Rev. Robert W. Lee IV, a descendant of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, announced he was leaving his church, Bethany United Church of Christ in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, one week after he spoke out against racism at the MTV Video Music Awards Aug. 28.
In the speech, Lee acknowledged that a statue of his great-great-great-great-uncle was at the center of violence at an Aug. 13 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Violence at the rally also led to the death of Heather Heyer, who was run over by a car while counterprotesting the supremacists.
“We have made my ancestor 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 said at the show. “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.”
Backlash followed. In his resignation statement, posted on the Auburn Theological Seminary’s website, Lee said some in his church were “uncomfortable with the attention the church was receiving.”
“My presence at the church as a descendant (sic) 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,” Lee said in his resignation statement. “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.”
Lee told CNN he decided to leave the church as some member didn’t agree with his speech and others were “the community backlash and the backlash toward the church.”
Lee said that his remarks at the VMAs were still supported by some in the church.
“I want to stress that there were many in the congregation who supported my right to free speech,” he said, adding that, over all, “The church’s reaction was deeply hurtful to me.”
People reported that Lee made the announcement Tuesday.
Lee said he told his congregation the following:
“I regret that speaking out has caused concern and pain to my church. For this is I offer my heartfelt apology. I understand that my views could be considered to be controversial. I never sought this sort of attention. But, I do believe in God’s role in calling out for positive social change for the good of all.
We are all called by God to speak out against hate and evil in all its many forms. There are so many good things going on with this congregation and I do not want my fight to detract from the mission. If the recent media attention causes concern with my church, I reluctantly offer my resignation.”
Lee said in his statement and reiterated to CNN that he does not want the media attention on the speech to distract from the goal of the speech.
“I do not want this episode to be a distraction from the sacred work of confronting white supremacy in all its forms,” he said. “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.”
CNN reported that officials at Bethany United Church of Christ could not be reached for comment.
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