Niceness vs. Redemption

We have just completed a week filled with anguish. The Charlottesville protests and anger that they have stirred has brought our nation to a low point indeed. In the midst of this anguish, people say things about changing the rhetoric and promoting understanding—all very nice, but never getting to the core of the problem, which is sin.

C. S. Lewis, in his Mere Christianity, delivers the truth about niceness vs. redemption.

We must not suppose that even if we succeeded in making everyone nice we should have saved their souls. A world of nice people, content in their own niceness, looking no further, turned away from God, would be just as desperately in need of salvation as a miserable world—and might even be more difficult to save.

The world wants niceness; God wants to redeem us. There’s a real distinction here that the world doesn’t recognize. Lewis continues,

For mere improvement is no redemption, though redemption always improves people even here and now and will, in the end, improve them to a degree we cannot yet imagine. God became man to turn creatures into sons: not simply to produce better men of the old kind but to produce a new kind of man.

God is seeking to make us part of His family, which is a goal the world cannot conceive of, nor does it want to grasp. Man normally wants to improve himself, to a degree, where he is not quite as bad as he was before, whereas God demands a complete overhaul by submission to His Lordship. He wants to give man an entirely different type of existence.

What man, in his natural condition, has not got, is Spiritual life—the higher and different sort of life that exists in God. . . .

And that is precisely what Christianity is about. This world is a great sculptor’s shop. We are the statues and there is a rumour going round the shop that some of us are some day going to come to life.

When the next series of despicable events occurs (possibly even today) and we see the handwringing and the calls for civility, we need to be the voice of God’s truth to this dazed and confused world and point them to His redemption. That’s where the solution must begin because it’s the only answer to sin.

Slavery & the Civil War

What caused the American Civil War? Historians are hesitant to assign just one cause to anything. There are always many factors that come together to create an event, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be a primary cause.

Where do we go to find the primary cause for the Civil War? I suggest we look carefully at the official secession declarations of the various Southern states. They went to great pains to explain why they chose secession.

I’ve read them all. Some are rather lengthy. I’m going to have to be selective in what I use from them because I’m not writing a book here today. Yet I am not taking anything out of context. You can always check on me by reading them yourself.

What we will find in these declarations is a consistent thread for the secession rationale.

Let’s begin with South Carolina, the state that led all the others into secession.

Upset that the Northern states fought against the Fugitive Slave Law, South Carolina declared that the resistance to the law was tantamount to breaking the covenant, thereby allowing the state to leave. What bothered South Carolina specifically was any attempt to abolish slavery or help runaway slaves:

They have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States.

The declaration then turned to the election of Lincoln:

A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery.

He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that “Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,” and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.

The quote comes from Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech, but it’s taken out of context. What Lincoln actually said was that the nation couldn’t continue half-slave, half-free, and that it would eventually go one way or the other: either all states would have slavery or none would. South Carolina left out the other half of the quote. That’s historical revisionism/falsification; it’s inherently dishonest.

While South Carolina used states’ rights in its rationale, those rights were in the defense of slavery.

Mississippi, in its secession declaration was quite bold:

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth.

An economic rationale is offered, but again, it’s in the context of protecting slavery. Then there’s this startling statement:

These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.

So blacks need to be slaves because they are the only ones who can stand the intense heat of the sun. To rid the nation of slavery would kill both commerce and civilization, according to the Mississippians.

Georgia, meanwhile, focused on another concern:

For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery. They have endeavored to weaken our security, to disturb our domestic peace and tranquility, and persistently refused to comply with their express constitutional obligations to us in reference to that property, and by the use of their power in the Federal Government have striven to deprive us of an equal enjoyment of the common Territories of the Republic.

That complaint had to do with the exclusion of slavery in the territory won from Mexico in the recent war. Georgia believed it was only right that since it sent citizens to fight in that war, that any Georgia citizens should be able to move into that territory and hold slaves. The argument rests on the desire to extend slavery.

Then there is Texas, which provided the most combative of the declarations, accusing the Northern states of

an unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of equality of all men, irrespective of race or color– a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of Divine Law.

Now we are being told that God has ordained African slavery. Texas’s explanation continues along this same line:

We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.

Rightfully regarded as inferior? They can be tolerated only as slaves?

The servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations.

Using Christian faith as the basis for treating other human beings as less than human is abominable.

