West Point Historian Mixes Truth And Myth, Goes Viral

Editor’s Note: As mimetic creatures, we are connected to one another not only in the present, but also across time. Being able to think historically helps us to understand how we are shaped by what we have deemed worthy of memory, while an understanding of mimetic theory helps us to look back at our history and search for the unheard voices. Dr. Tracy McKenzie’s articles provide us with a rich, complex understanding of the past that neither romanticizes nor scapegoats those who came before us. This deeper understanding can inform our present.

In this article, Dr. McKenzie exposes Prager University’s uncritical acceptance of the “northern myth” that the Civil War was fought by the North to abolish slavery. While slavery was at the heart of the civil war, abolishing it was not the primary goal of the Union soldiers. Portraying abolition as such dangerously portrays racism as a blight on our national history confined to a limited geographical region, thereby scapegoating the South and minimizing an issue that is critical to understanding and repairing race relations today.

A reader called to my attention this short video by a West Point historian addressing the question “Was the Civil War about Slavery?”  Colonel Ty Seidule, head of the History Department at the United States Military Academy, recently answered this question at the invitation of so-called “Prager University.”  You should check it out.

P.U. (an unfortunate acronym when spoken aloud), is the creation of conservative radio host Dennis Prager.  Its website promises “free courses for free minds” capped at five minutes each. At Prager University you will never have to endure “long, boring, can’t-keep-my-eyes-open lectures.”  Just click on the play button and enjoy “clear, life-changing insights and ideas from world-renowned thinkers” who have mastered the art of getting “right to the point.”  Five minutes later you’ll have definitive information, clarity, and “a true-value added component of a Prager University education – wisdom.”  Quite the bargain.

Since its release [one week] ago, more than four million of us have given it a look, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why.  A whiff of scandal may have lured some.  There have been a few critical notices online, calling into question whether a high-ranking officer at West Point should have lent his name to such a high-profile, politically conservative personality.  I’m not sure what to think about that.  The “courses” in P.U.’s catalog are predominantly conservative in their slant, but I noticed nothing overtly partisan in Colonel Seidule’s presentation, and by his own account (to Stars and Stripes), he knew nothing of Prager’s politics when he agreed to make the video.

I suspect a more important factor was the lingering effects of the Confederate battle flag controversy and the sense that Colonel Seidule offers a definitive refutation of the tired claim by the flag’s defenders that the Civil War was a struggle over state rights.  Most of the online sites that have reposted the video have taken that tack.  They preface the link with bold-face proclamations that Seidule “slammed” or “destroyed” the states’ rights argument.  (The prize for subtlety goes to “Was the Civil War fought over slavery?” the online magazine asks.  “Here’s the video to show idiots who think the answer is ‘No.’”)

My guess is that this is a classic example of being deeply impressed by the force of an argument agreeing with what you already believe.  Much of the online acclaim trumpets Colonel Seidule’s role as head of the History Department at West Point, and the fact that he delivered his remarks in full dress uniform surely added to their gravitas.  The unstated assumption seems to be that a historian at West Point, by definition, should be able to speak authoritatively about the causes of the Civil War.  Colonel Seidule’s official bio indicates that he earned a PhD in history from Ohio State University, but his expertise is in the history of the art of war and, again according to his official West Point bio, his area of specialization is the history of West Point itself.  This does not automatically establish him as an expert on the political causes of the Civil War or any other conflict.

Having said that, Colonel Seidule is right in insisting that the neo-Confederate claim that the Civil War was not about slavery is insupportable by the evidence.  There is nothing novel in this.  Academic historians have held to this view almost unanimously for at least three generations.  But in “destroying” the southern myth that the war was all about states’ rights, the colonel falls into the trap of perpetuating the dominant northern myth about the conflict, implying that it was first and foremost a moral struggle over the legitimacy of human bondage.

He does this primarily in the conclusion of his five-minute “course.”  After acknowledging that the North did not initially embrace the liberation of southern slaves as its reason for fighting, he implies that the war gradually morphed into a moral crusade.  He does this by focusing on Abraham Lincoln exclusively, observing that the opportunity to end slavery grew more and more important in Lincoln’s mind as the war progressed.  That is true, but Lincoln also knew that millions of northerners did not share his view, including a significant percentage of soldiers.  This is why Seidule’s conclusion, though stirring, is grossly misleading:

“Slavery is the great shame of America’s history.  No one denies that.  But it is to America’s everlasting credit that it fought the most devastating war in its history in order to abolish slavery. . . . In its finest hour, soldiers wearing this blue uniform , almost two hundred thousand of them former slaves, destroyed chattel slavery, freed four million men, women, and children, and saved the United States of America.”

The claim that America “fought the most devastating war in its history in order to abolish slavery” is a masterful enunciation of what I have previously labeled the northern myth of the Civil War.  If you want a detailed explanation of why Colonel Seidule’s statement is misleading, please take a few minutes (warning: it might take more than five) to read my post “Exchanging One Myth for Another? Our One-Sided Memories of the Civil War.”


Union Major General George B. McClellan

Without belaboring the details, it is important to remember that emancipation was almost as controversial among Union soldiers as it was among northern civilians.   Some of the most prominent Federal generals in the war openly opposed the policy.  Major General George McClellan, who for sixteen months commanded the largest Union army, is a prime example.  McClellan advised Lincoln that “neither confiscation of property . . . nor forcible abolition of slavery should be contemplated for a moment” and warned that “a declaration of radical views, especially upon slavery, will rapidly disintegrate our present armies.”

