30 July 2012

Robert E. Lee and Invisible Assumptions

Last post on Civil War issues. I promise. I’ve got several books giving me that glare that says, “You need to review me.”

For the last week, I’ve been caught up in the fun and exciting world of theological internet controversy. Not that I’ve been an actual player in the fray, just an outside observer with my own opinions. But for those who haven’t been reading, I have exonerated Doug Wilson of the charge of racism, stirred up some historical thoughts about why tensions in the U.S. were high enough to spark the Civil War, and quoted Chesterton on how the system of Roman/pagan slavery was ended by the spread of Christianity. Here’s my tl;dr on those posts:

1. There were a number of ideological and economic factors that created tension between the North and the South in the half century leading up to the war. The political atmosphere was a powder keg waiting to explode, and the issue of slavery expanding into the western territories was the spark. Slavery was a necessary, but not a sufficient cause of the civil war.

2. Racism is always bad and evil. Period.

3. Slavery is not automatically evil. (God allowed a form of slavery in the OT, and Paul gives commands to slaves and slave-owners in the NT. So there could be godly slaves and slave-owners.) However, wherever the gospel is faithfully preached, slavery gradually disappears. A system of slavery cannot be sustained in an atmosphere of gospel truth.

4. The system of slavery in the antebellum South was race-based and therefore inextricably linked to racism.

5. While the South was overwhelmingly Christian, this issue of slavery and racism was not being addressed in a Biblical fashion. There were some godly slave-owners trying to do what was right, but there were many others who were simply wicked. Unchristian laws regarding slaves also exacerbated the problem.

All that being said, the question I’d like to address in this post is this: “How can you embrace men like Robert E. Lee and Thomas Jackson as good, godly, Christian men even though they were fighting on the side of a cause which was being clearly judged by God, and who most likely held many racist assumptions?”

In order to answer this question, I’d like to turn to C.S. Lewis who wrote, in an introduction to an edition of On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius, a defense of reading old books.

“Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes…We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century—the blindness about which posterity will ask, "But how could they have thought that?"—lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books…Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us.”
Lewis points out rightly that each age has its own moral blindness which is easy for those outside of the age to see and impossible for those within the age to recognize. This does not excuse men of those ages from culpability for their sins, but it does teach us that even good men can have gaping deficiencies. The proper lesson to learn from this is that we too have gaping deficiencies, invisible to us, that will be easily spotted by our descendants. Applying the golden rule means treating our ancestors’ blind-spots the same way we would like our descendants to treat ours: condemning our vices, but showing grace and wisdom by praising our virtues.

If Lee and Jackson held to racist beliefs, then so did Lincoln who wanted to keep slavery out of the western territories, not because he opposed slavery, but because he wanted the territories “for the homes of free white people” (Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings, page 306). Racism was ubiquitous in both the North and South as Alexis de Tocqueville noted on his visit to America. This does not excuse any racism, Southern or Northern, but it does help us to put the time period in perspective; racism was a cultural assumption of the day that nearly everyone held to, and the terrible sinfulness of this assumption was invisible to them.

This applies to far more than just the Civil War, however. I believe that Mary Queen of Scots was a noble and good woman, one especially to be admired when compared to her cousin Queen Elizabeth I. However, I also believe that Mary’s most ardent adversary, John Knox, was likewise a good and godly man. At the time, though, Mary and John could not fathom the concept that they had anything in common whatsoever; to John, Mary was a hell-bound heretic, and to Mary, John was a hell-bound heretic.

I believe that John Calvin was a good and godly man, though he was in favor of condemning Servetus to death for heresy. We might not think that heretics deserve death today, but that was the general cultural consensus at the time. In fact all the other Swiss cantons apart from Geneva were in favor of Servetus’ death, as were Philip Melanchton, the Roman Catholic Church, and Calvin’s greatest political enemies, the Libertines. If the case were made that the only true Christians were ones that didn’t want Servetus dead, then practically the only true Christian in Europe was Servetus himself.

I believe that Bernard Gui was a good and godly man. Anyone who reads his inquisitor’s guide will be overwhelmed by the level of love and concern he possesses for the average Christian who is likely to be led astray by heresy. This is part of why he prosecuted heretics so ruthlessly. And even then, it is clear that his concern was first for repentance and second for protection from heresy for other Christians. We might not like the fact that he condemned over 900 people, but he was caught up in those darn cultural assumptions.

The list could be expanded to people like Constantine the Great, Charlemagne, Richard I of England, and Oliver Cromwell. All good and godly men whom we ought to admire and emulate. All men who did some terrible things because of their invisible cultural blindspots.


Erica said...

I also want to point out that Lee held the same belief that slavery would eventually taper off. When he inherited his father's estate he freed the slaves there, and Jackson not only freed his family's slaves but also ran a Sunday school teaching the local slave children to read, which was in fact illegal.

Anonymous said...

He was with the union, and Abe, Abe even offered him command of union forces, but he was also with his home, he was against slavery and shared beliefs of the union. However, if I had to choose between my opinions or my friends family and home the choice is Obvious. I am an ancestor of Lee and I find it unjust for people to call him an evil confederate rebel.

Rick said...

I think you kind of missed the point of my post. I'm saying that the confederates were not in fact evil at all. Truth be told, I think the South did have the more just cause in the Civil War. The point was that even people you admire and look up to (like I look up to Robert E. Lee) may still share cultural assumptions of their day that we today may disagree with.

For that matter, I think that Abraham Lincoln was the worst president America ever had because of his union views. (Then again, I'm with Patrick Henry in thinking that Virginia should never have signed on to the Constitution to begin with.) However, I don't think Lincoln was an evil man. He wanted to do the right thing, he was just blinded by the nationalistic zeitgeist of the day sparked by Rousseau, fanned by Napoleon, and spreading in various revolutions throughout Europe.