Like all reform movements, the abolitionists legacy is not without fault. We look back upon the prior generations greatest achievements and we can critique them and perceive how those social or legal reforms could have been enacted more effectively (and perhaps justly). To not ask critical questions of the views and actions of our forebearers is folly and leads us into a blind repetition of the ways of the ancestors for sake of imitation and preservation of culture. The biblical revelation leads us to critique cultural norms and customs because it presents God as present in the world as Savior—creatively intervening to redeem and restore human beings. And with human redemption and restoration comes the reformation of cultural norms.
God has placed us together as God’s people in our time in order to work for the good of the other and ultimately for all people—to partner with God as the Holy Spirit builds the Kingdom of God on earth. This is spiritual work precisely because it is expressed in practical service to people now. The abolitionists legacy demonstrates how this could be done. Yet I wonder if they did not miss one of the key means of resisting evil in their time. That is, to work for social righteousness while persistently turning to the careful study of Scripture and consciously striving to apply general biblical teaching and moral norms.
To do that assumes that the meaning of Scripture currently assumed to be right needs to be respectfully questioned. And if it becomes clear that Scriptural teaching is being misrepresented and twisted then we must speak up and call for reform in teaching and application. Did not our Lord leave us with this model in his interactions with the Jewish religious leaders?
This is difficult to do for several reasons: One is that we are reading Scripture which was written into an ancient culture(s) with a very different mixture of moral norms, ethical rules for conduct and worldviews when compared to the Western modern mindset. Two is that the political structures and assumptions about “good government” in biblical times are starkly different from the modern notions of human rights, democracy and the rule of law. Three is that few of us take the time to think critically about political philosophy (good government) and thus are ill equipped to interpret Scriptural teaching and make sound applications to public policy questions.
There are a few exceptions within the Christian tradition serious efforts to do this. The Roman Catholic Churches’ social teaching is an extremely valuable pool of resources for study. Some Reformed theologians like Abraham Kuyper have given rigorous thought and reflection on social issues. Also, in a different kind of way, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, left a testament of resistance to government tyranny. (I mention these in passing as examples but each of them deserves a much more elaborate discussion than is possible now.)
My task is to evaluate the abolitionists legacy. I think that it is instructive because it demonstrates that Christianity, as it was then widely taught and practiced, was a hindrance to accomplishing their just goals. That fact demonstrates just how embedded most Christians at the time were in the social assumptions about race and the presumptions of white superiority over black people (and other “races”). That Christianity was not a natural ally to the abolitionists shows how the dominant culture can and will envelop and shape the practice of Christian faith and thought unless believers critically question and evaluate themselves and the dominate ideas of their society.
What helped to keep driving the debate over slavery was the contradiction between the stated rational for the colonies Revolutionary war and break from Britain and the actual practice of slavery. The Declaration of Independence famously states,
“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—That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”[i]
This is a profound statement with theological and philosophical underpinnings borrowed from multiple sources—but primarily the biblical notion of humans as image bearers of God. Christians have tended to uncritically baptize it as a Christian statement which fits neatly with biblical revelation. While I think it is a profound and sound statement of political principle for Christians to read it uncritically is problematic for multiple reasons.
One is because political freedoms are not synonymous with the good news of God’s having broken into the world in the Incarnation to deliver us from sin so we can pursue transformation in Christ. The guarantee of political rights and freedoms in this transient period before our Lord returns is beneficial for Christians and I think one can argue that protecting them is consistent with God’s great kindness and generosity to all peoples. However, the extraordinarily good and wise structure of government under the U.S. Constitution is not to be equated with God’s Kingdom. That is on pare with the error of the Christians who took the legalization and (later) official declaration of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman empire as the full enactment of the Lord’s promised Kingdom come. Such equivocation has produced millions of people who have genuinely thought that being a Christian and being a European or patriotic American are the same.
Two is that I think that one cannot affirm that the statements in the Declaration simply and wholly reflect Scriptural teachings. As much as I value this statement and the wisdom of the truths expressed (as applied to political life) I cannot equate that with the Gospel. It is a necessary check on abusive government and it provides sound principles for organizing and governing people in this period before our Lord returns. The application of republican constitutional forms and principles has and can give sound guidance for good governance—indeed I would go so far as to assert that it is arguably the most just and wise form of government ever attempted in human history!. Yet republican constitutional government will not bring God’s Kingdom nor did the founding political leaders of America ever expect it to!
