“… through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross…” (Col. 1:20).
Think about it. The grace of God is what allows us to start over. When God declares a man clean, he really is clean. When the blood of Jesus washes a woman clean, she really is clean. There may be pieces to pick up. There may be restitution to do. But it’s the forgiveness and cleansing accomplished by the cross that allows people to put things right without demanding a pound of flesh (or ten) in the process. But short of this kind of grace, people are necessarily driven by resentment or shame, frequently oscillating between the two and sometimes holding them together however contradictory.
And this applies to nations and cultures as much as it does personal relationships. One of the greatest scars on our collective memories is the American Civil War. Our collective sins of pride and racial prejudice and cruelty and greed spilled onto battlefields where over 600,000 men lost their lives in the course of four years. Today we are still reeling from many of the shocks of those events. The remaining racial animosity and distrust in many places in our country, the massive overreach of the federal government, deep resentments, bitterness, wrongs, shame, and mistrust cloud our collective memories and afflict our souls. From the federal tyrannies that overturn the constitutions of states defining a marriage as the union of one man and one woman to the chaotic rage of Ferguson, Missouri or Baltimore, Maryland — we are still experiencing the deep trauma of the Civil War.
And this is why Jesus was crucified. He was crucified to make peace through the blood of His cross, to reconcile all things – whether things on earth or things in heaven, whether things in government or things on plantations, whether things in families or things in cities, whether things between old friends or things between old enemies.
In a best case scenario, some Union generals and soldiers really were fighting for justice and mercy, but the historical record suggests something of a far more besotted, complex reality. The generals Sherman, Sheridan, Grant, and others are on historical record for being white supremacists and racists and primarily opposed slavery because it tended to get in the way of big businesses in the north (railroads, factories, etc.), jobs for lower class whites, and the expansion and centralization of the federal government. Several of the new “free” states entering the Union simultaneously outlawed blacks from living in them. No slavery, but also, no free blacks either. Perhaps many things motivated these men, and we don’t have to thoroughly demonize them to suggest any number of human concerns. With population booming in the north, jobs were needed to provide for the needs of many, land was needed to create living space for the many, not to mention food, clothing, and homes. And with all of these expansions, it could be natural to look to the biggest fish in the pond (the federal government) to help balance the many different interests while expanding opportunities for many. They were deeply flawed men who believed they were choosing various “lesser evils” for the sake of what they considered greater goods.
And on the flip side, the Confederacy hardened its vision around the institution of slavery, attempting to ground white supremacy in natural law or even Scripture. As the northern states pushed back against southern interests, it seems pretty clear that a deep bitterness drove southern secession. In some places, it was the offensive notions of centralization and federal expansion, but in other places it was clearly identified centrally with the institution of slavery and racial animosity. But again, there’s no need to demonize every one of the southern leaders, many of whom were sincere, though deeply flawed, Christians. They saw the growing liberalism in the churches of the north. They saw the creeping federalism of the north. They saw the greed and ambition and racist hypocrisies of the north. Best case scenario, they believed they were choosing lesser evils for the sake of what they considered greater goods.
There are harsh lessons here for us, and perhaps most centrally is the failure of fellow Christians to avoid such a bloodbath. Despite the massive problems on both sides, it’s a failure of basic Christian living for two sides in a conflict filled with so many professing Christians not to have reached a peaceful resolution. And if not before the first shot was fired, why not after the first four thousand lay dead after the First Battle of Bull Run?
In some ways, the culture wars being fought today have many of the same elements being fought over going all the way back to the 1860s. This is why I think it’s worth asking questions about how the war might have been avoided. I tweeted a paraphrase from Thomas Dilorenzo’s controversial book The Real Lincoln the other day: “6.6 billion spent by the North in the Civil War might have purchased all slaves along with 40 acres for each.” One friend linked me to a Ta-Nihisi Coates article addressing that very question. Coates’ argument is essentially that there wasn’t really enough money to do that and therefore would have required a gradual emancipation and steep debt, and besides, the South believed slavery and white supremacy was the will of God so they wouldn’t have wanted to. On the latter point, Coates has another article where he lays that out far more clearly in the words of southerners themselves, which is important and eye-opening. But be that as it may, Coates’ argument that there wasn’t enough money to do that is belied by the fact that the north and the south somehow came up with over 12 billion dollars to fight the civil war. Now granted, that funding may have come through steep debts and other unfortunate sources, but the point stands. We ended up spending over 12 billion dollars and over six hundred thousand lives. Couldn’t we have found some way to avoid war? Wouldn’t a gradual emancipation still have been better than the bloodbath that occurred along with the whiplash and trauma we are still experiencing today? Maybe the southerners would have initially balked at an offer of compensated emancipation, but did the north even seriously try? And would they have tried again and again? Dilorenzo claims that the south proposed several peaceful resolutions throughout the course of the war but they were ignored.
These questions are directly connected to our current situation, filled as it is, with many similar dynamics. Since 1973, we’ve murdered over 50,000,000 babies through legal abortion, targeting many black babies in particular. If violence and bloodshed justified overturning the constitutionally protected rights of some men to own other men, how can anyone object to people blowing up abortion clinics, where other men and women are dismembered and their organs are harvested and sold? Why can’t the state of Louisiana invade Florida in order to end abortion there? Or as racial tensions continue to build in some cities, how can we (consistently) object to violent outbursts? Go read liberal Vox editor Emmett Rensin’s recent twitter tirade from June 3 to see somebody from the left noticing similar schizophrenia on the left with regard to the recent violence at Trump rallies.
And to be clear, the point is: Christians ought to be at the forefront of seeking peaceful solutions to the horrific effects of sin. But at the center of our appeal must be the blood-soaked cross of Jesus Christ. That isn’t a pious platitude. That’s the only way justice can actually be meted out. It’s the only way animosity can truly die, the only way bitterness can be swallowed by sincere forgiveness. It’s the only way restitution can be a true restoration and not a backhanded way of squeezing another pint of blood out of a brother for what he (or his ancestors) did to me and my ancestors. Apart from the cross, there is no way to get back to ground zero, there is no way to start over. We are always hedging our bets, always suspicious, always worried that some infraction, some injustice will go unpunished, unnoticed, unpaid for, and I (or my children) will get stabbed in the back in the process. But the cross is God’s promise to pay for it all, that no injustice will go unnoticed or unpunished, and that the dead in Christ will never be lost or forgotten. And from the foot of the cross, we can begin to move forward. We can have hope for true peace, true healing, true reconciliation.
And from the shadow of the cross of Jesus, we can even look backward and imagine how certain tragedies might have been avoided, so that we might avoid repeating them.