“Can’t we just move on?”
That was the question I was recently asked in an exchange with someone over the removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee from the recently-renamed Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, VA. We all were struck by the force of the reactions and the deep divisions that were exposed in the ensuing days and weeks. At some level, we all knew we were wrestling with a past that is controversial and yet no voices seemed to be moving us towards healing. In a sense of wearied frustration, then, this question came to me and I freely admit that it found a sympathetic hearing in my spirit. I wish we could just move on and be done with these conversations. But I know that those of us who are faithful followers of Jesus cannot just move on and be done. I have thought and prayed long and hard over what to say and how to say it. I have realized that I desire to give a definitive word on the subject but that since I am still being confronted with my shortcomings in this area, I cannot give such a word. I can only share what I feel convinced of at this point and invite others to join me in seeking God’s face and will for His body to be the redemptive force he designed it to be (Eph. 3:6-11).
...the slavery in Scripture bears little, if any, resemblance to the institution that was in place in the Western Hemisphere in the 16th to 19th centuries
“A Peculiar Institution”
This past Sunday, I preached through Paul’s Prison Epistles (Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, and Philemon) at our service. Three of these books interact with the idea of slavery. In the course of a 35-minute message I could not address all that could or should be said on that subject. One thing I did not say, but which does need to be said regularly and clearly to American believers is that the slavery in Scripture bears little, if any, resemblance to the institution that was in place in the Western Hemisphere in the 16th to 19th centuries. Here are five points that highlight these differences.
1. In the OT, slavery was entered into voluntarily as a solution to the problem of debt
2. The motivation behind slavery was a mutual benefit to slave and master. The master
received the productive labor of the slave and the slave’s challenge of poverty and debt
was alleviated through the master’s generosity. (Lev. 25:35-43)
3. Treatment of slaves in both the OT (Ex. 21:20-21, 26-27) and NT (Eph. 6:9, Col. 4:1) is
regulated and restricted. Laws are addressed to masters and they are held accountable
for excessive and harsh treatment. Significantly, Sabbath laws and observance of
festivals were applied equally to masters and slaves.
4. The legal status of slaves (implied by the above realities) in the OT was as persons
with rights that were protected by the law and thus were not merely property.
5. Exiting slavery in the OT was relatively easy as there was a release of slaves every
seventh year as well as a release of all purchased land back to ancestral families every
50th year, (the Jubilee). Also, family members could redeem someone from slavery by
paying the debt owed to the master. (Lev. 25)
Slavery addressed in the NT was often similar in purpose (alleviation of debt) but also would have included the Roman Empire’s acquisition of slaves from wars of conquest. It was not regulated by OT law of course, but rather Roman law and so was outside of the scope of the church to deal with in its totality. However, the book of Philemon as well as the statements about equality of believers in Christ (Gal. 3:28, Col. 3:11) suggest a trend in the church away from slavery and towards more equitable economic arrangements. To the extent that slavery in the world of the NT conformed to OT standards, however, it could not be regarded as sinful and should be thought of more in line with modern contract employment.
That being said, New World slavery had none of those attributes. It was entered through the practice of kidnapping and slave-trading which is explicitly condemned in both Old and New Testaments (Ex. 21:16; 2 Tim. 1:10). The motivation of New World slavery was exclusively the good of the master and not that of the slave. Masters were routinely not held accountable for the treatment of their slaves and slaves had no legal standing as persons in courts to seek redress of grievances or abuses. Slavery was permanent and perpetual and so exit was exceedingly unlikely and entirely at the discretion of the master. Furthermore, since slavery in the New World was based on race, even once a slave was freed, they were not given legal status to afford them the same opportunities for advancement as whites in their society.
Thus it must be said that the slavery practiced in the New World generally, and in this country particularly was correctly named our “peculiar institution” in that it was unique among slaveries practiced in antiquity. It also stands condemned as sinful and immoral by the principles of Scripture not least because of the racial basis that falsely divides humanity along biological lines, denying that those enslaved bore the image of God.
