fortune and his sacred honor to create the United States of America.
The officers of Christ Church managed to conflate the reputation of Washington, who helped to create our nation, with that of Lee, who led Southern soldiers in a losing effort to split the country, killing tens of thousands of federal troops along the way.
Christ Church’s leaders decreed that Washington’s plaque should be removed along with that of Lee because they were both installed at the same time – 140 years ago!
Parish leaders suddenly discovered that both ancient plaques made visitors feel “unwelcome” and that they were a “distraction” to worshippers; this, after 140 years.
The vote here is that Christ Church ought to drop this, to leave the plaques where they are. Its behavior is like that practiced by the ruling pigs in George Orwell’s novel “Animal Farm,” an allegory on the evils of communism. One of the rules at “Animal Farm” was that “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”
Christ Church, like most, is a collection of sinners. But the leaders of Christ Church suddenly discovered that some sins “are more equal than others,” such as being born into a slaveholding family. My Catholic Church has had to contend with many sins, including those who died in its Spanish Inquisition and dissenters who were burned at the stake.
Christ Church shares the rich heritage of the worldwide Anglican Communion. Some of that heritage isn’t so pretty, such as ruling Episcopalians barring Catholics and Evangelicals from public office in Colonial and post-Revolutionary Virginia.
One of the founders of the Anglican Communion, Queen Elizabeth I, put to death no fewer than 130 Catholic priests, some very brutally, simply for saying Mass. Some 60 Catholic followers also went to the block on Elizabeth’s death warrants.
May we say here that the actions of Christ Church do not appear to be loving? To provide this new platform for desecrating Washington’s life is a radical behavior that is too close to the actions of ISIS radicals who, bent on destroying history, demolished the ancient temples at Palmyra in Syria two years ago.