I was raised in the South. When I was a kid there were still remnants of the War Between the States around. (We southerners preferred that moniker for the American Civil War.)
I recall for example a couple of bumper stickers I saw as a youth. One said “Hell no, I ain’t forgettin’.” Another exhorted, “Save your Confederate money. The South rise again.”
The Confederate battle flag, known as the “Stars and Bars” was prevalent in my area. Vestiges of Jim Crow still lingered.
As an adult I became a Civil War buff. Living in Virginia I could tour numerous battlefields where Union and Rebel soldiers laid down their lives.
I enjoyed going to reenactments, where people dressed up in the blue and grey. There were even “civilians” who took part in the living histories. They came costumed as sutlers, camp followers and even ministers of the Gospel.
In the 90s I worked for a small college in South Carolina. In their main parlor the most prominent painting was of Confederate general Robert. E. Lee.
Fast forward about 20 years. General Lee is now a controversial figure. A statue of him in Charlottesville was this summer the catalyst for a confrontation in the streets between white supremacists and so-called anti-fascists.
This week the general’s descendant, Rev. Robert Wright Lee, denounced his own great uncle. He told the press that he felt shame at General Lee’s role in the Confederacy.
There is now an outcry from some to do away with any and all memorials to American heroes who owned slaves. The most prominent Founders now being maligned include George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, both slaveholders.
In his will Washington freed his slaves. Jefferson did not.
Yet, Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. He even included in one of the early drafts a condemnation of slavery.
Yet, 15 years ago historian Stephen E. Ambrose published a piece for the Smithsonian that was highly critical of Jefferson. He wrote:
Jefferson knew slavery was wrong and that he was wrong in profiting from the institution, but apparently could see no way to relinquish it in his lifetime.
Ambrose didn’t stop at these unflattering comments. He was even more condemning:
Jefferson owned slaves. He did not believe that all were created equal. He was a racist, incapable of rising above the thought of his time and place, and willing to profit from slave labor.
When I have thought of the Founding Fathers who owned slaves, and of the southerners who fought in the Civil War, I have tended to excuse them. “They were men of their time,” I think. “Everybody thought like they did.”
Ambrose did not excuse Jefferson . He saw him as a hypocrite who espoused equality for all, but did not express it in his own behavior. Ambrose said:
Few of us entirely escape our times and places. Thomas Jefferson did not achieve greatness in his personal life. He had a slave as mistress. He lied about it.
As a man with southern roots, and someone who considers Virginia his native soil, I find Ambrose’s comments deeply troubling. I also recoil at attacks on men like Robert E. Lee, a revered son of Virginia. It is as if he is attacking my own personal world view.
However, I have now come to the conclusion that Ambrose is correct. While I still consider Jefferson and Lee great public figures, I cannot excuse their racism.
How could these bigger-than-life figures have been so wrong? I think it might have something to do with our human natures.
The Bible portrays us all as sinners, i.e. people who are in rebellion against God. It describes us as people with corrupt natures who do corruption.
Yet, the Scriptures also call on us to master our sin. For whatever reason, men like Jefferson and Lee did not master theirs when it came to racism and bigotry.
Ambrose wrote that Jefferson had a “great mind and a limited character.” I think this was probably true of a lot of mythological characters in American history.
It is also true of many of us in modern life. I am not an intellectual by any means, but I do like to think and analyze. Unfortunately I tend to “overthink.” This leads me to indecisiveness.
Like Jefferson I muse and write on subjects, but take little action in my own personal life. I have recently thought that this is due to a lack of faith in God and His Word, the Bible.
I have for most of my life agreed with the truth that Jesus died to pay the penalty for my sins and rose again from the dead to reign over me. I have also espoused intellectual assent to the truths of Scripture.
The reality though is that my life does not reflect these beliefs. I have not done what the Bible has told me to do.
I have a myriad of excuses for this neglect, but the crux of the issue is that I have preferred doing things my way, perhaps out of convenience, or perhaps out of lust of the eyes, lust of the flesh or pride of life.
I have determined of late though that God means what He says. The Scriptures say “do not be deceived; God is not mocked. For whatever a man sows that He will also reap.” In many ways I have sown the wind and reaped the whirlwind.
The Roman philosopher Seneca wrote, “Why is it no man confesses his vices? It is because he has not yet laid them aside. It is a waking man only who can tell his dreams.”
J. Vernon McGee, a popular pastor and radio personality from the last half of the 20th century said of Seneca’s quote, “A man in sin is like a person still dreaming.
He alone (Jesus) can give comfort and understanding to the afflicted as well as extend mercy and grace.”
I have now after a lifetime awoke from my dream and seen my sins. The dream is to me more of a nightmare.
I should have obeyed God and His Word and listened to the men and women over my lifetime who taught me the way to live.
There’s still time for me, though. Thankfully, I have taken a first step.
The Bible says, “Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.”
I have begun to change the way I think. I am trying these days to think about how I can please God.
That in itself pleases Him. McGee said, “God in interested in what we think when we lie upon our pillows.”
Changing the way we think would be a good start for a lot of Americans today. But first, we have to wake up from our dreaming.