"A Sin by Any Other Name" by Robert W. Lee IV. A Review

A Sin by Any Other Name: Reckoning with Racism and the Heritage of the SouthA Sin by Any Other Name: Reckoning with Racism and the Heritage of the South by Robert W. Lee
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It's worth the read. Robert W. Lee IV, Methodist minister, descendant of Robert E. Lee, southerner, religion columnist and faculty lecturer at Appalachian State University, has crafted a personal memoir of how he was thrust into the limelight after the Charlottesville protests. It's an easy-to-read volume that is sure to garner the applause of many, and rouse the ire of multitudes.

Lee recounts his childhood days growing up in steeply southern Statesville, North Carolina. But the author spends most of his time rehearsing the widening changes in his heart and mind with regard to race, especially as it is navigated in the South. The flash-point revolves around the Statue of his ancestor at the Charlottesville demonstrations. From that headline-making moment to the present, Lee's world completely changed as he became the poster-child for revising and redressing racial relationships throughout the United States of America, and especially in the South. Lee acknowledges that he comes from a family with progressive trends, and is a minister in a mainline Protestant denomination. Unsurprisingly, then, he subtly slides LGBTQ+ issues in with Civil Rights, and softly paints the opponents of one as opponents of the other (71, 146).

I had two reactions as I read the book. First, I am in agreement with the author's overall desire in regard to fostering a fairer society. I have spent 20 years in the U.S. Air Force living out those changes. And in these last 20 years in which I have been a Christian minister, I have sought out ways to build better relational and ecclesiastical bridges with people of color, as the opportunities present themselves. So I read the book to gain insights, of which I acquired several. My second reaction was dissatisfaction. Clearly the author is young, and by his own admission, has "limited life experience" (24). I think this shows up clearly in the pristine idealism that has little to no recognition of the limits of his efforts; that most substantial changes come in small ways not lime-light ways; and that his moment may likely last only as long as he is seen as useful to the elites and intelligentsia. Lee's access to notability comes primarily from his family name and descent, which he seems to be displeased with. If he wasn't from a well-to-do white family, with a degree from Duke, and a descendant of Robert E. Lee, he would likely have remained an unknown minister, husband and son.

"A Sin by Any Other Name" is worth reading. It is a reminder that there are many "of us who in our whiteness have a sanctuary from the ugliness of racism" (177). It is also a valuable read, especially as we think through our national and societal symbols, and try to honestly see them as others see them, to discern if they are unjust. And if they are unjust, to think through ways that we can honor our blemished history without elevating the blemishes. Or, at the least, owning up to those blemishes without despising our forebearers. To be honest, despite all of our chronological snobbery and self-righteous smugness, I seriously doubt we would have done any better if we had been in their shoes. Lord, have mercy on us. Christ, have mercy on us. Lord, have mercy on us.


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