The Civil War, And The Incivility Of Memories Thereof

Really, now. Did you expect that, living as I do in a place whose ecclesiastical stamp of distinction is a church community dedicated to promoting the benevolence and bravery of the Confederate South, I would let pass the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War?

Impossible. And, to underscore my commitment to expressing nothing but contempt for the idea that the Antebellum South was a bastion of Biblical righteousness and the horror of slavery nothing but a benign picture of harmonious Christian patriarchy, I will not only recommend the April 18 issue of TIME magazine, but will, after quoting from it, reimburse the first ten local readers for their purchase of it. Contact me at my email address,, and I’ll exchange your proof of purchase for the money you spent.

Why? Because the article, by TIME staffer David Von Drehle, captures perfectly the importance of understanding the inextricable significance of slavery, of a Southern economy rooted in racism and inhumanity, in grasping the reasons why the nation was ripped apart during the Civil War. His work reveals the truth behind false defenses of Antebellum South virtue and, in revealing the agenda behind such historic revisionism, deftly dispels the self-serving and privilege-preserving “Northern aggression” argument that allows “Anglo-Celt” supremacists, faux-Libertarians, “states’ rights” advocates, and those choked with plantation nostalgia to continue to protest that the War was simply the most egregious example in American history of godless elitists victimizing God-fearing agrarian men and their families.

Von Drehle is quick to acknowledge, as he should, the reality that the Northern states were also involved in the slave trade and that virtue was not the prime motivator of the Union Army. But no one today argues that the North was, to paraphrase Doug Wilson’s friend and collaborator Steve Wilkins, the greatest and most Biblically righteous fighting force ever assembled. That Wilkins, Wilson, and other neo- and paleo-Confederates defend the Confederate Army in those terms is beyond tragic — it represents a perversion of scholarship and epistemology that ought to shame even the sub-literate and unbelieving, but, instead, and in the guise of “classical Christian education” and a Godly pursuit of historical analysis, has found an audience among hundreds in Moscow and thousands throughout the nation.

“Southern Slavery As It Was,” by Wilson and Wilkins, was an execrable piece of shoddy scholarship and racism-affirming hermeneutics that proclaimed that slavery in the American South was not only Biblical, but a pleasant, protective, harmonious, and family-strengthening experience for Black slaves as well. There is no amount of re-packaging, spin, or attempts at distancing oneself from the Confederacy by employing “neo-” and “paleo-” modifiers that can redeem Wilson and Wilkins. Only a public, specific, strong, and heartfelt apology with evidence of repentance can accomplish that. The controversy around “Southern Slavery As It Was” is not a bias against Christians, conservatives, or amateur historians, as Wilson, et al, insist. No, the firestorm was evidence of a bias toward intelligence, truth, humility, and compassion. That train has left the station, and there’s no evidence that Wilson and Wilkins have any particular interest in hopping aboard.

The One who is all truth is not well served, nor was He a century and a half ago, by those who, in His name, defend their sinful oppression of others by appealing to the perverted use of Scripture and a presumed “social order” that, perhaps not astonishingly, always favored them and their rule over others. The words of Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens are as ugly now as they were then in describing the guiding principle of the Confederacy in its response to the however-imperfect promise of “equality for all” in the United States Constitution:

“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 a crucial, if exceedingly obvious, point to be grasped — while the South may have felt that federal intervention in its commerce and culture, as well as Lincoln’s efforts to halt the drive toward secession, represented an unjust display of power of Southern “sovereignty,” the argument is deeply flawed. It’s not altogether different from arguing that a man who jumps into the fray to rescue a woman being sexually assaulted is guilty of not minding his own business, as Paul’s pastoral epistles counsel, and perhaps using nasty language in the process. Secession and slavery were prospering; dialogue and diplomacy weren’t enough to halt the former nor provide relief from the latter. The North, just as the hero in my example, may well have been grossly imperfect — but the result of the intervention in both was the direct alleviation of suffering and injustice. Those who oppressed others, and who prospered in doing so, ought to have examined and repented of their conduct rather than decry the motivation and means of those who sought to aid those suffering under it.

It’s true that history is written by the victors, and it’s equally true that the defeated will always proclaim the injustice of their defeat. But Christian men who esteem states’ rights, their privileged positions, and the culture of their own kin at the expense of true Biblical righteousness are unfit to teach, unfit to pastor, and unfit to be called scholars. In the name of Christ, they join with those with conveniently occluded memories and a knack for pretzel logic to defend the indefensible, extending and applying arguments in favor of the Confederacy then to their finely-wrought theologies of indifference to the poor now. As Von Drehle concludes, only the academic fringe defends the nobility of the South’s Lost Cause; its other defenders, those who discount the importance of slavery, racism, and gross social injustice in the events leading to the Civil War, are a motley crew of political thinkers adept in snatching whatever slivers of personal justification can be found in the jaws of historically verifiable truth. He writes,

“What energy exists in the modern version comes from a clique of libertarians who view the Union cause as a fearsome example of authoritarian central government crushing individual dissent. Slave owners make odd libertarian heroes, but by keeping the focus narrowly on Big Government, this school uses the secession cause to dramatize issues of today.” (TIME Magazine, April 18, 2011)

It would be hard to think of a greater and more grotesque idol erected in the public square than a love of individual social “liberty” so intense, so profound, that it places a man’s autonomy above the very lives of those in need around him — particularly when love of that social and political liberty neglects the starkly obvious denial of personal freedom to the ones historically enslaved by its most passionate defenders. Slave owners do, indeed, make odd Libertarian heroes, which reveals to me that the contemporary embrace of “liberty” often is entirely selfish and self-serving. But slave owners, and particularly those slave owners who appealed to Jesus Christ in defense of their manstealing and slaveholding, make for more than odd recipients of a Christian apologetic. They and the institution they developed, nurtured, and profited from are worthy of nothing less than utter and complete condemnation.

So, too, are those Christians today who would defend them and then, wiping their mouths and putting down their filthy, ink-stained hands, insist that their defense of slavery is all about . . . the Gospel that frees and redeems men, women, and children created in the image of a loving God.

I believe the classical, pedagogical Latin term for that is “Excretio.”

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