Union General William Tecumseh Sherman

Union General William Tecumseh Sherman

Major General William Tecumseh Sherman, who was more responsible than any other single officer for Lincoln’s reelection, thanks to his successful campaign for Atlanta, repeatedly resisted orders from Washington to enlist former slaves after the Emancipation Proclamation made that a possibility.  “I would prefer to have this a white man’s war,” he explained in a letter to his wife in April 1863.  And when the Army Chief of Staff pressed the matter in late 1864, Sherman wrote to Henry Halleck to explain why he would not comply.  “I am honest in my belief that it is not fair to our men to count negroes as equals,” he began.  But “is not a negro as good as a white man to stop a bullet?” Sherman asked.  His answer: “yes, and a sand bag is better; but can a negro do our skirmishing and picket duty? . . . Soldiers must do many things without orders from their own sense,” he lectured Halleck.  “Negroes are not equal to this.”

Although some Union generals were genuinely committed both to emancipation and to the enlistment of black soldiers on moral grounds, taken as a whole, the policy of Union commanders in the field with regard to slavery was pragmatic, based first and foremost on military exigencies.  And although exposure to the realities of slavery often converted the men in the ranks to support of emancipation, historian James McPherson–after reading thousands of pages of soldiers’ correspondence–concluded that most supporters of emancipation in the Union army are best understood as “practical abolitionists.”  These soldiers came to advocate emancipation as a way to cripple the Confederacy, to exercise revenge against their enemies, and to shorten the war.


Abraham Lincoln in 1863

Colonel Seidule is correct that President Lincoln genuinely embraced the opportunity to strike at slavery as a long-delayed moral obligation, but even Lincoln regularly justified emancipation and black recruitment on the most pragmatic grounds in order to make it more palatable to northern opinion.  “The most that can be said, if so much, is, that slaves are property,” the president wrote in a public defense of the Emancipation Proclamation in the summer of 1863.  “Is there—has there ever been—any question that by the law of war, property, both of enemies and friends, may be taken when needed?”

And when a year later he faced widespread criticism over the use of slaves as soldiers, he again defended his policy on the most pragmatic grounds.  “Any different policy in regard to the colored man deprives us of his help, and this is more than we can bear,” Lincoln wrote to a Unionist critic in September 1864.  “This is not a question of sentiment or taste, but one of physical force which can be measured and estimated as horse-power and steam power. . . . Keep it and you can save the Union.  Throw it away, and the Union goes with it.”

Colonel Seidule’s claim that “it is to America’s everlasting credit that it fought the most devastating war in its history in order to abolish slavery” misses the mark badly.  And more than just historical accuracy is at stake.  As I have noted before, this kind of caricature unwittingly perpetuates the falsehood that racism has somehow been a peculiarly southern problem throughout our past.  Southern slavery was the country’s “great shame.”  The North, to its “everlasting credit,” fought to abolish it.  For generations, this northern myth has made the South a sectional scapegoat for a national problem.  Just like the southern states’ rights myth, the northern myth has been an obstacle to an honest confrontation with our past.

Top Image: Public Domain via Encyclopedia Americana, 1920, v. 7, pg. 7

Dr. Robert Tracy McKenzie is the chair of the Department of History at Wheaton College. He is the author ofThe First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History ​from Intervarsity Press, along with two books pertaining to the American Civil War (published by Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press). He blogs at 

On This Day In History: How Mourning Became Idolatry

"Washington and Lincoln (Apotheosis),"  J.A. Arthur, 1865.

“Washington and Lincoln (Apotheosis),” J.A. Arthur, 1865.

Editor’s Note: This column was written on April 14, 2015.

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth in Ford’s Theater in Washington, D. C. Since that time more than 16,000 books have been written about Lincoln—one for every three and a half days since his death—and so I’m not going to try to dash out anything new about Lincoln’s role in the preservation of the Union or his proper place in American history more broadly, but I do want to share a thought about how Lincoln’s death was commemorated in the immediate aftermath of the assassination.

I started this blog because I wanted to be in conversation with thinking Christians about what it means to think Christianly about American history. At its best, our engagement with the past should be a precious resource to us, but it can also be a snare, especially because of the temptation that we face to allow our thinking about history to distort our identity as followers of Christ. That temptation, in turn, is but a reflection of a more basic temptation to idolatry that has been a constant theme in the human story. The subtle seduction of idolatry can take innumerable forms, but one of these surely for American Christians over the past two and a half centuries has been the temptation to conflate God’s Church with the American nation.

I’m especially mindful of this today because Lincoln’s assassination instantaneously triggered across the grieving northern states a response that should make us wince, if not shudder. Northerners hardly spoke with one voice, but a common response from northern pulpits was to speak in terms of the president’s “sacrifice” and “martyrdom,” both terms fraught with religious significance. Almost no one missed the symbolism of the timing of Lincoln’s death. Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Ulysses Grant on Palm Sunday—in an event that seemed to signal at long last a northern triumph—and now the nation’s leader was killed on Good Friday. It was child’s play, if childishly foolish, to connect the dots and begin to speak of Lincoln as the nation’s savior and messiah.

Two days later, pastors across the North would mount their pulpits and begin to do so.  So, for example, the Reverend Henry Bellows of New York City informed his congregation that “Heaven rejoices this Easter morning in the resurrection of our lost leader . . . dying on the anniversary of our Lord’s great sacrifice, a mighty sacrifice himself for the sins of a whole people.” In Philadelphia, minister Phillips Brooks assured his flock that, “If there were one day on which one could rejoice to echo the martyrdom of Christ, it would be that on which the martyrdom was perfected.”

