It is no surprise to a reader of this blog that I take a deep interest in the American Civil War. I had an ancestor who died as a Union soldier , and I grew up as a proud northerner whose hatred of slavery and racism led me into constant arguments with racist neo-Confederates who denied that slavery was the cause of the American Civil War , fatuously claimed that slave owners were good Christians who obeyed God’s laws , or denied the sordid realities of the internal slave trade . Beyond the specific questions about antebellum slavery in the American South, I have studied slavery in the Bible  and closely examined the antislavery implications of Philemon , and also examined the Arab slave trade . And I could keep going on and on, if I wished to, to give many more ways in which my writing and research have touched on the subject of slavery, if I so chose. In short, I have a far greater interest in the issue of slavery than most people, both due to my combative nature, my fascination with freedom (and its opposite state), and my personal history as a northern-born Lincoln man raised in the unreconstructed rural South.
My interest today is not talking about slavery per se, but rather using slavery as a sort of entrance into a different subject, and that is the way in which people like abortion supporters, neo-Nazis, and neo-Confederates seek to defend the indefensible by similar strategies as were used in the times of Hitler and by the wicked rebel leaders during the Civil War. How does one defend the brutal slavery and exploitation of others, the mass murder of the innocent, and other related atrocities? As it happens, there are very few ways to do this–and fundamental to all of these arguments is a denial of the humanity of the oppressed and exploited group. In order to avoid the cognitive dissonance of how a supposedly enlightened and civilized (and Judeo-Christian) person or group of people can do such wicked things to God’s children, one has to deny their humanity at the outset. Once you concede the humanity of a black African (or American Indian or other people whom one wishes to exploit), or a Jew or an unborn child, then the proper dignity and honor (and the hostility toward those who would deny them) tend to follow rather naturally and easily. Just as easily, if you deny that humanity, than the support and defense of such cruel and inhumane treatment also follow rather naturally.
What is scary about this reality is that we cannot assume ourselves to be exempt from this sort of behavior. If we are raised in a place where a given group of people is thought of as an animal, or is treated as an animal, in denial of their status as human beings created in the image and likeness of Our Heavenly Father, we might think of them very easily as an animal. If we see people who live in very rough circumstances and who seem to lack civilized graces, be they refugees or homeless or any other marginalized group of people, it is a very easy thing, even in the absence of any desire to exploit such people ourselves, to think of them as a lesser order of being. When we do have the desire to eradicate or exploit others, reasons and justifications are never lacking for considering someone else as less than human. We cannot point fingers at others without seeking to understand how the process works ourselves–anytime someone is made a scapegoat for our struggles or suffering or difficulties, that person or group of people can be turned into a subhuman order and leave us devoid of any sort of generosity or charity toward that group of people, be it a religious group, socioeconomic class, or ethnic group. Differences can always be found, and in the presence of the wicked these are enough to deny human status and justify any sort of mistreatment that we could wish to inflict upon others.
We must remember that all of these thoughts and rationalizations are going on in the mind of the would-be exploiter or oppressor. No claims made by the out-group would be able to justify or warrant being treated with proper human respect and dignity, because once someone else deems someone else to be subhuman (and all grounds for so doing are spurious), then the person so labeled has no standing to defend themselves as human at all. The category becomes reality in the mind of the oppressor, who assuages whatever lingering and vestigial guilt about his or her cruelty by arguing that his or her actions are in accordance with nature and that they cannot be overcome or ignored by the soft-hearted and ignorant. At that point, not only is the original marginalized class stigmatized, but anyone who stands up in defense of that marginalized group is then attacked for impiety or treason on some level for daring to stand up to the wicked social order of the antebellum South or Nazi Germany or the horrors of our immoral socialist states which make it criminal acts to speak out against sexual sins or the murder of the innocent unborn.
But this process of progressive demonization does not stop when such an evil regime is defeated. Certainly, many willing executioners or secondary elites who never crossed the line of ultimate evil may feel guilty or ashamed at their past conduct, and will not wish to hear the subject brought up again for generations because of their lasting shame and guilt over having crossed the line as a civilization into such barbarism as to deny humanity to their fellow brethren in such a flagrant way. But, there inevitably are a small group of people who rise up against being stigmatized by the mistakes of the past, who seek to whitewash the monuments of their wicked ancestors, and who may even seek to follow in the work of their fathers to continue in their wicked ways and overturn the defeats of the past.
There may be different motives one has for defending the indefensible. On the one hand, one could seek to honor one’s ancestors by joining in their causes. This can be good if their causes were good (as was the cause of liberty for which my own ancestor died in the American Civil War), or it can be bad, if one dedicates one’s self to the causes of tyranny and exploitation and evil that one’s ancestors fought for. The fact that a cause or belief system is ancestral does not make it good–good and evil are judged by an impartial and timeless external (biblical) standard. And many people are drawn to support causes because they are ancestral, and judged as patriotic and loyal, no matter how wicked they are. It is hard to believe evil of our ancestors because that seems to reflect badly on us, just as we bask in the reflected glory of the virtues of our Fathers, as defending the virtues of the past is a way of sharing in the virtue of those who came before us.
Of course, there may be other motives as well, mixed in with the ancestral motives. For example, a hostility to egalitarianism (which may result from either a too-great opposition to socialism without tempering one’s love of liberty with a love of equality, in the sense of loving one’s neighbor as yourself, and in seeing all mankind as being created in the image and likeness of God and on equal standing with ourselves, or a desire to be among the class of elites, which requires putting down those judged as lesser orders of beings whose role is to be exploited and treated like ignorant cattle). Greed is a powerful motive to support unjust and morally indefensible orders that exploit others for our own personal benefit, because an understanding that others are our equals makes it unjust for them to slave away in factories or fields to make our clothing and electronics or pick our crops and be treated as animals. And it also makes us complicit in those unjust systems within our own societies if we choose not to speak out against them. When our morality is pitted against our profit motive, our morality often loses because we judge it as too expensive to our standard of living or our sense of dignity and pride.
And so we defend the indefensible, and we are corrupted by our lust and pride and greed and arrogance to do under others as was done by those wicked who came before us. Whether we do it out of the motives of defending our own virtue by defending what our wicked ancestors did and said and believed, or because of our own self-interest, in either way we become corrupted by our evil ideologies. We become corrupted because it leads us to actually commit evil, support those who do, and because it denies the humanity of our brothers and sisters of some kind. Whatever suffering others have to endure because of our evil is less than the harm we do to ourselves by our denial in the humanity of our neighbors, because for that damage that we do to ourselves to be healed there has to be genuine remorse for what we have done and supported, and that remorse is far more humiliating after one has walked a life of evil for one’s entire life, and passed that evil down to generations afterward. Small wonder, then, that few among the greatly evil ever try it, or that evil ideologies survive for generation after generation because the pain and shame of remorse are so great, and so lacking is our sense of love for our fellow human beings.