“A Great Disservice”
Written by Dan Armistead
I was born in 1957 at Georgia Baptist Hospital in Atlanta. I grew up in Decatur, Georgia, a little town five miles outside the Atlanta city limits. Playing with real Confederate money, I found in a chest in the attic, and wearing a Confederate hat to the New York World’s Fair in 1964 are memories that remain fresh in my mind even today. My southern culture shaped me in many ways, and it’s pretty obvious the moment I open my mouth that I’m from south of the Mason Dixon line.
After college, I visited a friend in New York City. Some of the guys made fun of my accent, but the girls thought it was cute, so I didn’t mind. Besides, one of the reasons I visited my New York friend was to hear a country band from a bar in Atlanta, where I worked as a bouncer. I was used to smart-mouthed, redneck drunks; snide remarks from New York city boys rolled off me like water off a duck’s back.
Although I grew up in the segregated south, I never had a problem in my relationships with black people. It’s true that, for the most part, the Blacks lived on the other side of the railroad tracks, and we didn’t cross paths too much, but in 1969 when I turned twelve years old, my father gave me a birthday present: boxing gloves. Dad was second in the Pacific Fleet in middleweight boxing for three years straight. The same guy beat him for the championship all three years and went on to become a professional boxer. So Dad was determined his son was going to learn how to box.
That’s when we began our regular trips to the boxing gym, which, as you might imagine, was located on the other side of the tracks. There were some poor white boys at the gym, but most of the boxers were black. I’m pretty sure I was the only middle-class white boy. But it was there, at the boxing gym, I began to hammer out race relations with my black brothers. We worked out together, hit the heavy bags and speed bags together, and we sparred regularly. It was a wonderfully painful experience. Black, white, and red; sweat and bloody noses cemented our friendships.
In 1971, I began attending Decatur High School. Federal law mandated integration, but that didn’t keep our school from transitioning from one-hundred percent white to eighty-percent black in record time. All the white folks moved or sent their kids to private schools. Just a side note: there were a lot of private Christian schools started during this time.
There is something else I need to tell you about my southern heritage. I come from a family with a proud military tradition. My ancestor, George Armistead, was one of five brothers who served in the War of 1812. His command and valor in the capture of Fort George from the British earned him the honor of presenting the captured British flags to President James Madison, after which he was given command of Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland. He immediately ordered a United States flag be made to fly over the fort, replacing the previous flag because, in his words, he wanted, “a flag so large that the British would have no difficulty seeing it from a distance.” That flag inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which would become the United States national anthem. For years, the original flag remained in our family until it was donated to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. (We did keep a large piece of that flag, and many generations of family members have signed it.)
George Armistead’s brother, Brigadier General Walker Keith Armistead, was a graduate of West Point and served forty-two years in the United States Army. He died in 1845 as tensions mounted in the United States between the North and South. But it was Walter Keith’s son, Lewis Addison Armistead, who was forced to choose between allegiance to the Union or the secessionists. His southern family roots and North Carolina birthplace didn’t make the decision easy, and Lewis or “Lo,” as he was known, chose to fight for the South. Upon leaving his command in San Diego, California, his final words to longtime friend and fellow soldier, Winfred Scott Hancock, reveal the agony and weight of his decision: “You can never know what this has cost me.” His words were also prophetic.
Brigadier General Lewis “Lo” Armistead was wounded at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863. Confederate hat held high atop his saber, Armistead led his brigade from the front into the center of the Union line in what came to be known as Pickett’s Charge. He was the first to be shot. Meanwhile, his friend, Hancock, played a vital role for the Army of the United States, in the same battle. And, like Armistead, he also was wounded in action. Scott recovered from his wounds, Armistead did not. Two days after being shot, General Lewis Armistead died in a Union field hospital. His last words were, “Tell General Hancock that I have done him and you all a great disservice.”
I spoke one-time to a group of Southern Heritage members. I’m not sure that’s exactly the name, but they had organized an Armistead “camp” or club, if you will, dedicated to my ancestor. It was in Macon, Georgia. Canons were fired, songs from the glory days of the Confederacy were played, and I paid tribute, through words, to my deceased ancestor. What I said was pretty much what you’ve just read. But I must tell you the response was not positive. I’m not sure who was considered the traitor, my Great Uncle Lo, or me. I’d like to believe both of us were, and are, patriots.
In my book, Prophets or Patriots: How Evangelicals Are Giving to Caesar What Belongs to God, I share my struggles with the growing spiritual adultery between evangelical Christians and the Republican Party. It was the election of President Donald Trump by approximately eighty percent of evangelicals that woke me up and shook me to my core as a follower of Jesus. It wasn’t the casting of votes per se that bothered me. It was the passionate support and defense of a godless man by those who claim to speak for God that opened my eyes to how twisted and toxic evangelicalism in America had become.
Of course, this is a broad statement, and I realize there are healthy evangelical churches in the United States today. At the same time, there is clearly a deadly malignancy in the body. Far too many churches are out of step with the teachings of Jesus and the good news of God’s kingdom. Worse, they are often opposed to them.
Like my ancestor, Lewis Armistead, I decided where my allegiance belonged while a long way from home. Seoul, South Korea is closer today to North Carolina, at least time-wise, than California was in the mid-nineteenth century. But it’s still a long way; it’s a fifteen-hour flight. And it’s still on the other side of the world.
I served approximately twelve years as Senior Pastor of Seoul International Baptist Church. Ten of those years, I was an adjunct professor at Torch Graduate University, teaching Master of Divinity students and a few Religious Education and Biblical Counseling majors from all over the world. Torch is an excellent international seminary. It comes with my highest recommendation.