Those are the “official” declarations. We also have testimony from Alexander H. Stephens, the vice-president of the Confederacy, in his infamous “Cornerstone” speech delivered on 21 March 1861, in which he noted,

The prevailing ideas entertained by him [Jefferson] and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically.

He got his history correct on that point, but he went on to say,

Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.  This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

Superior race? A hint of things to come in the twentieth century? And as with the Texas declaration, Stephens brings God in on his side:

Subordination is his place. He, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system. . . .

By experience we know that it is best, not only for the superior, but for the inferior race, that it should be so. It is, indeed, in conformity with the ordinance of the Creator. It is not for us to inquire into the wisdom of His ordinances, or to question them. For His own purposes, He has made one race to differ from another, as He has made “one star to differ from another star in glory.”

Now, some argue that the common Southern soldier participating in the war was not doing so to defend slavery but his homeland. There is some truth there, but it’s also pretty well established by the evidence that even those who didn’t have slaves (the vast majority of Southerners) nevertheless supported the social system of slavery that existed.

For many of the poorer Southern whites, they liked having at least one segment of the population on a lower social rung than theirs.

Ulysses Grant, in his memoirs, shared his thoughts when Lee surrendered at Appomattox:

I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long & valiantly, & had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, & one for which there was the least excuse [emphasis mine].

It was an awful cause for which to fight. All the talk of states’ rights, tariffs, commerce, etc., cannot conceal the obvious truth: slavery was at the heart of secession. Without the existence of slavery in the mix of causes, there would have been no civil war.

Today’s post is an attempt to provide the evidence for slavery as the primary reason for the Civil War. I’ve added what I believe are appropriate comments about that evidence. I can do no less. I can do no more. The decision whether to accept this evidence rests with those who read what I have written.

The Monuments & Memorials Controversy

Monument: “Something venerated for its enduring historic significance or association with a notable past person or thing.” Memorial: “Something, such as a monument or holiday, intended to celebrate or honor the memory of a person or an event.”

As a historian, I’m into monuments and memorials. I want historic events and significant people in history to be remembered. Sometimes, I want them remembered because they deserve honor; other times, they should be remembered as valuable lessons of what can go wrong.

Auschwitz is a memorial to those who lost their lives in Hitler’s Holocaust. No one of sound mind would consider it a veneration or celebration of a historic event. Yet it serves a purpose: a reminder that we should never allow this to happen again.

So even awful things that have occurred in history should be recalled for our benefit. We have to be sure, though, that we have the right reason for the monument or memorial.

Which brings me to the current desire of some to tear down monuments to those who served the Confederacy during America’s Civil War. A lot of heat has been generated on this issue, but a lot less rational thought.

A little personal history here. In my early days studying history, I had sympathy for the Southern position because I believe in our federal system of government that leaves most decisions to the states. My concern for overreaching federal power led me to think that Lincoln and the North should have allowed the Southern states to secede without intervening.

Then something happened: I studied more. I came to realize that the secession was illegitimate constitutionally; I eventually saw that the states’ rights argument, in this particular case, always revolved around defending slavery as a positive good; I saw more clearly the attitude of the South and its aggressiveness in seeking to spread slavery into more areas; and I read a lot of what Lincoln had to say and gained tremendous respect for his constitutional basis and decency as a man.

In short, I changed my mind about the Civil War. Those who took leadership in the South, both in its government and in the military, were in rebellion against the legitimately elected American government.

Now, I may have just lost some readers who continue to believe otherwise, but stay with me.

I don’t paint all Southern leaders with the same broad brush. I know that both Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson didn’t like slavery. I have respect for how Lee conducted himself once he understood the war was lost. He used his reputation to put down the suggestion that the South should continue the conflict through guerrilla warfare. He called for unity.

While I disagree with his decision to join in the rebellion, his personal character can still be admired despite the flaws in his thinking. So I can understand why some want to erect monuments to him. When it comes to character, his is far and above most of those who are now either promoting or protesting any memorial to him.

And the mania for tearing down all monuments relating to the South during the Civil War has gotten out of hand. Protesters in Durham, North Carolina, took matters into their own hands and tore down a statue without any authorization. They constituted a mob, and we don’t have mob rule in America.

When rational thought is dismissed, where will we end up?

