On September 22, 1862, United States President Abraham Lincoln convened his Cabinet. The Battle of Antietam just five days prior claimed its still-standing record as the deadliest single-day battle in American history. By battle’s end 22,717 were dead, wounded, or missing. Even as some of the dead still lingered in field hospitals, Lincoln told the room that he had made a covenant with God: if the Confederacy were driven from Maryland, he would issue the Emancipation Proclamation. Thousands more in blue and gray would pass from this Earth before American chattel slavery was killed, but the wound had been struck.
We greatly shortchange our ancestors on all sides if we fail to realize the enormity of the coming reality Lincoln had inaugurated. The end of slavery was not simply an angering thorn in the side of racists. American chattel slavery is drastically undersold when seen as just an immoral economic shortcut. Slavery, and the view of humanity which undergirded it, was the very fiber of reality. Benjamin Morgan Palmer, minister of New Orleans’ First Presbyterian Church, in the final years before war said of slavery, “This system is interwoven with our entire social fabric. It has fashioned our modes of life, and determined all our habits of thought and feeling, and moulded the very type of our civilization.” After the advent of rebellion, Confederate Vice President said that the “very cornerstone” of Confederate society was the opposite of the Declaration of Independence’s promises of universal equality. The end of such a foundation represented The End itself. Mary Fontaine, the daughter to one CSA general and husband to another, heard whites describing the joyous black crowds at the end of the war, “It was like their idea of the judgment day.” “Perhaps it may be,” she mused.
I believe Lincoln’s announcement means more for today, September 22, 2016, than just an anniversary on which to pause and remember. As someone who grew up in integrated Southern schools, I often think I have no idea what it must feel like to watch the most basic underpinnings of society snatched away like tent stakes in a storm. But then I turn on the news, and in my own way and my own time I sense moments of connection to my ancestors. Doesn’t it feel like all things are coming undone? The veneer peeling off American hegemony, or sometimes bursting into flames. American voter demographics shifting more quickly than nearly any other time without a constitutional amendment changing who may vote. Radical upheaval in morality. Unprecedented scrutiny of police. The mercurial shift of exotic threats from traditional armies to organized terror, and then to individualized terror.
Folks, it’s totally understandable to feel that fear. Mrs. Fontaine certainly did. But what if fear and upheaval aren’t the only things we share across 154 years? Many people, both black and white, suffered enormously as emancipation came and the transition was made. A journey so immense and so important is always painful. But what was gained was greater and truer and more Christlike than what was risked. With the end of chattel slavery, we grew that much closer to fulfilling the command of God: “Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” There is so very much suffering in our time. And many changes we face are admittedly not for the best, leading only to more suffering. But who among us can honestly say that there aren’t still great gulfs of oppression to overcome? Racism and systemic injustice aren’t dead, though they mourn their cousin chattel slavery and welcome the enormity of modern slavery. Poverty and hunger gnaw at will. Human justice is still all too dependent on how and where you were born. What if the storm we feel is real, but rather than unwarranted disaster it is the tempest that comes from the world shaking its fist at the long march to justice? Through such storms, Jesus calls to us, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”
I understand the fear, for I have felt it. In addition to the simple act of being alive in such times, I’m a white straight male Baptist pastor. According to the world, it makes sense for me to support a candidate who points back to the good ol’ days for white straight male Baptist pastors. It makes sense for me to shake my head at police protests. It makes sense for me to write off entire populations every time a bomb goes off, to let fear control my response. But when I am calm, I hear the same voice the disciples heard. “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” I remember that Judgment Day and judgment days come with a promise of restoration on the other side. And no matter the storm, I know that I should more fear what kills my brothers and sisters on this shore than what awaits me on the journey to God’s justice.