“In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you.” Generally referred to as the “Golden Rule,” these words from Jesus in the Matthew 7:12 are immediately followed by a telling description: “… for this is the law and the prophets.” In other words, everything we do hinges upon figuring this out and getting it right. So let’s consider this, especially now, in light of these highly emotional debates around race, anger, white supremacy, neo-Nazis and Confederate monuments.
Several high profile figures in our country have spoken emotionally about the removal of these monuments as an attempt to “change history.” But perhaps a better definition of the current issues facing is to, not so much change, as to repair – at least as best we can. Yes, what is done is done. But when I have been wronged, it does my soul great good to hear the person who wronged me acknowledge the hurt that has been done and ask for forgiveness. Humility goes a long way, as does understanding, compassion and repentance. These are all very biblical and eternally necessary tools in our emotional and spiritual tool box – especially now.
When Jesus calls upon his followers to “do to others as you would have them do to you,” he was speaking to us and to our time as much as to any other. So taking these words seriously calls upon each of us to first do something very important. In order to fulfill the doing, we have to pause and consider the feeling. How does if feel to be the person I am called to “do unto?” For instance, I have to think carefully what being African-American feels like. How does it feel to see these enormous statues honoring southern men who took up arms against the federal government in order to preserve slavery? Let’s consider some history.
Some argue the secession of South Carolina and the reason for the Civil War in 1861 was to preserve the “southern way of life” or because of “States Rights” or to stand firm against northern aggression, or that it was more economic than moral or ethical. Research helps here.
Southern states, especially South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas were explicit in their secession statements: they left the union because northern states, particularly New York and Massachusetts, refused to return escaped slaves to southern “owners.” For southern slave owners, their “property” (i.e., human beings) was to be returned under the “Fugitive Slave Act of 1850”.
But it was the north, not the south, calling for State’s rights. Northern states found this Fugitive Slave Act increasingly problematic for a number of reasons, not least of which was the moral, ethical and spiritual conundrum it created. But the act also opened the vast arenas for abuse. Free northern blacks were being kidnapped by southern slavers with claims of “reclaiming” lost property (See the movie or read the book: “Twelve Years a Slave” for the chilling reminder of this cold, horrible reality.) Evidence abounds for this horrible reality.
Northern states, therefore, reserved the right to allow fugitive slaves to remain safely in the new land where they had escaped. With the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, South Carolina had had enough. Their secession from the union was all about slavery, all about preserving an economy based upon an institution we all now understand to be reprehensible.
But what about these statues? The vast majority were not erected immediately following the Civil War. Instead, they began to rise across the south years later, during and after the 1890s and up into the 1920s. Jim Crow laws were being passed across the south and African-Americans were increasingly under attack. Isabel Wilkerson, in her very important book, The Warmth of Other Suns, reminds us of a stunning fact: that during the first decades of the twentieth century, an average of four black men were killed in public every day in the south. White people had total power. No trial. No jury. Lynching, burning and torture at the whim of white southerners were ubiquitous, often for perceived slights or misinterpreted or misrepresented or misheard remarks from a black man to a white woman. The KKK, revamped and on active duty, terrorized the black community with impunity.
Meanwhile, statues of southern generals and confederate leaders began to be erected. Note again, these statues were not called for following defeat in 1865. Instead, this was less about honoring southern heroes and more about reasserting southern, white authority. The message to African-Americans seemed to be: “We lost the war, but we still control you.”
Again, a little history is in order. The economy of the south prior to 1865 had been predicated upon white supremacy, the notion that white people could and should control the lives, destinies and livelihoods of those they oversaw, whether through the institution of slavery, or through the machinations of political power, and the assertion of daily intimation.
Colin Woodard’s excellent book, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Cultures of North America is extremely helpful here. The earliest history of South Carolina and what he calls the “Deep South” culture centered around the need to maintain a viable slave trade, to keep those slaves carefully in bondage and adequately neutralized, and to continue the expansion of the institution and economic system in as many new places as possible. Evolving as it did, the southern way of life remained premised on white authority, white supremacy and white privilege.
So how might it feel to be African-American and to know this painful history? We cannot change it. But we do need to repair it. We can and should continue to attempt to redeem the terrible legacy of our past. In my personal life, I cannot undo the foolish thing I did. But I am called to do all I can to make things right, and to redeem the relationship that was damaged. Biblically, God redeems us from our foolishness and selfishness. And God calls upon all of us to imitate that holy work by offering a new path through repentance and a new future through reparative deeds. Now is the perfect time to work for redemption. Repair the nasty scars of our history by working together to call the previous history what is was: a grave, tragic, costly mistake based upon a sinful, fool-hearty, diabolical premise called white supremacy. Let us take down the monuments attempting to honor this discredited theory of life and the repugnant institution based upon that theory.
We can still celebrate all the good that our country stands for, has stood for, and must continue to stand for. But woven into the good is much that we can and should repent of. No, I was not there in 1861 when our southern ancestors chose to go to war rather than to undo an economy based upon the bondage of others humans. But I am here now. And I can make a difference. I can do my best, and so can you, to repair the pain, hurt and divisiveness that has been. And I can do unto others in ways that will redeem our time and the times to come. Let us do it together.
 As in the tragic case of Emmett Till in the Mississippi Delta, 1955. See Timothy B. Tyson’s book The Blood of Emmett Till or visit his memorial at the Museum of African American History in Washington, D.C.