Where do I stand on those Civil War monuments to the South? It depends. If they are simply memorials to those who lost their lives, I have no problem with them. They mark a tragic event in American history. If, however, they are there to celebrate those who openly rebelled against the government, basing their rebellion on how wonderful slavery is and defying the Constitution, I have no problem with their removal, especially due to the horrific memory of slavery and racial prejudice that affects so many today.

It also depends on the location of those monuments. For instance, when I visited the Manassas Battlefield, I took this photo of an iconic statue:

This marks the spot where Thomas Jackson stood like a “stone wall” and rallied his troops in the battle, thereby earning his nickname. It is appropriate to have this statue at this particular spot. It notes a significant historical event. Leave it alone. Learn from it.

So while I’m not a full supporter of keeping all such monuments, neither do I believe it is right to succumb to mobs and allow them to be torn down without regard to the rule of law. Consider each monument and memorial individually and make a decision on each, taking into account whether they advance historical memory in the right manner or if they inflame passions with the wrong emphasis.

There is also the matter of the slippery slope. Some are so exercised against what took place in history that they are beginning to promote the argument that the Founders, because some were slaveholders, ought to have their memory erased from our national consciousness.

Tear down the Jefferson Memorial, some would say. Destroy the Washington Monument. Rub off Mt. Rushmore. It gets silly, but also dangerous to real history. Even though some Founders owned slaves, those who know history also know their consciences bothered them about an institution that existed before they were born and into which they were placed. They thought a lot about how to end that institution because they believed it was detrimental to the nation.

Those who cannot make a distinction between the attitude of the Founders and those who later took up arms to defend slavery are too simplistic in their analysis. In most cases, I fear, analysis is lacking; emotion reigns.

Let’s revisit this issue of which monuments are proper, but do so rationally.

The Alt-Right Isn’t Right

I would like to gently—okay, forcefully—make a point today about a mischaracterization being promulgated in the media. It’s also prevalent in academia. It has to do with how the political spectrum is explained.

We all know, since the Charlottesville episode, that the so-called Alt-Right has come under greater scrutiny. This is a group that, although it claims not to be Neo-Nazi or part of the KKK, nevertheless finds ideological companions in those detestable movements. In reality, the Alt-Right is just as much an extremist, fringe group as those, and let’s not forget one of their counterparts on the Left.

What I object to is the term itself, somehow aligning the Alt-Right with genuine conservatism. This is an error that shows up constantly, and it didn’t begin with this Alt-Right fiasco. The typical way the political spectrum is displayed by liberals is something like this:

Notice in this diagram how conservatism is positioned on the spectrum as a step toward the Nazis and other political parties considered by liberals to be “right-wing” fanatics. And what do we find in the center of this line as the “perfect” place to be? Why, liberal Democrats, of course, who apparently have no real connection to socialism/communism.

How one draws a line like this is dependent on the assumptions one starts with.

From my own assumptions, I would redraw the line this way:

Why do I consider this more accurate? First, the spectrum is based on how much control government has over the lives of its citizens, which I believe is a better way of approaching an explanation of beliefs.

As you can see, on the extreme Left of the spectrum one finds not only socialism/communism, where they truly belong as totalitarian systems, but also the Nazis. Historical fact bears this out. We’re so used to using Nazi as a shortcut for the full name that some may not be aware that it was the National Socialist German Workers Party.

Why, then, some may ask, did they oust the communists in Germany if they were so close in beliefs? That’s easily explained. First, Hitler saw the communists as competitors politically; they had to be excised so he could achieve complete authority. Second, communist ranks were filled with Jews, and Hitler’s socialist movement was centered on racial purity—no Jews allowed.

What liberals love to do is associate conservatism with the desire to control other people’s lives through government. Nothing could be further from the truth, at least in American conservatism.

I’ve been a political conservative all my adult life. I teach a course on the development of modern American conservatism and have examined all aspects of it. Even though there are different types of American conservatives, there are threads of belief that all hold in common:

  • Limited government control over the lives of citizens—personal liberty to be safeguarded by government.
  • Deep respect for the rule of law—not only are everyday citizens held to the law (legislated by their own chosen representatives) but government officials are as well, thereby guaranteeing that government doesn’t trample on anyone.
  • Individual rights that come from God, not government—in America, that’s why we have a Bill of Rights in the Constitution.
  • Freedom of political speech, so that no one can be prosecuted for disagreeing with the government’s policies.
  • Religious liberty, because it’s not the government’s job to tell us what to believe; we all must answer to God directly for that.
  • Free market capitalism based on principles of right conduct toward others, which leads to economic prosperity.
  • Abhorrence of all forms of totalitarian government because such governments violate everything I’ve detailed above.

