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.

A telling testimony to the motives of the founding generation comes from a man who knew them, a member of the 2nd generation of Americans, a New England man who never owned a slave and was a powerful voice for abolition, John Quincy Adams. Yet he wrote: “The inconsistency of the institution of domestic slavery with the principles of the Declaration of Independence was seen and lamented by all the southern patriots of the Revolution; by no one with deeper and more unalterable conviction than by the author of the Declaration himself [Jefferson]. No charge of insincerity or hypocrisy can be fairly laid to their charge. Never from their lips was heard one syllable of attempt to justify the institution of slavery. …they saw that before the principles of the Declaration of Independence, slavery, in common with every other mode of oppression, was destined sooner or later to be banished from the earth.”

It was also John Quincy Adams who, in his 80s, defended 53 Mendi Africans who had been destined for slavery aboard the ship L'Amistad. Arguing "like a lion" before the Supreme Court he used biblical authority to defend the equality of men and cited the biblical offense of man-stealing. In an intense and politically-charged atmosphere, he achieved their liberation. Before sailing for home, the Mendi people gifted Mr. Adams with a large Bible in which they inscribed their names. You can view it at his home in Quincy, Massachusetts today. In an accompanying letter, also inscribed in that Bible, they thanked him and explained in thoroughly religious language how they saw Adams as an instrument of God saying "Wicked people want to make us slaves but the great God who has made all things raise(d) up friends for (the) Mendi people; he give us Mr. Adams that he may make me free & all Mendi people free." What Adams had done was fight for and hold the American government to the biblical ideals expressed in its founding documents, even while at that very moment (1841) Dr. Samuel Morton was just miles away in Philadelphia, studying and publishing his theories on "racial hierarchy." Standing for truth matters. People matter. Ideas have consequences.

Perhaps the best endorsement of this new system of government - this "constitutional republic" and its potential for “liberty for all” comes from the pen of Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave and incredibly effective abolitionist. He was never shy about spotlighting hypocrisy, calling the 4th of July " a day that reveals to him (the American slave) more than all other days in the ear, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham..." However he also said that "interpreted as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a glorious liberty document." Expanding on that, he said in later works that "the Constitution of the United States not only does not favor slavery, but it is, in letter and spirit, an anti-slavery document which demands the abolition of slavery.” He said, “The Constitution reads ‘We the people,’ not ‘we, the white people’ and if negroes are people, they are included in the benefits for which the Constitution of America was ordained and established”. Right on target. He also wrote that “the signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men too – great enough to give frame to a great age.” I agree : )

So, at the risk of being redundant, my goal is to advocate for addressing sin and injustice in civil government while being careful to preserve the constitutional structure that provides the best protections for individuals, families and churches ever put in place. . .when it’s employed as written. One last note: when the Bible was used in the years leading up to the Civil War to inappropriately perpetuate slavery, that travesty was corrected – not by abandoning the Scripture- but by returning to its proper interpretation. In the same way, when the boundaries set by our Constitution have been forsaken or we as a nation haven’t lived up to its ideals, the answer is not to condemn the Constitution, but to return to its original intent.

Hope this helps and that you are encouraged to dig deeper!