The Civil War and Founding Principles
Editor’s Note: The sesquicentennial of the Civil War comes, ironically, at a time when key issues believed settled by that conflict – nullification of federal laws and state sovereignty – are being revived by America’s Right, especially the Tea Party.
Yet, those issues – then and now – have a disturbing back story, as excuses to protect one of America’s original sins, racism. Then, the Confederates wanted to maintain slavery; now, their ideological descendants are angry about a black man in the White House, concerns that Rev. Howard Bess confronts in this guest essay:
We Americans are observing the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, also known as the War Between the States, North and South.
During the past week, I watched major portions of Ken Burns’s documentary about the bloodiest war fought on U.S. soil. At one point I had to hit the off button. I could not handle the slaughter.
Some years back, I did some tracing of my family history and learned that my great-great-great grandfather moved from North Carolina to Southeastern Missouri, where he and his family became abolitionists, but his brother became a slave owner.
When I tracked down county records, I realized the awful truth. Cousins were killing one another in that awful war.
With more and better historians in America than ever before, the Civil War’s 150th anniversary has provided them the opportunity to take center stage to debate the causes of the war. They seem to have a task ahead of them.
(A recent CNN opinion poll showed a substantial number of Americans -- 42 percent -- said slavery was not the chief reason for Southern secession, suggesting that more than four in ten Americans believe that the war was fought over states’ rights. Among Tea Party supporters, a majority, 54 percent, said slavery was not the main issue. Among all respondents, however, 54 percent identified slavery as the chief cause.)
States’ rights have often been cited by Confederate sympathizers as the explanation for secession, but the claim was always a cover for the underlying issue of slavery.
President Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address should settle the question: “One section of our country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended. This is the only substantial dispute.”
Still, it is apparent that many Americans have worked very hard at rewriting history for the purpose of covering up the nation’s greatest scandal: The Great Melting Pot refuses to face its underlying racism.
In the midst of my ponderings, I returned to the Declaration of Independence, with the words that should have overriding power: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
I noted, too, that there was no turning to religious authority for justification, instead the simple declaration: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” There was no need for a proof-text. It is as plain as the nose on your face. All men are created equal.
The framers of the Declaration of Independence got the founding principle right. But Americans postponed facing the implications of our most basic principle for 85 years. When the issue finally came to a head in 1861, Americans from the South and the North killed one another to determine who was correct.
My desire is to hit the off button. But alas, there is no off button. History is history.
I would rather not acknowledge the truth, but there it is. To this day, skin color continues to be the most divisive issue in America. Our great founding principle be damned.
Yet, I am very pleased with the debates that are being triggered by the 150th anniversary celebration of the Civil War. Possibly not a few will give thought to the tragedy of the Civil War and the ugly and real reason for the conflict.
I consider myself a protesting loyal American. My first identity, however, is that of a Christian. And I find a tragedy in the earthly kingdom of Christ that parallels that of America. I am also a protesting Christian, too.
Jesus was once asked about the greatest of all commandments. His answer was on target: You shall love the Lord your God with heart, mind and soul. He then added a second that he called similar: “You shall love your neighbor.”
In almost every English translation of the Bible, the text adds “as yourself,” but that would have been nonsense to Jesus who was committed to others, not himself.
The command to love your neighbor was not new with Jesus. Indeed, it has a long and rich history. The roots go back over 3,500 years to the days when the children of Abraham were landless, a wandering clan, but not the only one in the expanses east of the Mediterranean Sea.
It also was not uncommon for clans to fight one another, but some sought a different way to deal with other clans with conflicting interests. It was in that setting that the Israelite laws of hospitality took root.
Hospitality became an important element of the ancient Israelite ethic. The highest ethic was to show hospitality. The standard was to treat other clans as you would members of your own clan. It was their formula for peace.
The most ancient form of the command to love your neighbor is “you shall love your neighbor as though he were a member of your own clan.” In the teachings of Jesus, hospitality also was a key element, though the concept of self-love was not a part of the culture that surrounded Jesus.
Just as many Americans think the Civil War was about states’ rights, many Christians have made Christ’s command about loving one’s neighbor an invitation to give priority to self-love. The result has been well-developed self-interests with little commitment to neighbor. But the pursuit of self-interest destroys the essence of the Christian Faith.
As with the Declaration of Independence, founding principles should never be forgotten. America will never know its full greatness until Americans remember that “all men are created equal.”
Christians will not know their potential until they remember that they are to “love their neighbor as though they were members of their own households.”
Getting your basic principles correct is very important.
The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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