American slavery was evil, completely and totally evil. It was a form of human condemnation to a frequently violent life and an even more tragic death. There is nothing benign or acceptable about the institution or its practice. What we as a nation did in defending and protecting this evil is hard to fathom living in the legal freedom of the twenty-first century. We legally deprived millions of Americans of life, liberty and any meaningful pursuit of human happiness. This is just fact!
Today many talk about the Constitution with a reverential respect that borders on the sacred. I celebrate our Constitutional republic. I truly do. It is a blessing in numerous ways. But I cannot shake this sad, agonizing sense that so few of us understand the deep stain that slavery gave to our collective character. Had all of this collective evil ended in 1865 it would be a memory that would still haunt us. But slavery was followed by a century of legal segregation, “separate but equal.” (What a complete misnomer if there ever was one!) And now de-segregation has been followed by decades of bitter and divisive racism that is still denied by millions of white Americans, especially conservative religious Americans.
My friend Tom De Vries, the General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America, gave a response to the recent Trayvon Martin trial that expresses my anguish about where we are today. He wrote to the Reformed Church community of Christians:
For many of our brothers and sisters who are white, the Martin-Zimmerman tragedy was terrible. For many of our sisters and brothers of color, the Martin-Zimmerman tragedy validates major themes that flow through everyday living in our society–that our way of life is rooted in racism, white/racial privilege, racial profiling, institutional racism, and a propensity for violence against people of color. The tragedy is one of many similar episodes.
This continued bitter struggle reminds me of the unique insights our sixteenth president had regarding the race question in America. This is especially true given that these insights were spoken only months before he was killed by a racist named John Wilkes Booth.
On Saturday, March 4, 1865, just a mere few weeks before his tragic death, President Lincoln took the presidential oath for the second time and then delivered a brief address. America was finishing its fourth year of civil war. What Lincoln knew, and what informed the words that he had written for that speech, is nothing short of amazing to me. He looked into the bitter roots of this awful war and thought they could be traced back much farther than the showdown at Sumter over the rights of the Southern states.
Reflecting on his first inaugural in 1861, Lincoln said:
One eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war.” North and South, Lincoln said, “both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.
Lincoln’s words amaze me in their clear acknowledgment that man is not always able to arrange the world as he would like. Jon Meachem further notes: “The religious see this plight as the inevitable consequence of the Fall and, as Lincoln noted, as the workings of the mysterious mind of God; the secular as the vagaries of fate or chance. Whether viewed through the lens of faith or the prism of secularism, the point is the same: we are subject to forces beyond our control.” Yet for President Lincoln, nothing could absolve us of our moral responsibility. In the famous Cooper Union address given in New York City, on Monday, February 27, 1860, Lincoln (who was seeking to become the next president) said: “Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.” Lincoln’s second inaugural seems to clearly make the case that Americans cannot expect the blessings and protection of God without answering for their transgressions against him. He came to see the war, and our unique experience of race, as a great transgression. I believe he got the measure of the matter right.
It should be noted that Lincoln was never baptized, nor did he join a church. Yet his view of providence seem to be one in which he intuitively understood the drama of sin and redemption better than most traditional believers, both then and now. Meacham rightly concludes: “Lincoln’s God is neither benign nor sunny but a Lord calling his people to account.” Said Lincoln, “If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him” (italics mine)?
What the president was saying, so it seems to me, is that we must take God altogether. The nation’s public religion, based as it was upon a God of providence, a God who is attentive to history, cannot only be a source of sunshine and comfort; it is also a hard and demanding truth, for this idea of providence requires us to do unto others as we would have them do unto us.
Jon Meacham writes:
The eloquence of Lincoln’s address can conceal the starkness of his message. Read carefully, the speech is startling in its religiosity and its insistence that the events of this world are linked to the will and mind of a God who presides outside time and space. Here is a president of the United States, waging a civil war in which his countrymen are the only casualties, quoting the Nineteenth Psalm—“the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether”—to say that an indefinite struggle would be not only divinely ordained but just, for America was being summoned to account for its sins against the human beings it had long enslaved.”