The Civil War ended more than 150 years ago. The conclusion of that great contest created the conditions for a prohibition on slavery to be written into our Constitution. Neither the War nor the subsequent round of Constitutional amendment and legislation, however, destroyed the casts of mind or collapsed the buried currents of thought that made it possible for millions of people—whose fathers and grandfathers had staked “their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor” on the proposition that all men are created equal—to buy and sell and own other people in the first place.
That work would pass, undone, through several generations. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s took up that work and advanced it beyond the expectations of many living at the time. The long train of abuses recently publicized makes clear that, as a nation, we put the work down too soon.
Now, it is down to us.
Lincoln cut the work for us in 1863, at Gettysburg, following the carnage of the great battle that took place there. He famously spoke of the nation’s conception and dedication—the raw power of the biological and religious language is overwhelming even at 157 years’ remove, if one is attuned to it—but generations of sentimental gloss have made it difficult for us to feel the shock of Lincoln’s original music.
Propositions like “liberty and equality for all” can become abstractions with little purchase on our moral attention. Slavery is not an abstraction. Lincoln was reminding the nation that these men had not died for some vague principle of philosophy, but for the very concrete reality of ending a hideous evil.
Lincoln saw that the war had become one to end slavery in the United States. He also saw that Union and Abolition were twin causes, not opposed ones. Both the idea and the reality of Union were at stake in the war. Lincoln’s genius was for getting the nation to see that the war was for a Union of free men, with which slavery was basically incompatible and to the foundational principles of which slavery was not only incompatible but directly repugnant.
Lincoln faced a host of often conflicting proximate political concerns and suffered as much as the next man the moral blind spots of his era. That is not to explain his failures—or ours—much less to excuse them, but only to acknowledge a fact. What strikes me as a theologian is that Lincoln’s thinking was not totally consumed by the worldly horizon of his more immediate political problems.
Slavery’s legacy is not merely notional.
Right now, we can choose to look at our history as one in which the commitments that make us a nation and a people were present, but too often ignored, or worse—through long periods in which those of us who were not actively working against them were frankly not even trying to live according to them—and decide together to take up the work of American nationhood and never put it down until it is done; or, we could take the cynical view, and abandon the whole thing as a sham and a farce.
In this moment, there is no third way.
As we survey our current cultural landscape it can be tempting to see nothing but a cynical nihilism at play: the digital, electronic fog of our technopagan consumerism reducing everything it touches to a pornified commodity. Technocratic capitalism only works as a social glue so long as affluence remains strong. Take away affluence, as we have seen in our current economic problems, and the center does not hold because there is no center. The modern bureaucratic State has it strengths. Creating consensus on core commitments to the good is not one of them.
This nihilism—a feature of modernity, rather than a bug—is what I fear is at the heart of our project. We’d certainly be in a very bad way even if we did not have a living legacy of racial oppression and domination with which to reckon. Fear, however, is a dangerous motivator. Its visceral appeal can induce intellectual myopia even among the most careful thinkers.
As I ponder the current protests—largely peaceful—over the death of George Floyd and the righteous anger at the ongoing racial injustice it exposed, I am hopeful. Underneath it all I sense the same appeal that Lincoln made at Gettysburg—heroically underwritten a century later by Martin Luther King Jr—to the persistent validity and power of our founding principles.
I still fear the full implications of a rising tide of capitalist, techno-nihilism, but I am reminded that the divine image in us all remains. It is ineradicable, and continues to move the needle of our social awareness in the direction of justice.
America’s founders were privileged white men, many of whom owned slaves personally and all of whom at best temporized before the duty toward their fellows in humanity, which their basic moral and political commitments directly and immediately imposed. Their descendants would soon begin in earnest a genocidal campaign against Native Americans. Women did not get the right to vote until the early 20th century. Our immigration policy has been more or less frankly racist for as long as we’ve had one.
We are still in time to receive the principles our deeply flawed founders discovered at work in America as larger than their own moral achievements, and interpret that same tragic history as the bloody, messy working out of the plain meaning and full implications of those five simple words: All men are created equal.
If, however, we would keep the right to America as we have confessed her, without losing our souls, we must be ready to put our backs into the work, and our money where our mouth is: now.
Larry Chapp, PhD taught theology at DeSales University for 19 years. He now runs the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker Farm with his wife, Carrie, near Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania.
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