I wish to offer a theological and historical reflection on the protests taking place in many American cities in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. Typically, these reflections would be incorporated into my regular preaching at Holy Comforter Episcopal Church. However, I believe that I can offer a fuller and better notated reflection in this written format.
The Civil War
America had two revolutions: the first began in 1776 and the second began in 1861. Both conflicts and the governing documents that came from those conflicts dealt directly with slavery.
The political crises and compromises of the United States in the antebellum period were about slavery: representation in Congress, the slave trade, the extension of slavery into the western territories, transporting slaves through free states, and capturing slaves who ran for freedom from bondage. For a more extensive treatment of the Three-Fifths Compromise, the Missouri Compromise, the Compromise of 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act, and the Dred Scott Decision as pivotal moments in the eventual secession crisis of 1860 and 1861, I would recommend Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson.
In short, the Civil War was about slavery. Of course, I do not mean to say that every Johnny Reb was fighting for slavery and that every Billy Yank was an abolitionist. The antebellum period was as complex as our own, in which foreign and domestic pressures contributed to both pro- and anti-slavery forces in America.
The major political crises of the antebellum period were about slavery. For instance, the gold rush of 1849 resulted in tremendous population growth in California, leading that territory to apply for statehood. As miners in California were concerned that slaves would be brought there as cheap labor to excavate gold, California entered the Union as a free state. This, along with the entrance of Texas into the Union as a slave state, hastened the crisis in Kansas. Ruffians (pro-slavery) and jayhawkers (anti-slavery) proved to be early combatants of the Civil War in “Bleeding Kansas.”
The economics of slave power went beyond southern agricultural practices. English and New England mills imported cotton grown in the southern United States and exported textiles. In an early portrait of economic globalism, many in the North (especially bankers and financiers in New York) did not oppose slavery before 1861 because it provided cheap labor for the raw materials they needed for their factories.
Or, if one is interested in some of the smaller footnotes of history, I would encourage you to read about the numerous invasions of Cuba and Nicaragua in the pre-war years. Sponsored by pro-slavery forces, these paramilitary incursions show just how intent many in the South were to increase their power in the United States legislature by annexing additional slave states.
Additionally, we must remember that every southern state (with the exception of South Carolina) had units fighting for the Union Army. Many in the North opposed slavery, not because they found it morally repugnant but rather because they were concerned that slaves would take work from white laborers (the Free Soil Party won 10% of the popular vote in the 1848 presidential election).
Though the Myth of the Lost Cause would say that the Civil War was about states’ rights, or southern honor, or two competing economic systems, we ought to look directly at the primary sources of the day. I would direct any reader to the 1861 “Cornerstone Speech” by Alexander Stephens, the Vice President of the Confederate States of America. While speaking about the idea of “equality of races,” Stephens says:
“Our new government [the Confederate States of America] is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone 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, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
The most significant outcome of the Civil War was the abolition of slavery through the vehicle of the 13th Amendment. Other than land itself, slaves were the single greatest financial asset of the southern states. (I find it shameful that we even put a monetary value on human life, but for the sake of this essay and this point about the Civil War, it is critical to point out the far reaching economic implications of abolition.)
The Civil War was about slavery.
That’s what the country was struggling with before, during, and after the war. In the antebellum period, every political crisis and compromise was about slavery, and the major material difference after the war was that slavery had been abolished. This struggle over race and racially biased systems continued with Reconstruction (see Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory by David Blight) and is part of our who we are today.
We need only look so far as the experience of the indigenous peoples on this continent and the Three-Fifths Compromise to see that, very early on in our history, white men of Protestant background designed the structures of government for their own benefit (by “white,” I mean those Americans primarily identified as Protestants from western Europe).
Those of Protestant heritage are noted because of America’s long history of antagonism toward those who identify with different faiths. For instance, we have a deep strand of anti-Catholic sentiment in our country. We can trace a line from to the Know Nothing Party, to the anti-Catholic nature of the Ku Klux Klan, to the suspicions around President Kennedy’s allegiances as part of this tradition.