Three is that the three-fold affirmation in the Declaration is itself theologically flawed. God has certainly made it clear that human beings have been gifted with life by God and that we dare not play God with one another’s lives—for human beings are sacrosanct because they bear the divine image. Yet where in the Bible are we told that we have a right to “Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”? Clearly this contradicts what God teaches about the necessity of living in the blessing of God by actively seeking to conform one’s thought and actions to his holy commands. And further, Scripture is clear that true freedom is found in submission to the living God—not in exercising our ability to do whatever we want to or are able to do in this life.
Four is that the theological underpinning of the Declaration, properly understood, must be interpreted in its original context referring to right governance in human affairs. This statement was not intended to be a metaphysical declaration defining human nature in its totality. Americans today, blindly following this post-Christian and post-modern culture, have tended to extrapolate this conclusion mainly because they do not have a solid grounding in God’s revelation in Scripture—and like the contemporaries of our Lord expect some political means of solving intractable personal bondage and oppressive social practices. We need to recognize how fundamentally mistaken people are to act as though sound political principles neatly equate to metaphysical and moral absolutes.
We who are followers of the Lord Jesus are caught in a hard place culturally. We enjoy the benefits of the political and economic and religious freedoms that constitutional government affords but are conflicted about social engagement—not so much whether we should advocate for social reforms but how to discern how to do that work. Our embrace of political, economic and religious freedom for all our neighbors needs to be counterbalanced with a biblical understanding of human nature. That is, that for human life to be fulfilled requires living by faith through the Son of God, in joyful obedience in the Holy Spirit, to the glory of the living God in community.
Our neighbors may or may not recognize truth which transcends and informs our efforts to work for justice in the pragmatic considerations of ordering society and balancing people’s rights and freedoms. We may find that there are points of common ground regarding certain goals for social reform but that individuals’ motives and rational for them dramatically differs. Indeed, we see now calls for social and legal reforms which are turned against Christian teaching and moral norms by employing the language of “rights”; so that people today (accurately or inaccurately) perceive Christianity as hostile to the current social utopias, which are touted as freeing people from Christian theological and moral restraints. We must be discerning in this collision of values in questions of public policy and governance.
The moral imperative born from biblical revelation is essential to keep a balanced perspective in regard to good and just governance in society. In the American context, and specifically in regard to institutionalized slavery of Africans, President Lincoln expressed biblical convictions. In contrast to the claims of the Southern states about the moral legitimacy of the slave system, and the armed conflict that they tenaciously fought to defend it (to the bitter end), he expressly stated that the Civil war had been God’s just punishment upon America.
“The Almighty has His own purposes. ‘Woe unto the world because of offenses! for it must needs be that offenses come; but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.’ If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”[ii]
This justly famous summary statement of President Lincoln is, it seems to me, an astute and accurate assessment of the meaning of the American Civil War. He holds out the hope for an end of the war because God is intimately involved in the history of the American people. The Almighty allowed the war on behalf of the enslaved Africans—to force the ending of slavery. This basic perspective is informed by a biblical worldview and is consistent with the abolitionists legacy and work to end slavery.
This example is perhaps too obvious in that we can now perceive the monstrosity of slavery in the American colonies and States. The aftermath of the ending of formal slavery in America did—thanks be to God—end an evil practice that God hated. However, the use of military force, legal reforms, constitutional amendments and advocating for changes in people’s perspectives about race (toward “racial equality”) have not solved the fundamental reasons why people are unjust to one another nor addressed the many other ways in which racism continued to manifest in America after the Civil War.
The Kingdom of God has not yet come in fullness. The King is not yet reigning and exercising his full authority over everyone and everything on earth. We are in an “in between” period in which many forms of human evil and injustice are permitted and which God uses for purposes we can only dimly perceive. This theological perspective is to move God’s people in every generation to courageously confront evil in its many guises. Yet we must always seek to do this according to the Word of God and the precepts and principles of Scripture. To be both faithful and thinking people we must be life long learners who remain centered in Christ himself. Together in community we can receive from God the knowledge, wisdom and power to act and speak with courage in our time.
[i] The Declaration of Independence (1776)
[ii] The Second Inaugural address of President Abraham Lincoln; cited from The Life and Writings of Abraham Lincoln (The Modern Library:2000), pp.841-842.