But not all analogies were between Lincoln and Christ. The day after Lincoln’s death, a Philadelphia newspaper editorialized, “The blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church. So the blood of the noble martyr to the cause of freedom will be the seed to the great blessing of this nation.” Here the central analogy was not between Christ and Lincoln, but between Christ’s church and Lincoln’s nation.

Such conflation of the sacred and the secular continued in the days following, as the nation mourned and the slain president’s funeral procession made its way slowly from Washington, D.C. to Springfield, Illinois. When the procession finally arrived at the grave site in early May, the assembled throng joined their voices in a hymn composed for the occasion:

This consecrated spot shall be
To Freedom ever dear
And Freedom’s son of every race
Shall weep and worship here.

What does it mean to “worship” at the tomb of a departed president?

The Christ analogy was also popularized in a series of prints showing what was labeled as the “apotheosis” of Lincoln after his death. One definition of “apotheosis” is “ascension into heaven,” and these prints do regularly show Lincoln being received into the heavenly realm. But another synonym for “apotheosis” is “deification” or “elevation to divine status,” and this definition may apply as well. Significantly, Lincoln is regularly shown being met and embraced by George Washington, who may serve as the gatekeeper into heaven, but might also be effectively a proxy for God the Father. (In the image above, Washington seems to be bestowing on Lincoln a martyr’s crown.)  Indeed, banners during Lincoln’s funeral procession were seen to proclaim “Washington the Father, Lincoln the Savior.” Given the common symbolism of Washington as the Founder of the country and Lincoln as its martyred messiah, it’s not much of a stretch to see these images as symbolizing the ascension of the Son (Lincoln) into heaven where he will be seated on the right hand of the Father (Washington).

I admire Abraham Lincoln a great deal, almost as much as any public figure in our nation’s past. But however well intended these images may have been, they can only be described as “patriotic heresy.”

Dr. Robert Tracy McKenzie is the chair of the Department of History at Wheaton College. He is the author of The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History ​ from Intervarsity Press, along with two books pertaining to the American Civil War (published by Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press). He blogs at 

License Plates And The Lost Cause: Concluding Thoughts

Texas License Plate

Texas License Plate

We’ll get back to the American Revolution in a few days, but before we head in that direction I’d like to share some concluding thoughts about the Texas license plate case recently argued before the Supreme Court. In a previous post I suggested that, whatever the constitutional merits of their case, the history promulgated by the Sons of Confederate Veterans is simply awful. The SVC’s position is that the Confederate battle flag should be viewed as devoid of racial connotations. It’s a symbol of “the independent spirit of the South, no matter what race you are,” in the words of SVC spokesman and former U. S. congressman Ben Jones. The SVC concedes that the flag has been hijacked in recent decades by a variety of hate groups, most notably the Ku Klux Klan, but they insist that the Confederate soldiers who originally fought under that banner were motivated by the highest ideals, ideals that had nothing to do with the defense of slavery or white supremacy.

The technical term for this kind of historical argument is “hogwash.” It is utterly a-historical to separate the issue of slavery from the American Civil War. Certainly few contemporaries tried to do so. That effort began after the last shots were fired, when white southerners began to fashion the myth that the conflict had had nothing to do with their peculiar institution. One of the first to set the mold was Alexander Stephens, the former vice-president of the Confederacy. In his 1868 work A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States, Stephens insisted that the struggle between North and South was a struggle over state sovereignty and independence. The issue of slavery was of “infinitely less importance,” Stephens declared, a “mere drop in the ocean” compared with the other constitutional issues involved.

The Confederate soldiers who laid their lives on the line knew better. As historian Colin Woodward notes, “their struggle was about protecting slavery . . . and they knew that going in.” And so did Stephens, by the way. (The Confederate vice-president was a “revisionist historian” if ever there was one.) Only seven years earlier, he had defined the sectional crisis as entirely about slavery. But not just slavery alone. As Stephens had explained to a cheering audience at Savannah, Georgia in March 1861, the struggle to preserve slavery was first and foremost a struggle to preserve the racial hierarchy that slavery perpetuated. Deriding the Declaration’s assertion that “all men are created equal,” Stephens had observed that “our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone 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 is why I observed in my last post that the SCV’s version of history requires a willful blindness to historical evidence. It is false history, or more accurately, it is myth masquerading as history. And yet I don’t want to make such a negative pronouncement and just leave it at that. There’s always more at stake in our encounters with the past than simple accuracy about the past. I’m at least as concerned with how these conclusions about the past affect us. Some of you, I realize, may be offended (particularly if, like me, you have southern roots), but that’s not what troubles me. Having our convictions challenged isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and may even turn out for our good. No, paradoxical as it may sound, I’m primarily concerned about those of you who agree with my historical conclusions.

Let me explain what I mean with reference to a parable that Jesus told. In Luke 18:9-14 we read about a Pharisee and a tax collector who went to the temple to pray. According to Jesus,

The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’” And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!”

To make sure that we wouldn’t miss the point, Jesus drove home the moral of the parable with this concluding observation: “I tell you, this man [the tax collector] went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

If we pay careful attention to our hearts, I think we’ll find that the serious study of history is always teaching us either humility or pride. We can’t study the past for long without encountering individuals whose beliefs or values or actions strike us as ignorant or foolish or immoral. And when that happens, our hearts and minds will lead us down one of two paths: toward self-exaltation—“God, I thank you that I am not like other men”—or toward a deeper awareness of our need for grace—“God, be merciful to me a sinner.”

