Descendent of Robert E. Lee Resigns as Pastor Following VMAs Backlash: 'The Church's Reaction Was Deeply Hurtful'
On Monday, Reverend Robert Wright Lee IV, the great-great-great-great-nephew of General Robert E. Lee, announced he was leaving his church, Bethany United Church of Christ, following a “hurtful” reaction from his congregation in response to his speech at the 2017 MTV Video Music Awards., in which he labeled racism as “America’s original sin.”
“My presence at the church as a descendent of Robert E. Lee and an outspoken opponent of White Supremacy had already attracted attention, but with my appearance on MTV the media’s focus on my church reached an all time high. A faction of church members were concerned about my speech and that I lifted up Black Lives Matter movement, the Women’ s March, and Heather Heyer as examples of racial justice work,” he explains on the Auburn Theological Seminary’s website only one week after delivering his impassioned speech. “I want to stress that there were many in the congregation who supported my right to free speech, yet were uncomfortable with the attention the church was receiving.
“The church’s reaction was deeply hurtful to me.”
Lee claims that members of his church, located in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, were planning to vote on his tenure before he resigned.
“I want it to be clear that I feel a deep love for this congregation, and gratitude that they were willing to hire me as my first church out of seminary,” he writes. “I believe with all my heart that God did good work in my life there. That being said, when the church wanted to vote on my tenure, I tendered my resignation…”
In his online announcement, Lee says he felt it was his duty to speak out at the awards show.
“The event was in the immediate aftermath of the gathering of White Supremacist in Charlottesville who were rallying around a statue of my ancestor Robert E. Lee,” he writes. “I strongly support the removal of these monuments to the Confederacy and feel it is my duty as a descendent to speak out against White Supremacy.”
Standing next to Susan Bro, whose daughter Heather Heyer had been killed in the Charlottesville protests on Aug. 12, Lee told MTV viewers that his ancestor has become “an idol of white supremacy, racism, and hate.”
“As a pastor, it is my moral duty to speak out against racism, America’s original sin,” he told the audience. “Today, I call on all of us with privilege and power to answer God’s call to confront racism and white supremacy head-on. We can find inspiration in the Black Lives Matter movement, the women who marched in the Women’s March in January, and, especially, Heather Heyer, who died fighting for her beliefs in Charlottesville.”
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Following his appearance, Lee writes that his church attracted “unwanted media attention.”
And that, he says, was not his goal coming forward.
“I do not want this episode to be a distraction from the sacred work of confronting white supremacy in all its forms,” he explains. “My calling and my vocation has led me to speak out against violence and oppression in any form, and I want to especially challenge white Christians in America to take seriously the deadly legacy of slavery in our country and commit ourselves to follow Jesus into a time of deep reflection, repentance and reconciliation.