A Few More Thoughts on "What's at Stake"

After some really good comments and thoughts from folks who read it, I thought it might be a good idea to expand on my last post.

I did pose several questions that we should be asking including “Is ‘race’ a biblical idea?” mostly to encourage folks to dig deeper (and there are some starter resources on my website). While I didn’t answer the questions I posed, it’s probably obvious that as to “Is ‘race” a biblical idea?” my answer is "Absolutely not!" Several of you are correct to point out that the concept of “race” as we know it today is a Darwinian/evolutionary construct, largely developed by a man named Samuel Morton in the 1840s. “Race” is pseudoscientific language masking an insidious, anti-biblical idea popularized around the globe as a convenient justification for slavery (and other tyranny) in the years approaching the Civil War. We need to understand its origins, reject that language as scientific racism and begin to think in terms of “ethnicity” (which is Paul’s term in Acts 17:28 for “the nations”)

I also want to be clear that people absolutely matter. Loving our neighbors in word and deed – especially right now – is vital. A wise man once said to me: “There are only two things in this world that are eternal: the Word of God and the souls of men.” If we’re wise, that’s where we invest our time and treasure. While I mentioned the legitimacy of ethnic prejudice and real miscarriages of justice and the importance of listening right now, it’s true that I did focus much more on ideals and ideas in that post. Please hear my heart. It’s because those ideas have consequences….on the real people that we’re called to love…. that it is incumbent on us to get the ideas right….to line them up with that eternal, unchanging standard found in God’s Word.

As to slavery itself, my intention is never to gloss it over – God forbid! While the focus of my post wasn’t specifically on the cycle of slavery as it unfolded in America, make no mistake, it was a devastating sin with devastating consequences. The Scriptures explicitly condemn chattel slavery yet both north and south (and African tribes if we’re telling an unvarnished truth) profited from it (two from the trade; one from the labor). Early 18th c. Quakers were some of the first to condemn slavery and it was from churches that the abolition movement grew, yet there were many churches that justified slavery and even used the Bible inappropriately to discourage any thoughts of freedom amongst the enslaved. The Civil War was, as Lincoln eloquently said in his 2nd Inaugural Address, a judgement on that sin. In 1865, just weeks before his death, Lincoln said that “He (God) gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came.” With more than 600,000 dead in four years, this was the deadliest conflict in American history. Every town, and nearly every family in America was touched.

Human slavery has been a tragic reality throughout history (even today) and in the 17th-19th centuries was an accepted social institution around the globe. Here in America whites, but also some blacks and Native Americans, participated as slaveholders. None of that justifies it or makes it any less painful or sinful. However, though it’s natural to judge an historic period according to modern practices, in the history profession that’s called “presentism” and leads to errors in interpretation.

In that light, something we should find remarkable about the founding generation (considering all the governing systems around the world at the time) is how forward thinking they were….that the majority openly opposed the practice of slavery, many founded or joined abolitionist societies, many freed their enslaved people (including Washington) while others (like Jefferson) were almost completely prevented from doing so by law. Jefferson is a complicated figure, made even more so by his likely 40-year relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings (who herself was likely the half-sister of the wife that Jefferson lost). At the same time, Jefferson hated slavery and introduced a bill in Virginia in 1769 to allow emancipation, but found it rejected under the authority of the English crown. He continued to advocate for these laws throughout his life.

What’s equally as remarkable are the ideas enshrined in the Declaration and Constitution. They were ideas never seen in a governing document EVER before in history and they (quite literally) changed the world. It’s become common in recent years to accuse the founders of “leaving out” slaves and women. Here’s where we have to remember the danger of “presentism” and acknowledge that there was nowhere in the world at that time where women or slaves would have enjoyed those kinds of liberties… but that what happened in America is that the door was opened. . . the never-before expressed ideal of Creator-endowed rights as opposed to rights granted by men was set out. The plain fact is that “All men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator” were “fighting words,” declaring slavery incompatible with American ideals. When we read the writings of most of the founders it becomes clear that action on that point was their hope. (There's a "starter" article on my Resources page). They longed to eradicate slavery and many acted to do so in the days following independence. Slavery was, in fact, abolished in several states and outlawed in the newly gained Northwest Territory. However, at the time of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, an abolitionist sentiment was not universally shared by some in the southern colonies. Knowing it was absolutely necessary for this fledgling group of independent colonies to present a united front against the power of the British Empire, the divisive issue of eradicating slavery was largely laid aside at the federal level. I believe, had any of them anticipated the crisis that would build over the next 100 years, they would never have acquiesced as they did. <