Original sin is the most rudely jolting doctrine, the most incomprehensible doctrine of all, yet without it we are incomprehensible to ourselves!
— Blaise Pascal
“It is because we rejected the doctrine of original sin that we on the Left were always being disappointed; disappointed by the refusal of people to be reasonable, by the subservience of intellect to emotion, by the failure of true Socialism to arrive, by the behaviour of nations and politicians, by the masses’ preference for Hollywood to Shakespeare and for Mr. Sinatra to Beethoven; above all, by the recurrent fact of war.”
— C E M Joad
As I said in my posted review, The Warmth of Other Suns by Isobel Wilkerson is luminous. She enlightens by exposing darkness. The darkness is personal, vivid, and palpable. As a result, she made me aware of the significance of racism in our nation’s history. Now I want to respond.
My first response will be as a private citizen of the USA. I am student of history. I am a Christian, who sees with a Christian Mind.
Walking the landmines
This has been one of the most challenging posts I have ever written. I want to talk about the impact of Wilkerson’s book on me. I feel like I am walking through a minefield.
What do I mean by that? Polarization pollutes the atmosphere. Ideologues demand purity and loyalty. Jesus once said, “Whoever is not with me is against me” (Matthew 12:30). Right now, racial ideologues (who by the way are not God the Son) are saying the same. Apparently there is only one way to understand our national history with racism.
Andrew Sullivan, a man with an impressive list of bona fides as a progressive, is not progressive enough. The New York Magazine tossed him. Bari Weiss resigns for The New York Times because they require ideological purity. And the conservatives are no better. Evangelical Presbyterian Pastor Tim Keller is being called out for being shaped by Marxism. Facebook and Twitter are rife with debates about Critical Race Theory, the 2020 election, the lockdowns, etc. And there are violent protests in multiple cities of the USA every night (no links needed).
Who is the Lord?
In the light of all that, I will find a path that does not place me on any of the sides. I do that because the claims to final orthodoxy of these various ideologies are arrogant. The question is not whether we are for them or against them — but whether they are in submission to God. It is all too easy for us to think we are the ones drawing the lines, and everyone must declare where they stand. Only God has the right to do that.
The second leader of the nation Israel made that mistake with the living God. God learned him.
When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand. And Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” 14 And he said, “No; but I am the commander of the army of the LORD. Now I have come.” And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped and said to him, “What does my lord say to his servant?” (Joshua 5:13-14)
With that assumption, here is what I plan to do
- I will start by laying out the right way to see governments, even the USA, and the uniqueness of the church. If I am going to evaluate them I have to state what they are. I mean we can criticize a cow for not laying eggs, but . . .
- Then I will use biblical moral clarity to respond to Wilkerson’s book.
- Finally, I will turn back to evaluate the nation and the church as they existed during Jim Crow and the Great Migration.
Right expectations: What is government?
Since we are talking about Jim Crow laws, we have to talk about government. What is government? Does government have the power to create a perfect and just society? Absolutely not. She should not even try.
God gives human government as a necessary restraint on human wickedness. All human governments are provisional and flawed. My expectations for human government are low. I am not alone in this.
‘Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…” Winston S Churchill, 11 November 1947
In short, I expect government to be flawed. Actually, I expect it to be very flawed. I don’t trust utopian visions. In fact, they frighten me. People who want to grasp the levers of coercive power to create their vision of an egalitarian society will destroy anyone who gets in their way. Governments can mitigate social problems. They cannot solve them. They cannot because they have no medicine strong enough to address the real problem.
Right expectations: America is not Christian, but just another form of secular government
If we start with the commonplace that America is Christian, we would evaluate her in light of that. But that she never has been and never will be.
This is irrefutable for those who believe the Gospel. The death of Christ for sin is the center of Christianity. Remove it, and Christianity is no longer present. Period. The death of Christ is absent from all our founding documents. Therefore, we are not a Christian nation. Our founders assumed the morality of Christendom. It was the air they breathed. But having morals and practicing them are not the same. Wilkerson’s book, all by itself, shows this.
