We Confess! The Civil War, The South, And The Church, by Deborah Brunt
[Note: I received a copy of this book free from the author in exchange for an honest review.]
While I do not consider myself a southerner, having been born in Western Pennsylvania of Appalachian stock and largely keeping my particular “border North” viewpoint despite my many years of sojourning in the South as a barely tolerated outsider, I have witnessed enough of the South and its ways to recognize its ways. As an outsider to the South myself, it would not be just for me to write this sort of searing and heartfelt account, largely because we are called to confess our own sins rather than those of others. At the heart of this passionate plea for confession on the part of the South and on Southern Baptists in particular and conservative evangelicals influenced by the culture of the South in the wider sense is an understanding that confession for our own sins is what brings us the gracious mercy of God through Jesus Christ, while the confession of the sins of others gets us nothing but unhelpful pride that we do not share in the horrible sins of our neighbors, whatever sins those may be.
This book is well-researched, looking specifically from the Southern Baptist tradition (which I do not share, but which I witnessed from my own childhood spent in rural Central Florida where the local Southern Baptist church served as the de facto recognized church, containing the economic and political elites of the small town where I grew up and many other towns that I visited in my youth in nearby areas). As someone who is not a Southern Baptist historian, I was unfamiliar with the close link between slavery agitation and the explicit support of the SBC for the Confederacy, or for the importance of Landmarkism as an exclusivist view of Southern Baptists as the only true church, though I have seen enough of those tendencies in the religious tradition where I come from to recognize the similar origin of my own religious culture from the troubled and corrupt religion of the South. The highest and most genuine compliment I can give this book is that it takes the same approach that I do about my own religious tradition, and that is that I pray to God to open the hearts of my own brethren and to heal our own hearts and forgive our own sins so that we may be a more fit example of His ways, rather than seeking merely to condemn the sins of others.
This book is organized in such a matter as to openly wrestle with the sins of the South and the Southern Baptist tradition in particular (and the larger conservative evangelical culture where applicable). The book opens by talking about the celebration of the South for its culture and history, celebration that is, in fact misguided in that it is based on the wholesale exploitation of the land, blacks, women, indigenous peoples, and others. Next comes a chapter on the song of deliverance, not only from physical slavery but from ancestral patterns of sin and iniquity. Following this comes an excellent analysis on the contrast between the native oak that God planted in the South and the troubles caused by southern idolatry with King Cotton. After this comes an examination of the role of fasting in Southern religious culture, a surprisingly personal allegory of foundations, a very frightening look at the blood covenant between the lost cause postwar South and the corpse of the Confederacy, an examination of the divided heart of people abused by their husbands as well as the South as a whole between loyalty to their region and to God, as well as an examination of the splendor of God and the nature of blessings (as well as a look at a particularly irritating Southern custom of saying “bless your heart” in a condescending fashion). The book closes with a personal confession of faith and repentance on behalf of her and her people.
As good as this book is, there are some flaws to it that need to be pointed out. Some minor flaws include an example of saying that the Civil War ended in 1864, a minor typo, as well as a slightly unclear point about the relationship between returning and repenting. More serious issues include a highly Trinitarian flavor that seeks to personalize the Holy Spirit to an unbiblical degree. However, the most serious issue with this book is an aspect of Southern culture that merits repentance and that manages to connect many of the author’s concerns together but that the author never even mentions once. Conservative Southern “Christian” culture has transferred many of the restrictions on action on the Sabbath, which was commanded by God to be observed on the seventh day, to the first day, a day never hallowed by God or celebrated by Jesus Christ and His disciples until later gnostics and other heretics sought to avoid the Sabbath of creation and follow the supposed “eighth day” or the pagan “day of the sun.” Of particular importance to the thesis of this book is that the biblical Sabbath itself (see in particular Leviticus 23 and 25) commands rest for all people in one’s society, commands a rest for the land, and commands periodic freedom from slavery and freedom from debts as well as a periodic reading out of the law at the Feast of Tabernacles every seven years. Thus concerns about education, exploitation of the land and people, as well as rest and restoration are all aspects of the Sabbath day that the South, in its desire to legalistically observe a day nowhere commanded by God, ignore to their peril. This avoidance of the Sabbath is a major gap in the author’s otherwise sincere and heartfelt and pointedly accurate confession of the sins of her own people and her own religious tradition. We should all be so honest and heartfelt in the confession of our own individual and corporate sins. It goes without saying that this book contains a great deal of very pointed and applicable biblical quotes from a variety of translations that make many of the author’s points for her.