This is part of what I had in mind when I said in my last post that there is a moral dimension to the current controversy over the meaning of the Confederate battle flag. Most obviously, there is the moral question of how the law of love should constrain both parties to the dispute. (My opinion would be that, whatever the Supreme Court eventually rules in the Texas license plate case, if there are Christians among the Sons of Confederate Veterans, they should relinquish the perceived “right” to display a symbol that is so deeply hurtful to many of their Christian brothers and sisters.) But in addition to this there is the moral issue of how our hearts will be affected as we follow the debate.

Whichever side of the debate we come down on, there will be a temptation to respond in self-righteousness. (When do such debates ever promote humility?) Let me focus, though, on the side of the controversy that I most sympathize with. I’ve left no doubt in your minds, I trust, that I find the SCV’s historical arguments indefensible. Intellectually, I cannot honestly arrive at any other conclusion. But with this legitimate intellectual judgment comes the temptation to illegitimate moral judgment. We can be accurate about the past and still be good Pharisees.

Let me give you just one example of what I have in mind. In debating the connotations of the Confederate battle flag, we may be reminded of those individuals from a century and a half ago that the SCV venerates, the Confederate soldiers who went into battle tragically believing that in defending slavery they were being true to America’s Founding and faithful to America’s God. “God, I thank you,” we will be tempted to say, “that I am not like these Confederates who were blind to such gross immorality!”

Before judging white southerners of the Civil War era, however, let’s conduct two quick thought experiments. First, imagine that we could go back in time and survey every white person living in the United States in 1860 (just before the rupture of the Union). What variable do you think would best predict whether an individual defended or condemned slavery? Second, let’s imagine that we could survey every white person who ever lived in the United States from 1776 to the present. What variable do you think would best predict an individual’s attitude about racial equality?

So what answers did you come up with? Without embracing determinism or denying individual moral responsibility, I can say without hesitation that the answer to question #1 is where the individual was born. With the same caveats in place, the indisputable answer to question #2 is when the individual was born. On the eve of the Civil War, no factor did more to influence thinking about slavery than regional heritage. Individuals born south of Pennsylvania would almost always have defended slavery. Those born farther north would have either opposed slavery per se or stood against its expansion.

But note that, when evaluated against the entire sweep of American history, place of birth hasn’t been nearly as important as date of birth in predicting one’s thinking about racial equality. In 1860, whites in the North and South may have differed about slavery, but they shared a common belief in white supremacy. The latter has been an American, not a regional trait for most of our history. Thankfully, that has been changing in recent generations, but the larger generalization prevails. Show me someone who unthinkingly accepts the principle of racial equality, and the odds are overwhelming that that person has been born since WWII.

So on what grounds can we condemn white Confederates or feel smug about our own more enlightened views? Can we really take credit for when we were born? To pose the question is to answer it.

Dr. Robert Tracy McKenzie is the chair of the Department of History at Wheaton College. He is the author of The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History ​ from Intervarsity Press, along with two books pertaining to the American Civil War (published by Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press). He blogs at 

A Civil War Christmas Carol

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, photographed in 1868

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, photographed in 1868

One of my U. S. history students recently asked me what my favorite Christmas song was. There are many that I love, and I told him that I couldn’t possibly choose just one, but as a historian—and a specialist on the American Civil War, particularly—I have always been deeply moved by I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. In its original form it’s not heard too much these days, although several contemporary Christian groups (Casting Crowns and Jars of Clay, for example) have performed variations on it.

The carol is based on a poem written at the height of the Civil War by the renowned American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. A native of Maine and long-time resident of Cambridge, Massachusetts, the fifty-six-year-old Longfellow was an American celebrity by that time, famous for works such as The Song of HiawathaThe Courtship of Miles Standish, and most recently, Paul Revere’s Ride. (At his death in 1884 he would become the first American to be memorialized by a bust in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey in London.) The glow of celebrity was offset by personal tragedy, however. In 1861 Longfellow’s wife Fanny died horrifically in a fire, and Longfellow himself was permanently disfigured in his efforts to save her.  Then, in November 1863 the poet’s oldest son, Charles—a nineteen-year-old lieutenant in the Union Army—was severely wounded in fighting in northern Virginia. Still mourning for his wife, and far from certain of his son’s recovery, Longfellow sat down at his desk on Christmas morning, 1863, and penned a seven-stanza poem he called “The Christmas Bells.” Seven years later his poem would be set to music, although in its carol version several of the original verses are rarely sung.


“The Christmas Bells” opens with the now familiar passage from which the carol takes its name:


I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good- will to men!

 In verses 2-3 the poet reflects on how the angels’ message would repeatedly resound around the globe as the “world revolved from night to day.” But then in verses 4-5 the chaos and heartache of contemporary events crashes in. Few modern hymnals include these verses, which refer directly to the war raging a few hundred miles away:


Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound the carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearthstones of a continent,
And made forlorn the households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

 In December 1863 the American Civil War had already lasted far longer and exacted a far greater price than almost anyone had anticipated two and a half years earlier. After the fall of Fort Sumter in April 1861, President Abraham Lincoln had issued a call for volunteers to serve for only ninety days, and yet northern newspapers had castigated the president for his pessimism. Everyone “knew” that the dust-up down South could not possibly last that long. Zeal and a heart-wrenching naivete were the order of the day, and all across the land young men donned uniforms of blue and gray and rushed to the front, fearing that the war would be over before they could experience its glory.


Thirty-two months later all such innocence was gone, bloodily obliterated on battlefields with names like Bull Run, Shiloh, Antietam, Gettysburg, and Chickamauga. Each casualty statistic on a regimental return represented a husband, son, brother, father, or friend and—as Longfellow knew from experience—a household “made forlorn.” The poet’s anguish in verse 6 is palpable:


And in despair I bowed my head
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men!”

