One hundred-and-fifty years ago on this day America was emerging from its long nightmare, a war between the states that we call the American Civil War. More Americans died in this four-plus year conflict than in all other military operations in our entire history put together. During this great ordeal brother killed brother and entire families were torn apart. Towns and cities were devastated across the South. Though slavery was formally and legally ended what followed was another one-hundred plus years of “virtual” (economic and social) slavery that created major problems we are still unable to solve as a free people. We have, if I read present events correctly, never fully recovered from this time. We are defined by race (itself an artificial and unscientific distinction) as much as any modern and free society in the world.
As a son-of-the-South I can tell you that the memory of this Civil War abided in my own family heritage as something that we understood as deeply life-changing. (I can still remember hearing the War referred to as: “The Way of Northern Aggression.” If you think about it calmly this is what it was to the people who defended the right of their states to self-government and the defense of slavery!) For my wife’s family the Civil War had little or no consequence since her parents were the children of immigrants from Bohemia. They didn’t even arrive in America until the beginning of the twentieth century. Like so many I met in the Midwest, when I moved here in 1969, she has a hard time understanding why Southerners remembered this War with such deep emotion.
Thus on April 14th one of the most stunning and impactful events in America’s history took place. Ironically it was Good Friday in 1865 when our sixteenth president, Abraham Lincoln, was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. Booth, a rather well-known actor and rabid Confederate supporter, hated the president. Booth had developed previous schemes for killing the president but on this date 150 years ago he succeeded. America would never be the same because of what he did.
Growing up in the deep South I memorized the Gettysburg Address in grammar school. I also heard a great deal about President Lincoln. Most of what I heard was positive. (Times had changed by the 1950s, at least within the public education system in terms of how we learned about Lincoln.) But I also heard the quiet hostility against Lincoln. He is still hated by some Southerners and many of them are Christians. While I think I understand this bitter anger I reject it without qualification. I see Lincoln as the greatest president in American history hands down. I remain amazed at the contribution that he made to our modern life and liberty. He may not have been the savior of the African-American, as presented in so much myth, but he was a man of the people and for the people who loved the union. And Lincoln never hated the South. Had he lived we can only guess what might have been the fate of both the South and the African-American. Because he died on this day dreams of peace and liberty were destroyed on so many levels.
I noted above that I believe the nation has never fully recovered from this infamous day in history. I do not think I have made an overstatement. The present race crisis that we face is an elongation of our greatest national evil. We sanctioned nothing short of an “African-American Holocaust” through our system of chattel slavery. You might think this statement is overly dramatic yet most historians now believe our acceptance of slavery led to the death of between 10-15 million Africans. These men and women had been purchased and shipped to this land with the full force of law and Christian support. Modern attempts at reconstructing what likely happened have led me to this conclusion about the carnage and death that followed. (I have visited all of the major museums in America dealing with slavery and civil rights and the best, by-far, is in Memphis,Tennessee. This recently revamped museum is on the site where Martin Luther King, Jr. was slain on April 4, 1968.)
I majored in U. S. history in completing my B.A. degree. It astounds me that I never heard this subject taught, by Christians or anyone else, in a way that factored into our thinking the true consequence of centuries of slavery and its impact on us all. (African-American slavery has little in common with ancient slavery, especially that of the first century.) American slavery was, in my judgment, the most God-forsaken institution ever created by vile men. There is not a single reasonable way that you can make this institution look compassionate or humane. No way! I have read and heard the Southern arguments for Christians who loved their slaves and who practiced a compassionate system rooted in biblical thought. I have known ministers, and Southern-sympathizers of all, kinds, who try to defend this institution by quoting the Bible. This is unadulterated, devious bunk. I will not try, at least here, to prove this point. It is self-evident to readers who will read the accounts of the slaves and study the horrors with the evidence we now have at hand for all to see and read. Any study of the institution, and of how it was practiced, will lead a fair-minded reader to this same conclusion. Were their slave owners who loved their slaves? Of course there were. Did some Christians show love to their slaves? No doubt. But the system, the attitudes and the race conflicts that this all created trouble our society right down to this day. This Holocaust has drained us and now the results threaten to undo our civil society but we still live in denial as a people.
On this day, the day when Abraham Lincoln was killed, I wonder if we (especially we who confess that we are Christians) will make a point of reading more extensively about the great evil of slavery? Will we read the writings of the slaves themselves for a starting point? I wonder if we will consider Jim Crow again and the stress that this race-enforced evil inflicted on generations of our own brothers and sisters? And I wonder if we are willing to see how complicit and wrong the Christian Church was in this entire historical context? There is no excuse, and I mean no excuse, for the slavery this country embraced. And there is no good explanation for one hundred-plus years of Jim Crow laws. And there is still no excuse for the present society we have created that has advanced the almost complete breakdown of African-American culture and the family. I am not placing blame on you personally. I am asking that each one of us asks this question: “If there is any connection between today (2015), and that of April 14 in 1865, then what should we do to live the gospel and work for the restoration of the true ideal of liberty that promises equality and dignity before God and one another?” Is it too much to ask that white Christians begin a serious inquiry into the ills our nation brought upon us and our children over the course of nearly four hundred years of this collective history of how we dealt with African-Americans in our midst? Yes, black lives matter! It is time that we honestly face up to this as something more than a great slogan.