I climbed Kennesaw Mountain with my family this week.
No big deal. It’s not very tall. And we drove. We didn’t really climb.
But it was a difficult outing.
Kennesaw Mountain is a Civil War battlefield. It was one of the last defensive positions in the Battle of Atlanta. I know the history. I’ve seen the reenactments. But I was unprepared for this day.
Atop this hill of a mountain I started to explain to my 5-year-old boy where the canons were. I started to explain the troop movements, the exciting stuff.
Then I was completely undone by a simple question:
“But daddy…who were the bad guys?”
I had never thought of how I would respond to this question.
What would I tell my little boy? What did I actually believe?
I was born in the state of Georgia. I’m proud of my state, my city, my heritage.
My family mostly hails from the South. I know for a fact that many of my ancestors were Confederates – though some fought for the Union Army too.
I was confronted, in this simple question, with a hidden corner, a dark light of cultural pride. I wanted to tell him that the Confederates were the bad guys, but I felt conflicted.
I knew that Sherman scorched the land – that he went on burning and pillaging all the way down to Savannah – that he took from me any chance to see those historical places in the way they used to be. I wanted him to be the bad guy.
Then, I wanted to cop out – to tell my boy that there were no good guys: maybe both sides could be bad…
But that wouldn’t do.
So, with tears in my heart over my resistance. I told him:
“There were men on this mountain who thought it was okay to make people their slaves – to keep them from making their own choices – to force them to work without ever paying them. And that’s not okay, son.”
And I confessed what I didn’t want to but knew to be true…
“They were the bad guys.”
I hope that telling him this will shape his heart. I pray that, when he learns about the American Civil War in school, he will remember what his daddy taught him on top of that mountain…the men in gray…they were the bad guys.
Maybe he won’t ever hesitate.
Shining a light on that dark and hidden corner has had unexpected consequences.
I’ve thought a lot about loss. About how any pride in Confederate culture could hide in my heart like it did. And I’ve come to realize that it’s the loss of historic parts of Atlanta – what was taken away from me – that drives the stake so deep.
And it occurred to me…if I can feel something so deeply, and take something so personally, that never happened to me…if I can feel a loss so intensely that is a century removed from my current experience…
How dare I ever think … how dare I ever suggest to someone whose heritage and ancestry emerged from that terrible point in human history on the receiving end of the atrocity of chattel slavery to “just get over it.”
That is a thought that I will banish from my heart and excommunicate from my home.
Ironically, coming to grips with my “Southern Pride” and confessing the ugliness of it has led me to a new appreciation for people who have experienced more loss than I can ever understand. Answering a 5-year-old’s question has forced me to dig down deep into my heart to understand why…why would it be hard to confess the obvious?
I hope I can move forward toward understanding the African-American experience – perhaps even to understand the Native American experience, and the experience of the refugee as well. I want to try – because I am becoming convinced that this is the best way to understand how to move forward as fellow Americans.
More importantly, this could be the way forward in becoming a truly united Church in the world.