 But the poem doesn’t end there, of course. In the poem’s seventh and final verse, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow preaches the gospel to himself—and to us:


Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

 In these final lines we find not a cry born of wishful thinking, a blind insistence that all is right with the world when that is palpably untrue. We hear instead a faithful declaration from one who sees the reality of hatred and the pervasiveness of suffering and yet finds hope in a Redeemer who would leave the glory of heaven to dwell among us.


May that hope be ours this Christmas.

Dr. Robert Tracy McKenzie is the chair of the Department of History at Wheaton College. He is the author of The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History ​from Intervarsity Press, along with two books pertaining to the American Civil War (published by Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press). He blogs at 



A Real Life Forgiving Victim

We have finished our first week of filming and are actually ahead of schedule. James Alison has been on fire and the actors and crew have been tremendous. We are dramatizing some of the bible stories, and the effect is really great mostly because of two things. The actors are really quite good and deliver the emotional content beautifully. And the costumes by Raven Marketing Director and Jill-of-all-trades, Maura Junius, put us right back in bible times. Here are the actors in costume waiting for their scene having a good laugh, which they do often! It is a fun and relaxed set and I am enjoying my time with these talented folks.

Last night James delivered a portion of the Atonement session where he tells a story to give an everyday example of what Atonement theology actually means. Not the “God was angry or offended and so someone had to make an offering to appease his wrath, and it had to be a perfect offering so it had to be Jesus.” That’s what James refers to as emotional blackmail and I agree with him. It was that theology that prompted my decision to leave the church thirty years ago. But James brought me back big time. Here are photos of the actors talking with James and then listening to him telling the story:

Here’s a short version of his story: imagine a high school in Venezuela where a kid who was bullied, who was the butt of all the jokes and permanently excluded from society, such as it was, leaves for about six months and comes back after a coup that elevates his father from a nobody to governor of the state. Imagine further that you were one of the kids who benefited from the bullying, not the bullies, but the also-rans who were relieved that as long as Fernando (that’s what James calls the kid) was the target, you were not. In other words, the bullies don’t really care who they bully, and you know it. It could just as easily be you as Fernando, and so you sit quietly by and even try to cozy up to the bullies by offering some feeble justification as to why they are so so right to pick on Fernando (and not you, though you don’t say that out loud). Anyway, Fernando comes back and you might think now that he is the son of a powerful man, he might want to get even and when you see him in the halls, you’re a little scared. But instead of being angry or vengeful, he is friendly. He is not out to get you at all, but wants you to know that even when you were part of the ganging up on him, he was happy to be the one getting it in the neck. It was no picnic, he admits that, but he realized how scared you were and so he’s not mad. In fact, he wants to be your friend and hopes that you can learn to be friends and to form a social togetherness without having to force anyone to go through what he, Fernando, went through.

That, says James Alison, is what Jesus was doing by going to his death for us. Just as Fernando occupied the most toxic place in the social order at his high school to help us out, Jesus wanted to show us that God loves us even when we are at our worst, when we are killing innocent victims, so we don’t have to be afraid anymore. Jesus wants us to learn to form our togetherness without creating any more victims like Fernando. That is why James calls Jesus the Forgiving Victim for he was doing just what Fernando did in the story.

So with that story fresh in my mind, this morning I read an article in the New York Times Magazine from Sunday about how slavery really ended during the civil war. I encourage you to read the entire article, but here are two quotes that resonated with me. First, from a Northerner commenting on fugitive slaves, who they called contrabands, who had taken shelter at the Union Fort Monroe, Va.:

“Somehow there was to my eye a weird, solemn aspect to them, as they walked along, as if they, the victims, had become the judges in this awful contest, or as if they were… spinning, unknown to all, the destinies of the great Republic.”

And this one about the fear that gripped America about what would happen if the slaves were freed:

“Just as influential was what did not happen: the terrible moment — long feared among whites — when slaves would rise up and slaughter their masters. It soon became apparent from the behavior of the contrabands that the vast majority of slaves did not want vengeance: they simply wanted to be free and to enjoy the same rights and opportunities as other Americans.  Many were even ready to share in the hardships and dangers of the war. Millions of white Americans realized they did not actually have to fear a bloodbath if the slaves were suddenly set free. This awareness in itself was a revolution.”

This, I think, is another example of atonement. The part of Fernando/Jesus is played by the freed slaves who only wanted to be welcomed into community as equal citizens. The vengeful God is sadly played by the Americans who resisted the forgiveness offered with fear and oppression. Atonement, the becoming reconciled to one another, and to God, is possible when the awareness that we have nothing to fear frees us from our own worst selves. Today the part of Fernando is being played by whoever we find so frightening that we too easily justify our violence as necessary, good and just. The time is ripe for revolution.


I am Trayvon and I am George

Good people across our nation are trying to find answers to the following questions: Was Trayvon Martin’s death a racially motivated murder or something else, an act of self-defense or a tragic accident? Is George Zimmerman a racist or something else, a decent man or emotionally ill? Is President Obama’s response measured and appropriate or something else, too timid a challenge to racism or too dismissive of concerns for safety and security? Is this incident unique or something else, a symptom of culture-wide racism, of too many guns in civilian hands or not enough?

Strident voices are shouting at each other from all sides, confident that they are in the right and that anyone who disagrees with them is willfully, undeniably wrong. As the conflict polarizes and we are forced to take sides, it becomes harder and harder to believe in the goodness of those taking opposing views. Here is the eerie thing about all this for me: it is sadly reminiscent of old, tired patterns of debating moral issues that go back to the Civil War. Let me explain.

