The great-great-great-great-nephew of General Robert E. Lee, Robert Wright Lee IV, made an appearance at the MTV Video Music Awards on August 27, introducing the mother of murdered protestor Heather Heyer and denouncing racism. On Sunday, Lee announced he had resigned his pastorate following the backlash he received from his parishioners.
Lee’s statement on leaving his position at Bethany United Church of Christ was published to the website of the Auburn Theological Seminary. While on the VMAs stage, Lee said that people 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.” He has also been outspoken in interviews about the need for the statues of his ancestor to come down across the United States, calling them “an idol of white supremacy,” which doesn’t jibe with his religious beliefs either.
Lee wrote that his words at the VMAs attracted a great deal of attention from his congregants as well as from outside interests:
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.
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.
Following his appearance, Lee claims the church suggested voting on his tenure as pastor. He apologized to the congregation for attracting unwanted media attention to the institution, but not for speaking out against white supremacy, and resigned:
Most importantly I do not want this episode to be a distraction from the sacred work of confronting white supremacy in all its forms. 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.