Remembering vs. Honoring
So now I come to the topic of monuments built in honor of Confederate generals and soldiers. Given that there is debate over the causes for which each of them fought (and they did individually choose to pursue their “Cause” for a variety of reasons) and over what the Civil War was “about”, I will leave that aside for the moment. I will simply observe that to my knowledge, the United States is the only country to erect monuments in honor of people guilty of mass treason. I have thought long about what this means and where the attitude comes from that leads over 80% of Americans (by one poll I heard) to support keeping these monuments in place.
I would suggest that it lies in a root belief as Americans that our nation represents the greatest hope of mankind for living and flourishing in the way God intended us. Our founding and the principles enshrined in our documents are consistent with biblical truths such that mankind experienced a leap forward in the elevating and protecting of human rights and dignity thanks to the “American Experiment”. This is often referred to as “American Exceptionalism” and as a historical fact I would not disagree with it.
...it is hard to address honestly some of the episodes in our history because they threaten to undermine our identity as the world’s heroes
What this belief in America often results in, however, is a defensive desire to see our nation as the hero in every story in which we take part. We are always to be seen as the “good guys”, while the “bad guys” are always “out there”. Thus, America only fights good wars on the right side and we always win (I think this is part of why Vietnam posed such an identity crisis for the country). Therefore, as a nation, it is hard to address honestly some of the episodes in our history because they threaten to undermine our identity as the world’s heroes.
For instance, on any objective understanding, our treatment of the native people of this continent over the space of nearly 300 years was grossly unjust. No Christian approach to thinking about war would condone a massive migration that results in armed conflict and transfer of massive tracts of land and the deaths of whole tribes. Rather, it would be condemned as criminal. Likewise, our conduct of both the Mexican-American and Spanish-American wars as well as the ensuing Filipino-American War were land grabs that mirrored imperialist actions for which we have rightly condemned other nations. And certainly our institution of slavery subjecting millions of Africans to bondage and many to death is an injustice of the highest magnitude.
And so we have difficulty facing these national sins because it would force us to concede that for all of our nation’s virtues, strengths and laudable acts in history (and there are many), we are prone to the same failings and abuses as very other nation in the history of humanity. So we are reticent to take down memorials to Confederates and have trouble identifying Robert E. Lee as a villain in our history. And here I will make a comparison between our experience and Germany’s. Germany has been able to identify the villains of its past without erasing its history. It has preserved the camp at Dachau as a witness to their sins and they have converted Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest at Berchtesgaden into a history of the Nazis’ atrocities. But there are not statues of Adolf Hitler or Hermann Goering to be found anywhere.
Protestants, not Protesters
This brings me finally then to the issue of the protest of both these memorials here in our country as well as the protesting of their removal and the question I opened with, “Can’t we just move on?” As strongly as I feel about this issue, I have reached the conclusion that protest is not the primary vehicle for the church to engage in as an agent of progress. As we approach the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, we would do well to apply the gospel of grace that Luther recovered to this situation.
protest is not the primary vehicle for the church to engage in as an agent of progress
Scripture is clear that healing, restoration and growth are always preceded by seasons of confession and repentance. It is equally clear that sin is not only an individual reality but also a corporate one. It is possible to bear responsibility for sins that we did not personally participate in. So the church at Corinth is held responsible for the sexual sins of one of its members (1 Cor. 5). It also indicates that sins can have generational impacts. It is thus that both Daniel (Dan. 9:3-19) and Nehemiah (Neh. 9:6-38) personally confess the sins of their contemporary countrymen as well as their ancestors going back to the wilderness generation. In the same vein, it fell to David to make right what Saul had done to the Gibeonites in order to remove God’s judgment through a famine on the nation (2 Sam. 24).
Paul tells us that we are ambassadors of reconciliation and that such reconciliation lies at the heart of the gospel mystery. If we are to faithfully declare that message it must be from a posture of confession and repentance as individuals, as churches and as a nation. Protests, while they have a place and a role to play in this discussion, position us as adversaries of our neighbors. The goal of protest is to bring force to bear to stop behavior. The goal of repentance is restoration of relationship so grace can flow and bring healing. So what if instead of fearfully or angrily defending our own, we stood vulnerably with our neighbors, confessing our collective sins and seeking to repent and be reconciled to those who have been sinned against? I think then we might, by God’s grace, be able to finally move on together.