Reflecting on the Civil War, Part 1

Last weekend my wife and I had the opportunity to visit Corinth, Mississippi, site of a major Civil War battle and the location of an impressive Civil War interpretive center, overseen by the U.S. Department of the Interior.  I have long been fascinated by the Civil War, and given that this year marks the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the war, it seems like an opportune time to offer some reflections on it and think through issues as I write.

I have been a southerner all my life, but my education in the Texas public school system did not instill within me a deep pride in the heritage of the Confederacy.  In fact, I grew up thinking what most people probably think about the Civil War, namely, that North and South disagreed over slavery so much that they decided to go to war, and the North ultimately won.  In actuality, it is a bit more complicated than that.

Slavery was not the immediate cause of the war.  Secession was.  But slavery played a role in the secession of eleven states from the United States of America.  My aim in this first post is to comment on the issue of American slavery, mainly in an effort to expose oversimplified thinking on this issue.

It is easy to say that slavery is bad, it should have been abolished, and thus the Union stands on the moral high ground.  But the reality is much more nuanced than that.  First, I would argue that slavery per se is not an unqualified evil.  Scripture does not portray it that way.  Nowhere do we read in Scripture that slave owners must immediately release their slaves so as to end their participation in an unqualified evil.  In fact, the apostle Paul deliberately sent Onesimus, a runaway slave, back to his master Philemon, thereby acknowledging Philemon’s rights over the him (Philemon 8-14).  Scripture does not condemn slavery, though it does not present it as the ideal.  Instead, Scripture presents the institution of slavery as a reality to be managed in a fallen world.  In many cases, slavery has provided otherwise destitute people with their only opportunity to survive.  We may bristle at the idea of one person owning another, but that was often better than the alternative.  Scripture commands slaves to submit to their masters, and it commands masters to treat their slaves well.  But there is no command in Scripture to abolish slavery wherever it exists.  I cannot condemn the southern states for allowing slavery per se to exist.

However, there is at least one major aspect of southern slavery that is diametrically opposed to Scripture, and that is the racial component.  The New Testament addresses slavery in the Roman Empire, which was an economic, not an ethnic, reality.  By contrast, slavery in the United States was predicated on the idea of the inferiority of the African race.  The percentage of slave owners relative to the total population in the South was low, but the notion of white supremacy was entrenched among slave owners and non-slave owners alike.

My own home state of Texas, in its official declaration of causes for secession, affirmed the following in response to northern abolitionists:

In all the non-slave-holding States, in violation of that good faith and comity which should exist between entirely distinct nations, the people have formed themselves into a great sectional party, now strong enough in numbers to control the affairs of each of those States, based upon an unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of equality of all men, irrespective of race or color– a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of Divine Law. They demand the abolition of negro slavery throughout the confederacy, the recognition of political equality between the white and negro races, and avow their determination to press on their crusade against us, so long as a negro slave remains in these States.

Southerners had a strong sense of social hierarchy.  They believed the inequality of the races was ordained by God for the good of his creation.  They furthermore believed that the subjugation of blacks through the institution of slavery was the best way to enable blacks and whites to live together peacefully in a society.  They believed that the institution of race-based slavery was not only economically advantageous, but also socially beneficial.

And in this, they stood against Scripture.  To be sure, there is hierarchy in creation.  But Scripture is abundantly clear that people of all nations are equally made in the image of God and that people of all nations are equally heirs of salvation in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:27-28).  The major controversy that rocked the New Testament church, leading to the first major church council, was specifically a racial issue.  When confronted with the question of whether or not Gentiles could be accepted and remain in the church as Gentiles or whether they had to submit to circumcision and adherence to the Jewish Law, the church at Jerusalem, under divine direction, came to the conclusion that justification by faith entails the admission of the Gentiles to the church as they are (Acts 15).  God made the two (Jews and Gentiles) into one new man in Christ (Ephesians 2:11-22).

Slavery per se must not be demonized.  It is not the ideal, but neither is it an unqualified evil.  However, the underlying justification for southern slavery, namely, the notion of racial inferiority, stands opposed to the gospel.  The South certainly had its hands dirty.

But does that mean the North was as pure as the wind-driven snow?  Hardly.  That subject will arise in due course.

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One Response to Reflecting on the Civil War, Part 1

  1. Spartacus says:

    I agree entirely with your working out of the differences between Roman and Ante-bellum slavery. Even Roman slavery had a racial aspect though. They thought of those that were not Romans or Hellenized as racially inferior and even the Greeks while acknowledging there intellectual superiority still thought of them as less than Roman. Think of the German treatment of inferior races during the Second World War. I think that slavery while necessarily evil the institution leads men to develop these patterns of belief. This is one reason why Christianity was so radical in the Roman world. It taught that all were equal in the sight of God, and while Christianity said this was a spiritual reality and did not affect ones physical condition, it does undercut much of the philosophical justification that Romans and Southerns used to justify slavery.

    Another point you make that slavery was not the central cause of the war is a good one. The tariff situation was much more important to southerns and was a larger threat to the Southern economy. The central idea was that Southerns felt like their way of life was under attack by the North and that as the North continued to gain power their ability to live in a Union with them would become impossible. The vast majority of Northerns did not want to free the slaves and this only became a war aim at the end of the second year of the war.

    Good books to read about the war are Shelby Foote’s Trilogy and McPherson’s single volume. Foote’s is better but 4x the length.

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