It’s complicated

The Main Quad at W&L University
The Main Quad at W&L University

This week I took my eyes of faith on a bit of a field trip.  The Scouts from my parish were on a campout at the Boy Scout Reservation in Goshen, VA.  The trip was a great opportunity to get away from the city for an overnight, enjoy the fresh air and spend time with some of our wonderful parish youth.  While there, I stopped in nearby Lexington, VA, home to Washington and Lee University (W&L).  An experience at the school put me in mind of a conversation I had with a high school student.  She was having trouble understanding the concept of ‘loving the sinner, but hating the sin.’  Looking at W&L through eyes of faith gave a great example of my answer to that young lady: “It’s complicated.”  

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Portrait of a Young G. Washington in the W&L Univ. Chapel

Washington and Lee was founded (as you might guess) by George Washington.  The first president knew that the US would need an educated populace if democracy was going to work, so he endowed a number of schools with canal stocks from the C&O Canal Company here in DC.  Our own GWU was founded with funds from that same bequest.  W&L was, at that time, an investment in the frontier and it paid off splendidly.

Portrait of Gen. R.E. Lee in W&L Univ. Chapel
Portrait of Gen. R.E. Lee in W&L Univ. Chapel

The Lee in W&L is a reference to the school’s most famous president, General Robert E. Lee who is buried there along with most of his famous family (Robert E. was descended from Richard Henry Lee of the Continental Congress, and war hero ‘Light-horse’ Harry Lee.  He married a direct descendant of George Washington, Mary Custis).

Before the Civil War, Robert E. Lee was an honored graduate of West Point, an accomplished military engineer and field officer.  His impressive family home at Arlington still overlooks the Potomac; it’s the mansion at the heart of Arlington Cemetery.  Lee was so respected that when war broke out in 1861, President Lincoln asked him to command the Army of the Potomac.  As a Virginian, descended from one of the first families of Virginia, Lee could not take up arms against his neighbors and family.  Throughout the conflict he led from the front, and commanded the Army of Northern Virginia winning some of the most stunning upset victories in American military history.  Were it not for the overwhelming economic/industrial might of the Union, it’s altogether possible that Lee’s martial genius would’ve won the war for the South.  After the war, Lee took over W&L, modernizing the school to play a key role in reconstruction.  There he died and there he lays in monumental splendor in the school’s chapel.

Sepulcher Monument of Gen. R.E. Lee
Sepulcher Monument of Gen. R.E. Lee

If my description of Lee seems to glow, that’s intentional.  He was a man worthy of respect on account of his integrity.  He believed that all men are honor-bound to do their duty according to their convictions.  For Lee, those convictions orbited certain key values: family, duty, states’ rights, fairness and courtesy.  But what of the southern cause?  Try as one may, the Confederacy’s arguments for states’ rights sprang from the abhorrent institution of slavery at the basis of their economy.  How could such an honorable man fight for such an imperfect, even evil, cause?

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As I told my high school student, “It’s complicated.”  The war wasn’t as black-and-white as… well… black and white… on either side.  Lincoln himself, the great emancipator, held off emancipation waiting for a military victory that would signal a turn in the tide of the war.  Did that make the the president an accomplice?  Was emancipation a conviction or a political tool?  It’s complicated… because people are complicated.  Parsing out good and evil in human actions is sometimes harder than pulling oil from water.  And yet… where we see the good we are invited to recognize and honor it, that it may give us hope and keep civil conversation going until such time as free human souls freely choose to purge evil from themselves with the help of God.  Faced with this complex and often painful reality we need to pray for humility… a humility that truly allows us to hate sins while loving sinners until one day, all of us receive judgment from the one who truly judges: God himself.