The death of Christ for sin is the center of Christianity. Remove it, and Christianity is no longer present.
As a flawed system, I have a great appreciation for the American experiment. Yes, it was an experiment (Lincoln even said so at Gettysburg). Our Declaration of Independence and Constitution were the first attempt in post-Christendom freedom-based political theory. Their ideals are worth pursuing.
Right expectations: the Church is Christian
What about the church? True churches, founded on the death and resurrection of Jesus as the Savior and Lord of all, are unique. They represent to the nations of the world what life looks like under the rule of King Jesus. They are the new creation human race. To accomplish this they uphold the truth of the Gospel and deal firmly with immoral behavior in its members. In this role, they have nothing in common with any state or government.
With that behind us, what did I glean from Wilkerson’s narrative by way of moral clarity?
Wilkerson tells the story of pervasive prejudice toward black Americans. In the South it expressed itself through laws and customs and perverted justice. The overtly stated goal was to keep blacks in their place as inferior. In the North, the prejudice was not codified. However, it was upheld by the courts and law-enforcement. The blacks who fled the horror of Jim Crow ran into the arms of cities whose inhabitants were similarly contemptuous toward them.
What am I to make of this? Certainly my understanding of human corruption leads me to expect sin in all its forms to be present everywhere. Prejudice and caste and oppression are universal in human culture. But we created a more extreme form. By extreme I mean this: We either formed or tolerated policies that asserted the supremacy of one race over another. We had laws that dominated black Americans.
What the Nazis learned from us
Just how bad was it? Jim Crow South was no different in kind than Nazi Germany’s Aryan supremacy. Both asserted the right of a superior race to do as it pleases with the inferior. For more than 60 years the Jim Crow South was a center for cruelty and violence to the underclass. That underclass numbered in the millions.
Hitler studied the South to learn how to oppress. The primary difference is that Hitler tried to rid the Reich of the inferiors in a few years (with unfulfilled plans of killing tens of millions more.) Chattel Slavery took centuries to do worse. Hitler killed 6 million Jews. When we adjust the numbers to percent of the world’s population, we find that the African slave trade resulted in the equivalent of 80 million deaths (I take this from The Better Angels of our Nature).
Let’s stop minimizing
Our nation participated in and stomached the oppression and dehumanization of blacks on a massive scale. They did it for a hundred years or more. I have little doubt that the effects of those years of oppression still taint a large portion of the sociology of America. Yes, we have made great strides. But the problem is not “fixed” by legislation only.
I do not mean everyone was or is a racist. I do not mean everyone is culpable. I certainly do not buy the a-historical propaganda of the 1619 Project. Slavery was present in all of the world, let alone Europe, in the 17th century. There were also dissenters regarding slavery from day one. But many citizens were silent against the evil. Our political leaders were, for a long period of time, prepared to compromise moral principle for the sake of political expediency. Guess some things never change.
Let’s stop exaggerating and blaming
One of the perversions of the present debate is the way ideologues select only certain moral principles for their cause. They also set the timeframe for evaluation. The combination creates distortion
The problem with selective morals and time frame is this: Human history in every nation and time is dark. But it is dark in different ways. A few months ago, while listening to the Hard Core History podcast, Dan Carlin described the vile brutality of the Japanese against the Chinese in Nanking in 1937. He is a war historian. After he read the chilling account of rape and be-headings and dismembering of men, women, and children (all given by eyewitnesses), he said that the exact same account could be found hundreds of times over the thousands of years of recorded history.
Human history in every nation and time is dark. But it is dark in different ways.
This is not to minimize the evil. It is to show the pervasiveness of evil. It is to resist the self-righteousness that positions itself as “we would have done better had we been there.” Or more so, the assertion of some today that if they are given power, they would fix this once for all. They would establish a more just form of government. That is historical nonsense.
We are all corrupt and dangerous in power. We are all hypocrites. Every nation justifies their most wicked deeds in the name of religion and moral principle. We defeated the Nazi’s while tolerating a form of white supremacy at home that was the equivalent of Aryan supremacy. As Solzhenitsyn said, the line between good and evil does not run between nations or people but through the human heart.