Genuine American conservatives have nothing in common with the Alt-Right digression from reality. To lump that group in with conservatism is a gross deception gleefully promoted by those on the Left. It serves their purpose nicely: undermine the credibility of conservatism by linking it to racism.

That’s dishonest. It’s a distortion of what conservatives actually believe. It needs to be called out for its dishonesty.

The only real remedy for extremism in all forms is a society based on Biblical principles and an attachment to constitutional concepts that flow from that Biblical basis.

Don’t be misled by those who have an ideological ax to grind. True conservatism in America is the bedrock of liberty.

Charlottesville: A Christian Perspective

The rally and subsequent violence that erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia, this past weekend has dominated the news. I want to comment on it as I trust a Christian should, starting with some overall statements about groups in general, then on to some specifics.

First, there is no place in a Christian worldview for beliefs about racial superiority or inferiority. Any group claiming to be Christian while simultaneously promoting racial division is not really Christian; it’s merely using Christian cover for its sinful purposes.

The “white supremacists” who staged the Charlottesville rally, ostensibly to protest the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue, but actually devoted to racial hatred, are a moral stain on the nation. Neo-Nazis and the KKK were prominent in their ranks.

They should be called out for what they are: immoral, hate-filled hypocrites.

Second, there is no place in a Christian worldview for those in a minority group to rise up and call for violence, regardless of the treatment they have received. Members of Black Lives Matter, spurred on by their own bitterness, have promoted violence against law enforcement officers, painting them all with the broad brush of a stereotype—which is the very thing they claim to be opposed to.

Third, there is another group out there calling themselves “Antifa,” which is supposed to mean they are anti-fascist. The strange thing about them is that they use fascist tactics to make their point, thereby becoming in practice what they say they oppose in theory. They were part of the violence in Charlottesville, although you don’t hear much about that.

Interestingly, though, a New York Times reporter at the scene did tweet this: “The hard left seemed as hate-filled as alt-right. I saw club-wielding ‘antifa’ beating white nationalists being led out of the park.”

This movement also is anti-Christian and should have no place in the heart of anyone calling himself/herself a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Now, on to the specifics.

The primary blame for what occurred in Charlottesville rests with the white supremacists. They staged the rally, knowing full well it would spark a counter-protest. They wanted a reaction from the extremists on the other side to try to make their point more pointedly.

They succeeded, if indeed you can describe what happened as a success.

Moreover, this group of sinful racists (a tautology, I know) tried to carry out this rally in the name of Christian faith, political conservatism, and as an arm of what many see as the Trump agenda.

It was not Christian, it was not representative of true conservatism, and Republicans nationwide have denounced the actions of these racists. That won’t stop the media, however, from constantly trying to make those connections.

The only sliver of accuracy here is that Trump did rely on their votes as a segment of his support in the campaign. Steve Bannon, his chief strategist, when he ran the Breitbart website, actually referred to it as a platform for the alt-right (the term used to incorporate such racists and others who sometimes lend them credibility with their “America First” ideology).

David Duke, one of the more prominent white supremacists in America, spoke at the Charlottesville rally and said the following: “This represents a turning point for the people of this country. We are determined to take this country back. We’re gonna fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. That’s what we believed in. That’s why we voted for Donald Trump because he said he’s going to take our country back.”

Please note that I’m not saying Trump is a racist; I’m simply saying that many white supremacists see him as their hope to fulfill their racist fantasies.

Trump’s response to the violence was technically accurate: “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides. On many sides.”

I can read that and say I agree. But I can also read that and wonder why he refused to single out the one “side” that created the problem this time. It’s as if he doesn’t want to go the entire way and point out that white supremacists were the real culprits in this particular event.

Usually it’s Trump’s words that get him into hot water; for the first time in my memory, it’s now what he didn’t say that’s causing the problem. Trump has this uncanny ability to make things worse.

