Tuesday, January 19, 2010
What Gets In Front of Your Gospel? Or, the answer to the perennial question, "Who is buried in Grant's Tomb?"
Question, "Who is buried in Grant's Tomb?"
Answer, "Who cares?'
I have lived in the South for 14 of the last 16 years, and in the deep South for 9 of those years. So, I know about, and have experienced a bit, the race issue. I know, for instance, that not all Southerners are racists, nor were they in the past. I know that all racism is not of one kind, either. And, I know that many, if not most, Southern white folk would love to leave the race issue far in the rear view mirror. It is an embarrassment, a blot on an otherwise fine region of the country.
But, then there is always the sad spectacle of what happens on and around Martin Luther King Day. And, I am trying to understand that. The news headlines inevitably and appropriately focus on the King day celebration. Flawed prophet that he was (as all prophets are flawed), he led a movement that ended segregation in the South, and elsewhere.
Living in an impoverished city that is majority African American, I know that post-desegregation history has not been all sweetness and light, for white or black. Officially desegregated whites often segregated themselves by income into suburbs and private education.
But, as a suburbanite, I rejoice that my children had an African American principal, and my son had a fine African-American teacher. It does my heart good to go to a school and see not only black children and white children, but Asians and Indians. And, this in Mississippi. This is good.
But, the jarring reality of life in the New South still includes the matter of race and history. How bizarre that, while many gather to celebrate the achievements of Dr. King and those who followed him, a small group of Southerners get misty eyed around the Confederate battle flag, and commemorate Robert E. Lee?
The South, more than any other region of the country, is a place captivated by wispy, romanticized myth --think Gone with the Wind, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and almost anything written about New Orleans. Southerners romanticize the past. That is not to say that most people long for the days of manorial estates, hoop skirts, cotillions, and Negro spirituals wafting up from the slave quarters. No, we live in the twenty-first century, but southerners do look at the past under a romantic patina --glossing over the ugliness of slavery, and fire hoses, and murdered children without justice for decades.
Just as in our own lives, we need to look deep into our own hearts, and come to terms with our own sin, I think that each region of the country needs to look its past full in the face. We need to understand our presuppositions, our opinion-forming myths, and be able to look at these in the light of the gospel.
The Southerner immediately protests that the North was godless, Unitarian, heartless, and just as racist, and that the federal government grew tyrannical. The case can be made. What's the difference? The North doesn't celebrate U. S. Grant. Even the celebrations of Lincoln are not pseudo-religious in nature any more. He gets (rightful) credit for freeing the slaves. Nobody weeps at Grant's tomb.
And, they will also often protest that the Civil War was not about slavery. That claim is not completely without merit. The Civil War was the product of many influences and much history, and not about one thing. Mostly, it was about wounded honor, I think, as I hope to demonstrate below.
One of my college history professors explained the Late Unpleasantness in terms of the civil strife between the Cavaliers and Roundheads in Merry Olde England. England was not so merry in the seventeenth century. Kings and Queens rose up and slaughtered Protestants, Protestants beheaded kings. The Roundheads were the followers of Cromwell --Puritans, merchant and middle class, untitled rising wealth. They were, in short, Yankees. They settled Massachusetts, Connecticut, and all of New England. The kings were ready to be rid of them --let them have their Holy Commonwealth. The Puritans developed (or were heir to) a culture built on justice --it is not hard to see where John Adams got his sentiment "A republic of laws, and not of men."
The Cavaliers were the landed nobility, the warriors of the status quo. And, cavalier culture was built not on justice, but honor. Losing face was the cardinal sin. The loss of honor was a stain that lasted throughout generations. And, the Cavaliers shaped the cultural mythos of the South --though they themselves were soon outstripped in numbers by the Scots and others. People are at a loss to explain the contradiction that was Thomas Jefferson --against slavery, but holding and profiting from and likely fathering children with, slaves. Or to explain the contradiction that was Strom Thurmond --an outspoken segregationist who carried on a torrid love affair with an African American.
But, these are no strange things in an honor culture. Look at Italy and omerta, or the Middle East with its ancient grudges and self-immolating zeal for honor , and one will again see similarities. Justice societies think in terms of guilt or innocence, right or wrong. Honor societies think in terms of offense or shame --why Arab fathers will murder their own daughters for dressing too provocatively. Sin is not guilt measured by an impersonal standard so much as it is betrayal against a person.
All of this explains why the War of Northern Aggression still sits so heavily on the Southern heart. It is not just a matter of a lost war, but the overweening vengeance of the victor in the period after the war. Grant and Lincoln were far more favorably disposed towards rebuilding the South than the Radical Republicans were --and they did no Southerner, black or white, any good.
And, it also explains the Klan (which was despised by most patrician Southerners, and opposed heroically by some) and George Wallace (who, again patrician Southerners despised), and why Emmett Till and Medgar Evers didn't get justice for thirty years or more, and why a Detroit housewife named Viola Liuzzo was shot in the face.
So some Southerners nurse the wounded pride of the lost cause. But, let's be clear about what that cause was. It was a cause of building wealth off another man's labor. It was the cause of breeding humans like livestock, of stealing children from tribe and family, of splitting up families, of opposing evangelization of the slave population, of rape and beatings. And, in the twentieth century, it was the cause of bombing churches and murdering little girls in a church, and murdering anyone working for change, and barring entrance to universities because they had the temerity to eat at a lunch counter or not move to the back of the bus or enroll at Ole Miss, that halcyon and hallowed institution.
And, the question, after all this, is, "Christian, is Robert E. Lee worth putting in front of the gospel?" Lee was a man of sterling character, a person worthy of esteem in many regards, a true gentleman and a Christian. But, none of that matters now. If the white church holds him up as some sort of paragon of Christian virtue, what are our chances for reaching our African-American neighbors with the gospel?
Some will protest that this is "their" problem, if it offends "them." Scripture says we ought not to eat meat if by our eating we destroy our brother for whom Christ died. And, more pointedly, Scripture says that race pride is a practical denial of the gospel, and that those who practice it within the church may just forfeit the kingdom.
I love the South and its history. I labor to understand it. I think it needs to look its history square in the face, and by the power of the gospel, turn away from it.