(This is part of my story, too. My maternal family is of southern Italian origin. Antonio Vachris, known as “Tough Tony,” was a detective in the New York police department at the turn of the last century. He faced discrimination and harassment because of his Italian heritage, though he became famous for his work against the Black Hand Mafia. You can read more about him here.)
One could spend their life’s work writing about the past and present racist systems in our country. The Middle Passage, the whipping post, the auction block, the internment camps, the reservations, and the fire hoses are but some of the more memorable icons of race in America. In them we see how those in power, especially white men, exercised that power over others for their own gain and often out of their own fear.
As William Faulkner wrote, “History is not dead, it’s not even past.” In the early 2010s, at a local chamber of commerce meeting in the Houston area, it was said to a group of clergy that we ought to oppose public transit in our area because it would bring “an unwelcome element.” In my presence, a law enforcement official referred to minority communities as “trash.”
Additionally, we must not think that the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Civil Rights Movement, or the election of Barack Obama as president solved the issue of race and its correlated economic disparity in America. We can look to the example of England for insight. In 1066, William, a Norman, conquered the Anglo-Saxon population of England. In a recent study, it was found that English citizens with Norman surnames (Devereux, Glanville, etc.) are wealthier than English citizens with Anglo-Saxons surnames (Smith, Cooper, etc.). One thousand years time has still not closed the wealth gap that began on a battlefield in Hastings. (See also, The English and Their History by Robert Tombs.) Though this is not a perfect comparison, it sheds light onto the long-lasting impacts of economic practices like redlining.
As a priest in the Episcopal Church, I must note that this is our history, too. Alexander Gregg of Cheraw, South Carolina was the first bishop of Texas. Coming from a wealthy, slave owning family enabled him to live and minister in Texas because the compensation for the episcopacy was so meager. At the turn of the last century, an Episcopal clergyman in Beaumont, Texas was a leader in the Ku Klux Klan (you can read more in Gone to Texas by Randolph Campbell). The initial push in the Episcopal Church to elect and consecrate suffragan bishops is built upon racism. Following the Civil War, Episcopal congregations of freedmen were established, overseen by black priests. However, the House of Bishops worried that white Episcopalians would not tolerate authority from black bishops. Therefore, the position of suffragan bishop was created so that black congregations could be overseen by black bishops while at the same time white congregations would not have to interact with black bishops (This white paper from the Archives of the Episcopal Church gives more detail.). Of course, this is not the totality of the Church’s witness. The stories of the Rev. Absalom Jones, William Stringfellow, and the the Rt. Rev. Barbara Harris are inspirational. For a lesser known episode, I would recommend a brief story recounted by Dr. Kathy Culmer about the Rev. Gresham Marmion in Columbus, Texas.
I could go on to describe the litany of lynching, profiling, redlining, segregation, Jim Crow, mass incarceration and so much more that has been and continues to be part of American life. I would direct you to any number of reputable sources for more reading. The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander is an excellent place to start.
Riots, Protests, and Government Violence
The demonstrations and varying responses by police forces that are happening today are not taking place in a vacuum. Throughout our history, demonstrations often culminated in, or were amplified by, government sanctioned violence. These include but are not limited to: the Whiskey Rebellion, the New York Draft Riots, and the numerous riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Especially formative for me was witnessing the 1992 Los Angeles Riots following the beating of Rodney King and the acquittal of the four Los Angeles Police Department officers involved.
Protests and violent responses by police forces are part of our history. Neither, must we say, has every demonstration in American history been about race. Laborers demanding an eight-hour work day were shot and killed by police in Chicago leading up to the Haymarket Riot. During the Great Depression, Bonus Army veterans who camped out in Washington D.C. to demand early payments for their service in World War I were shot and killed by police and were attacked by active duty soldiers. Students were shot and killed by National Guardsmen in Kent while demonstrating against the expansion of military action into Cambodia. This violence is part of our history and remains with us today. I do not have space here to detail all the instances, known and unknown, of brutality and government sanctioned violence against its own people.