When an issue is morally charged, good people take sides. That’s what’s happening here – the death of a young person from gun violence is a moral issue, and this death has become even more morally complicated by the charge of racism. Racist violence, unarguably a moral wrong, has a long history in this country: the violence of slavery, of white race riots and lynch mobs, and the institutionalized racism of the Jim Crow South. One of the tragedies of the Civil War, and there are many, is the way in which the North was able to hide from its own racism both before and after the war by shifting all the blame onto the South. Christian rhetoric from North and South provided cover. Pro-union sermons claimed God’s divine support for the union; pro-secession sermons claimed God’s divine support for secession. Each side believed they were fighting for God, liberty, patriotism and to claim their place as the true heirs to the Revolution. As Abraham Lincoln said, God cannot be for and against the same thing, so at a minimum one side is wrong. As if that were not enough of a minority position, Lincoln nearly became a minority of one when he dared to suggest that God’s purposes might be something neither side had yet imagined.

But wasn’t there a clear right side, an assuredly Godly side, when it came to slavery just as there must be a clear right side with Trayvon and George? Some must think so, especially the ones wearing the “I am Trayvon” t-shirts or speaking publicly in defense of George. But what seems clear at first often gets blurred on closer examination. Take slavery – talk about a clear moral issue! How could it be possible not to condemn the side that would fight to preserve it? The problem with framing the Civil War that way is that the Civil War was not about slavery. Look at that list of causes mentioned in the sermons – nothing about slavery there at all. It is a deafening silence that casts shame on our entire nation. The moral issue that divided the nation was the idea of the nation itself, a sacred cause that justified the killing and the dying. That we did kill and die in unprecedented numbers was taken as proof of our nation’s goodness. Bloodletting always creates hallowed ground. When the war ended and slavery was abolished – a clear moral good – we swept aside the shameful truth that slavery was made possible by a deep-seated racism in the North as well as the South. War erupted, raged and ended without Americans ever openly acknowledging and repenting of racism as a national moral failing. This misunderstanding at the heart of our national memory about the war continues to force the issue of racism underground.

And then it resurfaces in Florida and we take sides again thinking for sure we know what the moral issue is and for sure we are on the right side of it. But what if the real moral issue is something else? What if it has to do with the moral failure of thinking we are right? We all know that feeling of righteous rage, or moral indignation when we are sure we have the devil by the tail. Both sides of the Trayvon case are feeling it passionately right now. Maybe that night Trayvon and George were both feeling right, sure the other was wrong. I don’t know, and I don’t want to shift blame from a truly guilty person, especially in a murder case. I think that it is vitally important that the investigation proceed to determine why Trayvon was killed. But I raised the example of the Civil War because the bloodshed was largely due to everyone thinking they were right. Racism continues to rear its ugly head because we have persisted in refusing to share responsibility for what was and continues to be wrong with our nation. Shared responsibility means sharing being wrong, not forcing all the wrong on someone else. The insistence on being right and on accusing others of being wrong allows us to justify our own hatred and violence, the very thing we denounce in others.

As we deal with the tragedy of Trayvon’s death, perhaps we might step back from our accusations and self-righteousness to ask some difficult questions: Can I find the grace to listen to, maybe even to learn from, the ones I think are wrong? Can I give up my need to be right and be honest with myself about where I am wrong? Am I strong enough to gaze upon everyone who is suffering, even the ones whose suffering I have ignored or even celebrated? Do I care more about being right than I do about ending racism and making our communities safe for all our members? Can I seek the good in a spirit of forgiveness?

I’d like to leave you with the thought that the real obstacle to ending racism may be our need to take sides. It is 150 years overdue, but maybe we can find the grace to stop needing so desperately to be right so that we can embrace both Trayvon and George, an embrace that is generous and large enough to include the good and the wicked, the innocent and the guilty, the right and the wrong. Perhaps peace will have a chance if we can say together, “I am Trayvon and I am George.”

Peace Building Opportunity: If you’d like to learn how to give peace a chance in our schools, listen to the interview of Ted Wachtel recorded on Friday, March 30 on our web radio show, Voices of Peace Talk Radio. Ted is the president of the world’s first graduate school devoted entirely to the teaching, research and dissemination of restorative practices.


I’m God and I Approved This Message

Are you wondering what to make of all the God talk in today’s politics? It seems we can’t decide if we want God nosing around our political decisions and anointing candidates for us. Remember the dove that descended on Jesus at his baptism and the voice from heaven booming for all to hear, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well-pleased”? It’s as if some of today’s politicians think they have a dove floating over their heads and they can’t understand why they are the only ones who hear the divine endorsement: I’m God and I approved this message. Republican candidates in particular like to dally in this double-edged delusion: that (1) God takes sides in American politics and (2) is keeping his divine fingers crossed for your victory.

Of course, God will only root for you if your position is the right one. You have to be on the right side of every issue from economics to immigration. Stray across into the grey middle ground and God will join the crowd in calling you weak or wishy washy. Stray all the way to the wrong side and you might as well admit you are siding with Satan. And don’t be fooled by Democratic candidates who don’t use God-talk because they are just as guilty of certainty in the sanctity of their positions. They just claim to be “right” instead of divinely chosen. I’m not sure whose voice they hope we hear, but the point is the same. Being on the right side of an issue, whether you think in religious or secular terms, naturally results in absolute, unwavering, uncompromising faith in your position and total condemnation of your opponent’s. When it comes to casting our votes, they want us to believe in their differences from one another, but the thing that is becoming more and more apparent to voters is how alike the candidates are, not only in their pre-election barnstorming, but in how they behave in office. Choosing one over another seems to be a futile exercise, like choosing which pair of blue socks I’ll wear today. Just reach in and grab one/ vote for one, because the differences don’t matter.

