Monday, July 15, 2013

Beyond Martin and Zimmerman

We are grieved at the death of Trayvon Martin (and pray for his soul), the suffering of George Zimmerman, and the growing culture of death and violence that is growing in black and white communities across the South and in many other Western countries.  Also disturbing is the continual attempt of shameless men and women (politicians, media figures, and so on) to stir up racial animosity for their own benefit.

That this incident happened in a Southern town will no doubt be used by some to further the notion that the South is irremediably racist.  This also is quite unfortunate, for it was in fact largely in the South (prior to the War of Northern Aggression) that blacks were welcomed into community with whites.  Quoting now from Dr Donald Livingston’s ‘Why the War Was Not about Slavery’ (Confederate Veteran, September/October 2010, retrieved from

The only place where the African population was accepted as part of soci­ety was in the South. There blacks were integrated into society through the family, i.e.; the plantation household. Southerners had come to think that the native soil of blacks was Virginia and Georgia, not Africa. There was subordination in the Old South but not segregation. Slaves attended the same church as their masters. Only ten per­cent of Southerners even owned slaves, and half of those owned fewer than five. A third owned one or two. Half the owners worked in the fields with their slaves; ate with them; lived on the same property with them, and some­times in the same house. Slave owners traveled in public transport with their servants. This social intimacy, as we will see, was extremely distasteful to Northerners who worked to remove themselves as far as possible from the African population with a determina­tion that has been erased from general historical memory (p. 19).

. . . Jefferson Davis expressed shock in hearing Northern senators speak of the extermination of blacks as a matter of course. Even New England’s great moralist Ralph Waldo Emerson shared this view: “the dark man, the black man declines … It will happen by & by, that the black man will only be destined for museums like the Dodo.”

The system of racial segregation leading to the gradual elimination of New England’s indigenous African population was mirrored everywhere in the North and West. The 1820 constitution of Missouri prohibited free blacks from entering the State. The Constitution of Oregon ratified in 1857 excluded free blacks and mulattos: “No free Negro, or mulatto, not residing in this state at the time of adoption of this constitution, shall ever come, reside, or be within this state, or hold any real estate, or make any contract, or maintain any suit therein; and the legislative assembly shall provide by penal laws for the removal by public officers of all such free Negroes and mulattos … and for the punishment of persons who shall bring them into the state, or employ or harbour them therein.” The Oregon constitution passed by a margin of 8 to 1. Its language prohibiting free blacks from entering the state was almost identical to that of the earlier constitutions of Illinois and Indiana. Every Midwestern state — Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota — as well as those in the Far West, California, Oregon, Colorado, New Mexico — at one time or another passed measures to exclude free blacks from the state. Eugene Berwanger, who has carefully studied racial attitudes in the Western states, said “79.5 percent of the people of Illinois, Indiana, Oregon and Kansas voted to exclude the free Negro simply because of their prejudice.” Those blacks already in the state before exclusion laws were passed were subject to severe restrictions. In Lincoln’s state of Illinois, blacks were not citizens of the state, could not vote, could not sit on juries, could not use the courts to testify against white people, and the state refused to educate their children. And if this were not enough, their very movement was tightly restricted. The revised 1833 statutes of Illinois declared: “If any person or per sons shall permit or suffer any … servant or persons of colour, to the number of three or more, to assemble in his, her, or their out-house, yard, or shed, for the purpose of dancing or reveling, either by night or by day, the person or persons so offending shall forfeit and pay a fine of twenty dollars.” And free blacks guilty of such assemblies were “to be whipped, not exceeding thirty nine stripes on his or her back.” Cases abound of slaves escaping to free Northern states and being treated so badly that they would surrender themselves to authorities and request return to their master. Lincoln fully supported these shameful black codes and never once raised his voice against them during his political career in the state legislature (p. 20).

Sadly, Southerners abused the subordinate position of the blacks living among them, and were justly punished by God with a destructive war and its aftermath.  Because of the upheaval in Southern society brought about by the War and Reconstruction, the Northern-type of virulent racism was adopted by many Southerners (Eugene Genovese, A Consuming Fire, U of Georgia Press, 1998, p. 81). 

This is not to say that Southerners were free of the taint of racism before the War; they were not.  They believed, based on a limited number of years of living among blacks, that the present inferiority they observed was due to some inherent defect in the Africans that would never be overcome.  Forgotten in this view is the fact of their (white Southerners’) own slow rise from primitive and barbaric tribes in the forests of northern Europe to the advanced culture they enjoyed prior to the War, a rise helped only by the grace of the Most Holy Trinity given us through the Body of Jesus Christ, the Church (Douglas Wilson, Black & Tan, Canon Press, 2005, pgs. 34-5).  Also obscured is the high level of culture that Africans had attained to prior to being conquered by the Muslims.  A race doomed to perpetual cultural inferiority does not produce theologians like St Athanasius the Great, monastics like St Mary of Egypt, etc.

Howbeit, Southerners may rightly be proud that their ancestors did not join their Northern cousins in claiming that blacks were not human.  The scientific racism of the North claimed that Africans had evolved from some separate, lower species than whites.  But Southerners thundered back, to use the words of the Reverend John Henley Thornwell from 1850, ‘But the instinctive impulses of our nature, combined with the plainest declarations of the Word of God, lead us to recognize . . . the same humanity [in the black man] in which we glory as the image of God.  We are not ashamed to call him our brother’ (Genovese, pgs. 82-3; emphasis in original).

But as we have said, the goodwill that did exist between blacks and whites in the South before the War was largely lost afterwards.  And it continues to be threatened (though it has made some good strides) by external meddling of the same kind we experienced then (note well that race relations usually worsened when the federal government intervened, and progressed when they let us mind our own affairs) and by the weak efforts of the churches to build a truly Christian society.

Indeed, if the present state of race relations in the South is the best the current church leadership can muster, they deserve the rebukes they receive from a world thirsty for the divine grace that transforms the heart and mind and soul of man.

We shouldn’t despair, however, for, as T. S. Eliot said, there are no lost causes just as there are no gained causes.  All is a continual struggle of fallen man to do the will of God, at times ebbing and at others flowing, in the lives of individual men and women, families, villages, and so forth.  This does not mean that real advancement is impossible - only that it will continually be threatened by the backsliding of humans who have the free will to do evil as well as good.

Southerners, as it regards race relations, have an example to live up to that other regions of this unfortunate Union do not.  Here, whites and blacks once lived among one another amicably.  We must repair that foundation stone, repent of any remaining racism, and through the grace of God in His Orthodox Church, build a South in which blacks and whites may live together in true Christian harmony.

Such a thing cannot be imposed by an outside authority (like the federal government) or arise from a secular force alone (such as economic prosperity).  It must be inspired by the Church, and it must grow naturally in the hearts of Southern men and women, nurtured by our Lord God the Holy Spirit.  To this, then - a Christian and Southern answer to the race question - let us attend!

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