In other words, we must not be so naive as to think that demonstrations are new to our society. They are not. Neither are government sanctioned reactions, through police departments, National Guard deployments, and active duty soldiers, new to our society. Both demonstrations for political purposes and government sanctioned violent responses are as old as the presidency of George Washington, dating back to Shays’ Rebellion in 1786.
At the same time, I see colleagues of mine who volunteer, both as chaplains and as deputies, for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office. I see those officers committed to ending sex trafficking in Spring, Texas and for those officers who work in our schools, doing everything from directing traffic to teaching classes. We remember those law enforcement officers who have been murdered in their line of duty. We see police officers dying in service to others at the hands of terrorists on September 11, 2001. We see the 101st Airborne escorting the Little Rock Nine to class.
We see all of this, all at once.
Our Present Moment
In sedimentary rock formations, you can clearly see the strata of geologic eras. Each stratum represents a moment in time that, as part of the whole, builds something much bigger. That is why I have spent the first part of this essay laying the groundwork, the strata if you will, of the past.
You and I saw more than Derek Chauvin’s knee on George Floyd’s neck in Minneapolis. In our collective memory we call to mind gangs roaming west Africa, capturing slaves for American plantations; posses chasing down runaway slaves under the authority of the Fugitive Slave Act; night raiders suppressing the rights of freedmen during Reconstruction; and men hanging from the lynching tree.
We hear more than George Floyd gasping for breath; we hear Frederick Douglass recounting the beatings he received at the hands of Edward Covey; the massacres at Fort Pillow, Colfax, Louisiana, and Tulsa, Oklahoma; and children crying for their mothers as they are sold away to different owners on the auction block.
I am not saying that Derek Chauvin was rehearsing this history, for I cannot know his mind nor any other mind. Nor is that moment what this essay is about, though it was the impetus for writing.
What I am saying is that we must see that singular moment in Minneapolis and the resulting demonstrations through all these layers of our history. In George Floyd’s death we see a grave sin, surrounded by a long history of sinful circumstances.
Yes, America and Americans have accomplished unfathomably incredible achievements – we have sent submarines to the deepest part of the ocean, we have sent men to walk on the Moon, we have created vaccines, we have fought, bled, and died against fascism, and we have abolished slavery. We have also decimated indigenous people and subjugated millions through the use of violence. This is our history.
The Call of Christ
While this history is shared broadly with all Americans, we Christians in America have a particular calling. I believe that our mission – the work of the Church and as individual disciples – is to continue the reconciling purpose of Jesus Christ that was accomplished upon the cross.
This means that we must first remember truthfully. In the Christian life, we are called to acknowledge our sins honestly and confess them. At this point in our life together, we must remember before God our communal sins and how we have benefited from sinful systems. We must have the courage to name before the Lord God our participation in racist systems and how we have perpetuated the myths, stereotypes, and profiles of others. In other words, the first step is recognizing our faults.
“If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” – 1 John 1:9, 10
This is difficult, painful work, as anybody knows who has made an honest confession. This looks much like the work of Jesus upon the cross. Though it is painful and sorrowful, and though there is temptation to hide from these awful truths, there is also redemptive power in it.
After recognizing our sinful nature and empowered by the Holy Spirit, we turn our lives to face God while at the same time turning our backs upon the evils that once bound us. This is repentance. This is both individual and communal work.
Living faithfully also means embracing a robust theology of humanity. Indeed, part of the flaw of this entire essay is its reliance on the social construct that we call “race.” As we are told from Genesis to Revelation, there is only one humanity, created in the image of God. This entire human family is who God desires to reconcile to God’s self and to one another. I lament that this essay relies upon a construct that is antithetical to God’s good creation. But neither can we be “colorblind,” for that gives us easy license to distance ourselves from what is so apparently true.