We had, at any one time, between twenty and twenty-five different nationalities attending Seoul International Baptist Church. We also were multi-denominational, with followers of Jesus from various Christian traditions: Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Four-Square Pentecostal; even Roman Catholics attended our church. I constantly joked that Baptist were the minority in our church. Honestly, I wasn’t interested in making more Baptists. But I was passionate about making disciples of Jesus. Disciples who believe in the Good News of God’s kingdom, and understand that when Jesus calls us to “repent and believe the good news,” he is calling us to change the way we look at our lives and the world around us. It’s a call to rebirth, to seeing who we are, and our purpose in this world in a radically different way. And what is that purpose? To pray and live, in the words of Jesus, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
It’s not as hard to pray that prayer as it is to live it. Seeking to bring God’s kingdom or will into our lives, marriages, families, neighborhoods, workplaces, and nations is a seemingly impossible task. And as we understand the teachings of Jesus about how it’s done, everything in us as human beings fights against it. But Jesus reminds us that those who seek to save their lives will lose them, while those who willing to lose their lives will find them. And so, we pick up our cross daily and follow him.
To follow Jesus means to be peacemakers and mercy givers. It means to be ambassadors for his kingdom. We had some ambassadors and various state workers from around the world in our church in Seoul. I played golf with a few, and my wife and I enjoyed dinner with several. They were relational people, easy to like. All of them, including various state workers from nations around the world, were some of the most beloved and interconnected people in our church. Their friends included factory workers from the Philippines, as well as generals from the United States military.
It was from the vantage point of this kind of church, and these kinds of Christians that I watched the 2016 presidential election unfold in the United States. I’d known about Donald Trump for decades. I observed his lifestyle and business practices early on as a Master of Business Administration student, and later, a junior corporate executive in a Fortune 500 company.
After leaving the business world, I earned my Masters and Doctors degrees and served Southern Baptist Churches. Because of his obsession with media and popularity, I continued to hear about Trump. I was a die-hard, moral majority Republican but I considered Donald Trump the exact opposite of everything my faith and life stood for. I still do.
That’s why, as I watched the 2016 presidential election unfold, I cringed in the deepest part of my spirit. I watched as Trump added another conquest to his collection of mistresses, the evangelical church in America. The Bible refers to the church as the bride of Christ. To witness this bride, seduced and defiled by a man who was, and is, in every way, what the New Testament refers to as “antichrist,” felt apocalyptic.
I retired from thirty-six years as a pastor in December of 2019. I’ve returned to the United States, where I have witnessed first-hand the deep divisions in this nation. The unrest and division existed before President Trump’s inauguration, but he is the one who, like Nero, is fanning the flames and burning the empire to the ground. But there is a difference between Nero and Trump: Nero used Christians as human torches, Trump uses Christians to light them.
We are an angry people, us evangelicals in America. We feel like we are being displaced, abused, and persecuted, that we have lost our rightful place as the true representatives of our nation. And, true to the world’s way of thinking, we are ready for a fight. But it was Jesus who commanded Peter to put away his sword, saying that those who draw the sword, perish by the sword. And the Psalmist reminds to “refrain from anger and turn away from wrath . . . it only leads to evil.” (Ps. 37:8, NIV) The Psalmist also reminds us of the consequences of failing to heed his words, saying, “their swords will pierce their own hearts, and their bows will be broken.” (Ps. 37:15, NIV)
It’s true that peacemakers, like Jesus, tend to die on crosses. It’s also true that “unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” (Jn. 12:24, NIV) We desperately need more peacemakers in our nation today. But how many are willing to pay the price? For that matter, what should we do? How can we help heal rather than promote the war raging in our nation in these days?
To answer that question, I’d like to return to the words of my ancestor, Confederate Brigadier General Lewis Armistead. His final words should be a guide for all of us caught in this twenty-first-century civil war in America: “Tell General Hancock, I have done him and you all a great disservice.”
Dying words like those of my ancestor often express regrets, but they are also filled with wisdom. For me, Armistead’s words are clear; he regretted the choice he made. I feel his pain when I express thoughts like those I’ve shared here. For some, these are the words of a traitor, a Judas, if you will. But I am convinced they are the words of one of many minorities found in stories throughout the Bible.
I tell those stories in my book, Prophets or Patriots. They are the stories of Israel’s prophets who warned time after time of the path of destruction that wicked leaders, supported by prominent religious leaders, were leading their nation down. “You are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets,” Jesus warned the religious leaders of his day. (Matt. 23:31, NIV) “Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started.” (Matt. 23:32, NIV) They took his advice and crucified their Messiah.
God’s kingdom will only come; his will only done on earth as it is in heaven when we repent. We must look at our lives, our nation, and our world differently. We desperately need reborn world views. We need to see our nation from the eyes of people who are citizens of God’s kingdom and not the other way around. Only when we do that will we find the courage to take a stand for Jesus as Lord. It will likely cost us friends and family, ridicule, and persecution, but it’s nothing Jesus didn’t warn us about.
I’m so grateful for my time in the boxing gym and my mostly black high school in the deep south. I’m also grateful for twelve years in Korea, learning to love people from different cultures, traditions, and political ideologies. Most of all, I’m humbled to serve a Lord who died because of his love for all of them. A Lord whose Spirit promotes peace, healing, mercy, and love in the lives of those willing to pay the price and follow him.
My book, Prophets or Patriots: How Evangelicals Are Giving to Caesar What Belongs to God, is scheduled for release September 15. Also, check out my website, Church on the Edge, for more articles and videos on what it means to follow Jesus.
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