Friday, May 20, 2005

Discipleship, Confederate, and $50,000

A recent development in an on-going case involving Vanderbilt University has inspired this post.

History: On the Peabody Campus is a building named Confederate Hall, a name stipulated in a contract with the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) who donated $50,000 in the 1930's to Peabody College to build the dormitory as a memorial to fallen Confederate soldiers. Its members see the building as a memorial to the South's fallen soldiers of the Civil War--"a way to honor the deceased, not offend the living." (Can honor and memorial really apply to Americans and Christian brethren killing each other over political, social, racial, and economic conflict?) In 2002, Vanderbilt announced its plan to rename the building and have Confederate removed. The UDC filed a breach of contract suit and earlier this month the state Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the UDC. Vanderbilt has not decided whether to appeal further, but is free to continue negotiations with the UDC.

Recent Development: A local African-American and VU alumnus has volunteered to donate $50,000 to help Vanderbilt remove the Confederate name and to motivate other alumni to get involved. Dr. Eddie Hamilton is a 1985 graduate of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and he heads Centennial Pediatrics, one of the state's largest private providers of children's medical services. His late father-in-law, Ed Martin, was the head basketball coach at Tennessee State University and an assistant at Vanderbilt (a great and kind man). Today, Hamilton's healthcare company provides opportunities for Vanderbilt medical residents to learn their profession in bilingual settings.

Discipleship: As I reviewed the recent development in the local paper, I tried to consider what the different parties' actions should be as motivated by Christian Discipleship. Well, at least from my understanding and viewpoint of Christian Discipleship. I also felt that this is a real world situation to frame a discussion of actually applying Christian Discipleship in our decision making.

I have mixed emotions about removing the word Confederate from the building. As a Vanderbilt alumnus and loyal supporter, I am proud of their stance on this issue. Vanderbilt was not pressured to take action at this time. In fact, Dr. Hamilton admitted that during his 7 years of medical training at VU he was so busy he never noticed the word on the building. Also note that Vanderbilt has not always been a champion of the African-American struggles, quite the contrary at many times in its history. Current Chancellor, Gordon Gee, took this initiative from his own motivation to create a more united and welcoming atmosphere at VU.

On the other hand, I am a born and raised Southerner and proud to be one. My modified mantra (in deference to Lee Camp) is American by birth, Southern by God's providence, and Saved by the Grace of God. As a southerner, I lament the fact that the Confederacy carries such negative connotations. However any resentment is reserved for those who have perverted Southern heritage by using its symbols in their demonstration of hate, racism, and bigotry, especially under the false guise of Christianity. Woe be unto you brood of vipers.

So in the Light of Christ, I believe Vanderbilt is doing the right thing. From a discipleship decision we must consider the good of others and defer. Everything is permissible--but not everything is constructive. Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others. -- I Cor. 10:23-24. I Cor. 8 also discusses deference to those offended and encourages us to not create stumbling blocks for others (I don't feel the term weak brother has any relevance in this case, but I do feel the spirit of the scripture applies). The word Confederate is offensive to many of our black brothers and sisters and therefore in the spirit of unity and Christian love, it is best to remove this barrier.

What about a Christian discipleship decision from the viewpoint of the United Daughters of the Confederacy? One's identity as a Christian must supersede all other loyalties and therefore one must defer to those offended, regardless of whether any offense was intended. Also, the UDC could use its contract rights to further the Christian spirit and glorify God with its actions. Why not agree to have Confederate removed, but with the stipulation that it is replaced with Freedom Hall, Unity Hall, or Reconciliation Hall, etc.? Any other stance casts doubt on the UDC's motivations no matter how principled they may seem internal to the organization. Why spend their resources to create bad press when they could spend nothing and gain much?

Now what about a discipleship decision from the viewpoint of Dr. Hamilton? First, I cast no dispersions on his decision or stance. I respect his motives and believe them to be forthright. However is it the best decision in the context of discipleship? I would be very surprised if Vanderbilt had not already offered $50,000 or more to settle the dispute and remove the name. It has cost them at least that much in legal defense without a known end. So I don't think the $50,000 will help change the tide. Wouldn't a better action be to donate the $50,000 to a group that positively affects the African-American community. I do not see that removing the word Confederate is going to have any impact on the immediate needs of a young black person living in Nashville. Will there be one less violent crime, one more hungry child feed, one less child abused, one drug-addict recovered, one job provided, or just one child educated with the removal of the word Confederate? However, these positive actions could occur if the $50,000 were donated to the Wayne Reed Christian Child Care Center, to Youth Encouragement Services, to the Charles Davis Foundation, toward a VU scholarship, or to a myriad of other positive options.

This is not just my view. "The Rev. Sonnye Dixon, a member of the local chapter of the NAACP, wasn't sure if buying back the naming rights was the best option. Money might be better spent on scholarships or diversity studies, Dixon said, that would announce to the world: "Here's our commitment, even in the shadow of this building, so that we make sure that those attitudes don't exist anymore.'" [ 5/18/2005]

What are your thoughts? What am I not considering? Where am I straying from discipleship? I hope that I have some responses from African-American Christians who can provide a more personal view on this issue. Thanks in advance for aiding in our walk with Christ.

Note: Charles Davis Foundation
615 Main St.
PO Box 60429
Nashville, TN 37206
(615) 254-0396


marty dodson said...


You have gone professional as a blogger! I just stumbled upon your blog. Interesting thoughts on the Vanderbilt deal. It sounds kinda like some of the issues the church has debated for years. They have meaning on some level, but in the big picture, they are insignificant. As if changing the name on a building will change an atmosphere or improve race relations. Have a great day.


Amanda said...

Great post, Tony.

I wonder what would have come of this situation if we changed roles a little bit. Vanderbilt is not a "Christian" school. Because of that, I would not expect them to act like a disciple of Christ.

However, what if this were to take place on one of the many Christian campuses in the south? Lipscomb? Harding? ACU? Because we are outspoken Christians, would the result be any different? One could hope, but in my cynicism, I really doubt that much would change. I could still see a well-off alum of Lipscomb forking over $50,000 (or more) to have the name removed. I could see the administration of the school trying to take the most "politically correct" action. I would love to hear one of those Christian schools say, "No, we won't take your money to remove that name from the building (or build more up-to-date buildings, or expand buildings, or upgrade to a $1 mil computer system), but we will use it to fund student mission trips."

What if.......