And that, folks, is where we are today. Oddly it is where we have been before and the result was an American tragedy. The American Civil War was fought by two sides (there were a slew of diverse positions which telescoped into two opposing armies when the war broke out) that each believed that God was on their side. It was all God talk back then, because religion was assumed to be part of political life. Everyone was more or less a Christian in name if not in practice, and the Bible was the go-to reference book for how to vote or who to support in an election. Folks on both sides of the slavery issue whole-heartedly believed that they had Biblical and therefore Godly support for their position. Did you get that? Both sides of the slavery issue believed that God was on their side and the proof was in the Bible. I won’t go into that here, but if you can attend our conference at Wheaton College on March 16-17 you will hear directly from Civil War historians about how even the pro-slavery South could feel divinely inspired.

The salient point for us today is that the abolitionists and pro-slavery folks were locked in a heated argument about their differences, differences so extreme that God was supporting one side and condemning the other. Which side you thought God supported depending on which side you were on, of course. But each side resembled the other in a critically important way: their confidence that they knew the mind of God. Today’s debates around moral issues have a bit more diversity because all sides aren’t making the God argument. But if you substitute “certainty that I’m right and you’re wrong” for “knowing the mind of God” then our debates on same-sex marriage and reproduction, immigration and terrorism, fall into the same pattern as the slavery debate. According to Mark Noll, the insistence of both sides on absolute certainty that you are reading the Bible and the mind of God correctly created a hostile environment leading up to the Civil War that “transformed the conclusions reached by opponents into willful perversions of sacred truth and natural reason.” (The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, page 20) In other words, both slavery and anti-slavery positions were called “perversions of truth” by their opponents so confidently that the truth itself, that both sides were guilty of blind racism, was hidden from view for the next 100 years.

But what’s the risk today for a politics of certainty? Politics has become a form of entertainment. No one thinks that all this certainty and God-talk will lead to violence, do we? I mean, we’ve come a long way since the 19th century; we’d never let things go that far. But there is a place where God talk is part of an outbreak of violence: the fight against Islamic terrorism. Americans insist that we are completely different than terrorists whose conviction that God is on their side leads them to die for their cause and to murder civilians without ever doubting God’s favor. To prove how different we are, when we fight back we are careful to avoid God talk of any kind. But is that a difference that matters? Just like our adversaries, when we kill civilians, we don’t doubt our own goodness. When our soldiers die for our cause, our certainty does not waver. In a very real way, we are exporting our violence right now, allowing our combating certainties to play out in foreign wars. Our Civil War, four years of escalating violence in which over 850,000 Americans died, may be a warning to us that if our current wars end and we don’t start another one, all this certainty may find a violent outlet at home. We may be marching to the tune of our own infallibility toward a Sophie’s Choice of war abroad or the risk of war at home. I wonder which side God is on.


When Fear Takes Hold: What we can learn from the Southern defense of slavery

Why did Southern states secede from the union? Between Lincoln’s election on Nov. 6, 1860 and his inauguration on March 4, 1861 seven states seceded, giving support to the theory that the South objected strongly to Lincoln and his Republican party. But in the 150 years since the war, the debate about the cause has hardly been settled. Added to Lincoln’s election, prime contenders are tariffs, states’ rights, and slavery. But one reason for secession is rarely on the list: security.

It seems odd to go to war – a risky endeavor involving death and destruction – to make yourself more secure, but it happens all the time. Security is why we went into Iraq and Afghanistan, of course. We wanted to make ourselves safe by attacking terrorists on foreign soil, taking the war to them, as the reasoning went ten years ago. But the Southern states, by seceding, tempted an invasion. The war would be fought on their own soil, not in some far away land. How could security have factored into their thinking?

I’ve been reading a special issue of the monthly magazine The Atlantic called The Civil War. If you are interested in the Civil War it is well worth purchasing. It is a collection of articles that were originally published in The Atlantic during the 1850s and 1860s, before, during and after the war. There is nothing like cutting through 150 years of commentary to let the people of the time speak for themselves. One of the articles is titled Charleston Under Arms and it was written by John William De Forest, a Connecticut-born journalist. It recounts his visit to Charleston in January 1861. You may remember that though South Carolina had seceded on December 20, federal forces still held Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. This is where the first shots of the Civil War would be fired on April 12. De Forest recounts conversations he had with residents of Charleston during this tense and uncertain time before the war began.

South Carolinians were committed to their right to secede. They felt they had done nothing wrong, unpatriotic or illegal. They were clearly upset about Lincoln’s election and distrusted the Republican platform, though De Forest could not understand why. The platform, he explained to one dubious citizen, was “not adverse to slavery in the States; it only objects to its entrance into the Territories; it is not an Abolition platform.” Yet this South Carolinian wasn’t buying it. He replied, “We believe that [the Republican platform] is an incomplete expression of the party creed, — that it suppresses more than it utters. The spirit which keeps the Republicans together is enmity to slavery, and that spirit will never be satisfied until the system is extinct.”

Of course, the South had a great deal to lose economically if slavery were abolished. I am no economist, but it is not hard to imagine the wealth that could be lost and how desperately some might resist such a reversal of their fortunes. Yet the Southern gentleman had a reputation of being indifferent to money. It is one of the ways that the North and South had diverged culturally. Mark Noll in The Civil War as a Theological Crisis explains that the North was experiencing “the expansion of consumer capitalism, in which unprecedented opportunities to create wealth were matched by large-scale alienation and considerable poverty in both urban and rural America.” The reputation of the Southern gentleman, on the other hand, was as an aristocratic man of honor who was above the base pursuit of money for its own sake. A rivalry emerged in which each was contemptuous and yet secretly admiring of the other, contributing to a climate of distrust and resentment that found its full expression in the argument over the future of slavery in the United States.

