A Review of
A Sin By Any Other Name:
Reckoning with Racism and the Heritage of the South
Robert W. Lee
Reviewed by Jeff Nelson
My first encounter with Rev. Rob Lee was probably the same as that of many others: while watching the MTV Video and Music Awards, I saw him ascend the stage, identify himself as a descendent of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, and speak in support of Black Lives Matter and against monuments to people like his ancestor who had fought for the South during the Civil War.
As one may have been able to expect, a certain contingent of viewers did not appreciate Lee’s opinions; this turned out to include some members of the small congregation he was serving at the time. Since being given such a public platform on MTV, his eventual split from the church also played out in public, although as with many things, only part of the story made it to print and screen.
The fleshing out of both of these events only makes up a part of what Lee shares in his first book, A Sin by Any Other Name. Mainly a memoir in form, Lee reflects on his experiences growing up in the South with a famous distant uncle. His MTV appearance was just one iteration of a lifetime of wrestling with his family’s unique legacy in the world, and who he feels called to be and what he feels called to do and say as a result. “My own entry into this world of public theology is something of an accident, owing to a distant relative with whom I share a first and last name” (16). He portrays his striving to understand who his family is as concurrent with a journey of who needs to be for others.
Lee takes his time getting to the episodes most familiar to people. He begins much earlier, before he fully realized who his namesake was and why some continue to revere him so much. He describes seeing paintings of his ancestor hanging in relatives’ houses and his name scrawled on streets, parks, and schools. “This is pretty much a given for a white child of the South…I was one of the lucky ones related to him. How could I not be proud?” (32) During his teenage years, this would even include a trip to Arlington House and the purchase of a picture and a Confederate flag, all of which he understood at the time to be more about family pride than anything else.
Eventually, he would understand these symbols to be more complex. Lee writes of several influential figures, including his parents and the black nanny who helped raise him. He credits these voices as helping him see that things like the picture, flag, and name of which he’d been so proud have a history that includes some destructive and damaging elements. He describes learning from elders and mentors who not only were more well-read on the topic but who had actually lived the continuing saga of how people use and abuse these items to do harm to others.
As Lee began discerning and pursuing his call to pastoral ministry, he describes recognizing how critical it would be to make racial justice a part of his vocation. This included writing weekly columns for the local newspaper, accepting invitations to speak at breakfasts and preach at churches, an interview on NPR, the way he crafted sermons for his own pastorate, and, eventually, his appearance on MTV.
By the time Lee finally gets to describing what happened before, during, and after that event, he has done several other things for the reader. First, he has set the context for how he and various members of his family have struggled and continue to struggle with their name and what it means in light of how the United States wrestles with issues related to race and justice.
Second, Lee has also presented the context of what life in the South in particular is like, not just for he and his relatives, but simply what he has experienced of that part of the country and how it seems to view and live out these issues in particular ways. To accomplish this, Lee mainly pulls from accounts of his life in Statesville, North Carolina. He neither shies away from his community’s flaws, nor does he refrain from professing his love for the area in which he’s grown up. Many others have chosen to leave for different reasons, but the complexity of knowing a place as home includes recognizing its flaws and working to change them. He applies this in different ways to the entirety of the South, making the case that not everyone has the desire or luxury to leave this region’s problems behind.
Because Lee has done this work, the reader is able to see both his TV appearance and the aftermath in terms of the bigger discussion that he’s been having with himself, and that has been playing out in communities that he and others have known. Anyone expecting a salacious tell-all will be disappointed, as Lee’s greater interest is in highlighting the ongoing problems surrounding dialogue about racial justice and reconciliation, especially when some cannot clearly see the problematic side of what they claim as heritage.
I found A Sin by Any Other Name to be an important contribution to the ongoing conversation that many are trying to have about history, cultural pride, power, and race, both in the South and elsewhere. Lee does not go for easy answers, because the life stories he shares often have not presented them. With legacies and attitudes so deeply ingrained, solutions will not take place overnight and the process to pursue them may be complicated.
However, Lee remains hopeful, and his readers may come away with hope as well. The lessons taught and embodied to him by family, friends, caregivers, and mentors almost always included encouragement to keep the faith, both in God and in others. He describes a friend saying to him, “We need to keep this going; the days look rough but it’s going to be okay.” (188)
As daunting as it may seem to be honest about history and its ongoing influence on both systems and individuals, to keep going in the belief that it’s going to be okay is one of this book’s persistent messages.
Jeff Nelson is a pastor, spiritual director, and author. His latest books, both published in 2018, are Wonder and Whiskey: Insights on Faith from the Music of Dave Matthews Band (Wipf and Stock) and Prayer in Motion: Connecting with God in Fidgety Times (Apocryphile). He lives with his family in Uniontown, Ohio, where he serves as pastor of Grace United Church of Christ. He regularly blogs about ministry, spirituality, and pop culture at coffeehousecontemplative.com.