Let’s stop thinking we are above this or it was once better
Selective morals are self-righteous. We pick what makes us look good. Take yard signs as an example.
Selective time frames miss the larger picture. There is no time when it has been better. I assert that if we could trace back in time to the days before the European conquest of the native Americans, or the start of the trade in African slaves, we would find that native Americans and Africans were doing exactly the same kind of thing to others. There is no noble savage.
We are not better than our forebears, just flawed in different ways. Had the self-righteous critics of our day been there at the founding of America, they may have stood against the 3/5 compromise, but they would have stood for granting the pre-born zero rights in the eyes of the law. We may hate racism, but we let greed pervert justice, murder 60 million babies in the womb, allow the breakup of families, and assert the liberation of sex from marriage. Moral justification and legal defense follows.
Moralizing and Government can only mitigate
So what do we do?
Everyone is looking to political power to bring the change. Anarchists believe that a whole new form of government is needed. The vast majority think that our present form of government can address these matters and create an egalitarian society. People believe government has the power to bring justice. But government can only make incremental improvements. Because these evils rest in the human heart, government has no power to stop them.
But all means, let’s try to mitigate the evils and make incremental improvements.
A citizen working for the common good
I have determined that my calling as a Christian is to work to preserve the peace and union of the USA. My voice will be raised against the present day bitter partisanship and incendiary words. I have chosen, as a citizen, to focus on non-partisan issues as well. There are groups working for this same purpose — Braver Angels, The Unity Project, F.I.R.E., and 1776 Unites to name a few.
I have always admired Lincoln. He embodied a wider perspective on sin, justice, and the providence of God. The words of his Second Inaugural are an example of policy that will tend to bring improvement and unity.
The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses for it must needs be that offenses come but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.”
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. Fondly do we hope ~ fervently do we pray ~ that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword as was said three thousand years ago so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’
“With malice toward none with charity for all with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right let us strive on to finish the work we are in to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan ~ to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
But what about the church?
This is where my greatest concern lies. The church. which is an outpost of the kingdom of God in the secular nations of the world, failed. She wrapped the flag around the cross and created a corrupt Gospel. She winked at sin.
The cruelties of the middle passage, the dehumanizing of selling human bodies, and the cruel torture and beatings of the slaves were not done in secret. One could watch a friend whip his slave near to death on Saturday and take communion with them on Sunday. Those who ran for office on a policy of the domination of black people were not deceitful. Their platforms and practices were widely known, all the way to Washington DC.
The church did not raise a unified voice against the evils of slavery. She did not do so loudly even among her own. Perhaps her elders did not want the offerings to drop? Perhaps they were conformed to their culture more than to the Word of God.
In any case, I think the failure of faithful pastors and elders to teach with moral clarity is far more grievous than the failure of secular governments. If churches had addressed their members with discipline, if they had excommunicated cruel, greedy, slave-trading professed Christians, perhaps this great evil might have been at least restricted in its influence.
I think the failure of faithful pastors and elders to teach their own with moral clarity is far more grievous than the failure of secular governments.
Are we blinded by our political and cultural assumptions?
I wonder what present day evils Christians miss because we are blinded by our cultural and political assumptions.
I wonder why visible unity across all races (certainly a redemptive vision) has been pursued only after the culture became alarmed at its absence.
I wonder why we have been obsessed by protection of the unborn when we were silent about protection of black Americans for so long.
I wonder why we have placed such strong hope in elections and politics even when they have failed for 40 years.
I wonder why we are so afraid of losing power especially when God has worked great Gospel advance when his church is most despised?
 God has ordained civil government—as the ruling authority of political communities—to be legitimate, but provisional, and to be common, but accountable. VanDrunen, David. Politics after Christendom (p. 25). Zondervan Academic. Kindle Edition.
 Timothy Snyder’s book, Bloodlands:Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, tells of Nazi plans to conquer Russia and murder 30-40 million Russians in order to repopulate the region with pure Aryan stock.