But it was not a defense of Southern wealth that lay at the bottom of one South Carolinian’s concern regarding the Republican determination to end slavery. I will quote directly from the article:

When I [De Forest] asked one gentleman what the South expected to gain by going out, he replied, “First safety. Our slaves have heard of Lincoln,—that he is a black man, or black Republican, or black something, —that he is to become ruler of this country the fourth of March, —that he is a friend of theirs, and will free them. We must establish our independence in   order to make them believe that they are beyond his help”…

My impression is, that a prevalent, though not a universal fear, existed lest the negroes should rise in partial insurrections on or about the fourth of March.

Above all this man expressed a fear of a violent slave revolt that would threaten the safety and security of his community. First safety. His fear was not unfounded. Slave revolts had taken place in which whites and blacks alike were killed. You will remember from your American History classes the names of John Brown and Nat Turner. These revolts caused fear and concern in the South. What we find in this quotation is that during the brief time between Lincoln’s election and the beginning of war, the threat of slave insurrections felt more real and imminent than any threat that might come from an invading Union army. Blinded by fear, the South would risk war to defend an evil institution.

What can we learn from this glimpse into Southern fears? Too often we view history a bit smugly, as if we have the perfect vantage point to understand motives, discern causes, and judge the right from the wrong, the wicked from the good. Used this way, history is not about the truth of another time or place, but is a part of the story we are telling about our own goodness. To avoid this pitfall, rather than sit in judgment of Southern fears, we might learn from them instead by asking a difficult question: Is it possible that our own fears are blinding us, too, preventing us from seeing some uncomfortable truth about ourselves?

Even more to the point, though slavery is long abolished, racism has been harder to eradicate. Are there ways in which we are as blind as South Carolinian slave holders to the continued suffering of the black community? Might a contemporary fear of loss of safety have a hold on us? I ask only because of the continuing presence of segregation in our schools and communities; I ask because according to Michelle Alexander, law professor at Ohio State and author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, “More African American men are in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War began”; I ask because of lingering issues of voting rights discriminations and the undertones and sometimes overtones of racism in some attempts to delegitimize Barack Obama’s presidency.

Look, my point is not to make people feel bad. I know that for white America to admit it still harbors racist fears and delusions of racial supremacy is a really uncomfortable place to go. But sometimes allowing ourselves to feel bad is the only way to be truly good. Instead of running from our fear and pretending everything is okay, feeling bad opens the door for change. The Civil War ended almost 150 years ago but the battle for racial equality is far from over. I hope you won’t be afraid to learn more about the fears and struggles of the past. Perhaps you can join the Raven Foundation as we look at the struggles for integration in the 1940s when baseball led the way forward in the Lookingglass production of Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting. We are also offering an opportunity to explore new research into the theological arguments for and against slavery that were taking place before the Civil War, arguments that have left powerful handprints on our public life today. Raven is partnering with the Center for Applied Christian Ethics at Wheaton College to bring you leading Civil War scholars on March 16-17 for this historical and relevant conversation. Don’t miss these great opportunities to look together at our shared history – it might even feel good!


The Civil War: Shaken Assurance

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the first shot fired in the American Civil War. It’s a difficult thing to try to make meaning out of an event of violence and brutality in which 620,000 Americans, more than 2% of the population, died from war wounds or disease. It’s more than difficult; when it comes to violence it’s dangerous because we tend to cling to meaningful things rather than let them fade away. When we say that the dying of some made freedom possible for others, the tragedy hardens into a necessity. What is better thought of as a catastrophe to have been avoided, becomes inspiring heroism to be imitated. Today in Charleston, South Carolina, Civil War re-enactors gathered at dawn to fire a starburst shell from an antebellum cannon over Charleston Harbor in effect, as the author Edward Ball remarks, “bombing Fort Sumter a second time.” At the same hour, sitting beneath nearby oaks, the Charleston Symphony played among other songs, “When Jesus Wept.” Perhaps he has not stopped weeping yet.

The Civil War is an ambivalent event and we human beings tend to shy away from ambivalence. We prefer surety, to know whether something was good or bad, to know for certain who the patriots and who the traitors were, who to honor and who to vilify. It’s a natural enough instinct, but I encourage you today to promise yourself that rather than run from the ambivalence, you will dare to step toward it. Perhaps I can recommend a place to start. There are three books I have read over the last several years that have shaped my attitudes and shaken my assurances. The first is a novel called The Night Inspector by Frederick Busch about a Union sniper whose face is so badly damaged in the war that he wears a mask as he haunts the streets of New York City. The second is a biography of Walt Whitman and his brothers, Now The Drum of War, by Robert Roper which is set in New York City and Washington, D.C. and allows us to glimpse the trials faced by this typical and exemplary American family.

Finally I recommend the insightful analysis of the causes of the war by Mark A. Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis. Prof. Noll brings to light the religious dimensions of the conflict in a way that resonates with contemporary politics and international conflicts. The Raven Foundation is delighted to be partnering with the Center for Applied Christian Ethics at Wheaton Theological Seminary for a conference on March 16 and 17, 2012 with Prof. Noll and Prof. Tracy McKenzie, a historian of the Civil War at Wheaton. As we mark the start of the four year national nightmare that was our civil war, I hope that we can journey together out of meaning-making and toward what comes next, something more honest perhaps, more courageous than anything we can yet imagine.