Instead, we are stuck in the middle. The true work of reconciliation means that we will have our hands outstretched, as Jesus upon the cross, nailed there by the evil powers at work in this world. In the cross and in countless scenes playing out across our country, we see that the power of sin destroys the humanity of both the victim and the oppressor. We must lament for those who have brutally died and those who wielded the brutality for they have both lost their humanity.
Finally, we must have courage to face all this history at once and not shy away from it. All too often and all too easily we (as a larger society and as the Church) have created facile constructions of the past that prop up our own ideologies. This will not do. We must know the truth, for the truth will set us free (John 8:32).
In this frightening and confusing moment in history, we have the unique opportunity to change. Now is the time to put away our old selves, as Saint Paul would say, and become a new people. This history will always be with us, but it does not have to define us. Our national repentance will require massive change in every aspect of American life because, as I laid out, this history permeates our systems.
A Final Word
On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass stepped up to the podium of Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York to address the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society for their Independence Day celebration (see Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David Blight). He begins his speech in humility: “I do not remember ever to have appeared as a speaker before any assembly more shrinkingly, nor with greater distrust of my ability, than I do this day.”
Douglass goes on to praise the founders of the country, noting the oppression they felt under the authority of the English and their bravery in declaring “the united colonies are, and of right, ought to be free and Independent States.” In a hint of things to come, Douglass admired them, for “they believed in order; but not in the order of tyranny.”
The speech then takes a hard turn:
“Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence?”
The rest of the speech is one of the most memorable documents in American history and the classic jeremiad of Frederick Douglass. Enumerating the evils of the slave power and scorning the very name, “Independence Day,” Douglass calls American liberty a “sham” and “fraud” while millions toil in bondage.
Not sparing the Church, he denounces northern ministers’ complicity in the Fugitive Slave Act:
“These ministers make religion a cold and flinty- hearted thing, having neither principles of right action nor bowels of compassion. They strip the love of God of its beauty and leave the throne of religion a huge, horrible, repulsive form. It is a religion for oppressors, tyrants, man-stealers, and thugs.”
One can only imagine the atmosphere in the Corinthian Hall on that day as the women of the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society listened to the greatest orator America has ever known call to light all the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of their national life.
Early on in the speech, after Douglass rhetorically asks why he has been called to speak, he says:
“Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?”
Would to God, both for your sakes and ours, that an affirmative answer could be truthfully returned to these questions!”
Douglass’ hope for true independence, “both for your sakes and ours,” illustrates the sinful nature of racism and racist systems. They dehumanize both the oppressor and the victim.
Yes, the actual shackles of bondage have been released. But in the words of another great American orator in the line of Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us that we remain in default on the promissory note of justice owed to many Americans.
I wish to God that we could truthfully and faithfully express gratitude for the blessings and disciplines of independence for all Americans. I believe that extending these blessings to all “tribes and peoples and languages” (Revelation 7:9) is our national vocation. Furthermore, it is the Church’s duty, as it is in every nation, to hold up the high ideals of justice and truth. When the nation rises to the occasion, we must give thanks to God. When the nation falls short, we must not remain silent.
Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, David Blight
Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, James McPherson
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander
The English and their History, Robert Tombs
Gone to Texas: A History of the Lone Star State, Randolph Campbell
Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, David Blight
“The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro,” Frederick Douglass
“Again with the Black Confederates,” Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic
“People with Norman names wealthier than other Britons,” Richard Savil, The Telegraph
“The Cornerstone Speech,” Alexander Stephens, March 21, 1861
“The Role of Bishops Suffragan in the Episcopal Church,” Council for the Development of Ministry, “History of Bishops Suffragan: In the American Episcopal Church,” Harold T. Lewis
“I Have a Dream,” Martin Luther King, Jr.,
“Things Left Undone,” by Kathy Culmer