An hour or so, naturally, after I posted here a few days ago, my comments on the Facebook post of the friend in Texas received their reply. Since I’m really keeping a record of my own FB-comment acts and proceedings, not rehashing a conversation, I won’t quote in full. For clarity, though, here’s part of what he wrote:
I feel that you believe there’s never been much Christianity in America because many Christians believed that slavery — that is, treating people as property — was permissible? If this is what you mean, I confess that I believe many Christians today live with similar self-serving and wrong views. . . . I have met people whom I consider authentic Christians who formerly held — but repented of — belief about abortion. I consider the Christians who formerly held these beliefs to be authentic Christians who have abandoned an erroneous way of thinking. I think there must be many Christians of earlier times who at one time held wrong beliefs about slavery and later repented. In my mind these were real Christians. Many of them sought freedom and justice for slaves.
Excessive admiration for heroes can be idolatry, and monuments can promote idolatry. However, I ask you: isn’t the seat of idolatry in the heart of the idolater? . . . Like you, I value the monuments to American heroes. Still, if they are causing serious heart issues in other people I am willing to see them put aside. However, we should recognize that putting aside monuments accomplishes nothing if we only replace them with other monuments that offend a different group of people. So, people of all opinions about the Civil War and race relations need to continually examine our hearts.
I pray that we Americans choose to value and respect each other. This will solve many problems. This is hard to bring about, but I have seen God accomplish it many times. Perhaps He will for people of today’s United States.
I’ve gone rounds in this vein with moderation-minded, sincerely believing friends and fellow Americans (people like me, in short) elsewhere in past — and made better contributions to the conversation in those instances than I did in this, possibly, though I don’t really remember. In this instance, I didn’t bother trying to avoid talking past my friend. But, then, neither did he entirely avoid it. Talking past each other, each dealing with what we see as the other’s faulty assumptions by demonstrations of ability to see further rather than by direct confrontation, is sort of in the nature of the exercise in this case. Maybe that itself is part of what I ought to think of as deserving examination.
At any rate, I thanked him and acknowledged that what I’d said previously amounted to a rant, then redoubled:
There is a certain amount of deliberate overstatement in saying that there’s never been much Christianity in America. But it’s fair to say, at the same time, that this just follows a pretty strict reading of the apostolic word, with its great burdens of apocalypse and renunciation. Those of us who’ve really believed in an American ideal in one fashion or another, ‘left’ and ‘right’ alike, generally abhor such a strict reading — in part because of the immoderate life choices and susceptibility to plain heresy of people who tend the other way, sometimes on especially wild display in American fringe (and not-quite-fringe!) religious experiment — but it’s doubtful the debate’s in our favor in the end.
It isn’t American national crimes, the slave system prominent but only a contender for the worst among them, that I’m narrowly about there. Idolatry is to erect a savior and source of life rival to God. Sober assessment of what began and what’s evolved as our characteristic religious culture can conclude, and among outsiders has concluded, often enough, that Christianity in this country serves normatively as a mask set on our true, essential faith in salvation to be found in American order and national destiny itself. These days, I’m leaning toward the much soberer, less forgiving view of ourselves among history’s appropriators of Christian name. That’s all I’m saying.
From that angle, of course, the monuments to Confederates are really little more offensive to Christian sensibility than the monuments to Founders. And then, too, tearing them down is by no means the only thoroughgoingly Christian way to expose the idol behind them. But it would be a pretty compelling way, I’m inclined to think, looked at through the lens of all 2,000 years of history from Christ’s coming.
A little later I added a follow-up, recalling in form my original comment.
If we were Christians, we’d mock any monument to a great man. We’d only have time for monuments to people no one had ever heard of, the meanest — to a guy who broke some persistent addiction late in life, say, or a woman who landed in prison for some idiot white-collar crime and discovered a side of humanity previously unknown to her in friendship with a cellmate.
It’s several days since I left these. They’ve had no reply, and this time, I assume, none is coming. That’s okay; I don’t know how much good there is in extending this kind of exchange — a doubt to which I’m led by a certain amount of experience with extending this kind of exchange.
I’m after several things in the comments, I think. One is to resist the idea, common to a lot of public chatter in the wake of last weekend’s events in Charlottesville, especially around the question of disposition of the country’s many Confederate memorials, that what’s at issue in America today is a national divide that could or should have begun to be resolved with the war fought a century and a half ago. That enormously popular idea, for which Abraham Lincoln (his monument the greatest of all, of course) stands as icon in our dominant story of the country’s place in world civilizational history, takes various expressions and belongs as much to those who want to uphold Southern nobility mythology as to those who want to suppress it. Hard to say how well I’ve thought through my resistance to the national divide story line, but I am hopeful in any event of grasping it more fully, in time, without falling into an easy sort of leftism.
Another thing I’m after, more important to me, is to say simply that Christian faith is distinguished from the beginning by the faculty for seeing through all sorts of societal and civilizational appearance of human greatness. This isn’t implicitly an impulse of destruction toward monuments, statuary or other — a point that my comments cloud at first and then attempt to clear up. But it is my own attraction to these monuments, the memorials to the Confederacy and also all those that the moral tide of the moment mostly isn’t against, with that of people (like this Texas friend) among whom mine was formed, that immediately presents itself in the week’s little swell of public controversy as obscuring to the Christian light that so many of us Americans have imagined we stand for revealing.