The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Colossians, chapter 3, says explicitly what our attitude must be. He tells us to put aside “anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech” from our mouths. He then goes on to say that through Christ we are being renewed:

A renewal in which there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all.

He concludes the passage with these positive words:

So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you.

The groups I mentioned in this post are opposed to forgiveness, choosing instead to highlight their grievances. Nothing about any of them is remotely Christian, and it’s incumbent upon Christians to be clear about that. We cannot allow a false image of the faith to gain predominance.

The Spiritual Body & Ultimate Reality

Arthur Greeves was a boyhood friend of Lewis’s, one with whom he corresponded throughout his life. It’s in those letters that we see the transformation of Lewis from an atheist/agnostic to a convinced Christian, and we witness an ongoing theological discussion over the years.

One of those discussions, in 1947, centered on the nature of the spiritual body Christians would receive in eternity. Lewis takes issue (in love, of course) with Greeves’s speculation about it.

I agree that we don’t know what a spiritual body is. But I don’t like contrasting it with (your words) “an actual, physical body.” This suggests that the spiritual body wd. be the opposite of “actual”—i.e., some kind of vision or imagination. And I do think most people imagine it as something that looks like the present body and isn’t really there.

I believe Lewis is correct in that assertion. We have this vague, shadowy concept of the nature of a spiritual body that might more approximate the idea of a ghost than what Scripture really indicates. For evidence, Lewis notes,

Our Lord’s eating the boiled fish seems to put the boots on that idea, don’t you think? I suspect the distinction is the other way round—that it is something compared with which our present bodies are half real and phantasmal.

Those who are familiar with Lewis’s writings will automatically think of his fantasy entitled The Great Divorce. In it, passengers on a bus ride from hell to heaven arrive, only to find that they are like phantoms compared with the reality of heaven. They can see through each other; the grass is so hard the can barely walk on it without pain; any attempt to pick up a piece of heavenly fruit is virtually impossible.

Lewis often used fantasy to make a valid theological point: even though what we experience now is certainly real, it is not the ultimate reality. That which awaits us in the heavenly realm is so much more real that we will look back on our earthly life and perhaps wonder how we could have thought it was all there was.

Like Lewis, I can’t fully explain what the new me will be like in my resurrected state, but also with Lewis, I can affirm that it will be far greater than anything I can now imagine.

Honesty & Integrity in Higher Education

As a new academic year approaches, I continue to be grateful for the liberty I have to teach from my Christian conservative perspective. At my university, I don’t have to tread carefully; I can fully expound on Biblical principles and make application to the courses I offer.

Professors at secular universities who have my perspective are not always so blessed. Neither are the students who swim against the progressive tide at those places:

Even guest speakers who go against the prevailing orthodoxy on campuses are experiencing hostility. Most often this is directed at conservatives who are invited to share at an event, but I recently noticed a fascinating divergence from the usual: Richard Dawkins, the outspoken atheist, had an invitation to speak at Berkeley withdrawn. Why? He had made comments critical of Islam.

Liberals love clichés, especially ones about freedom of speech, etc. The reality is somewhat different than their self-righteous pronouncements:

While my university does have a definite statement of faith that all professors must sign, that covers only the basics of Christian doctrine. There is room for discussion on many issues, as long as that discussion is based on those basic beliefs.

Take history, for instance—my subject. There are many questions that arise from a Christian standpoint when looking at the history of America. What about slavery? What are the real reasons for why we had a civil war? Was big business good for the nation or a detriment? What are the proper limits for civil government? Was it right to engage in a particular war? What about the dropping of those atomic bombs on Japan? Can that be justified?

Christians will differ on some of those issues. I have definite views. My study of history from my Biblical perspective leads me to believe that there was a lot of Christian influence, especially in early America. I also like to highlight people and events that bolster that viewpoint.

Yet that doesn’t mean I whitewash history to make it conform to my preconceived notions. While I would like for Thomas Jefferson to have been a Christian, I have to tell students that the evidence indicates he wasn’t. Many people love Andrew Jackson, but I frankly abhor much of what he did. Southern partisans praise Stonewall Jackson; my praise is muted, to say the least.

It has become fashionable to decry all of American history because of some of the blemishes in our character that have occurred, but we need to be more nuanced than that:

Honesty. Integrity. Those are my guidelines when teaching.

If only those were the guidelines for most of American higher education.