Earlier this week I participated in a somewhat contentious discussion about the causes of the American Civil War, a discussion which is always contentious because I grew up as a small child in the rural South who was nevertheless a self-aware Northerner. Those who are proud descendants of the defeated rebels strongly dislike the statements made by some historians that slavery was the cause of the Civil War. Nor do they admit to starting the war themselves, even though they certainly shot first at Ft. Sumter, first firing on an unarmed steamer providing the besieged fortress with food and then firing on the fortress itself and reducing it to rubble. Instead, these latter-day defenders of the Confederacy argue that it was Northern extremists that forced them into war, even though few Northern extremists were welcome even remotely close to where most Southerners lived, and would have been tarred and feathered for speaking or writing, or even reading, any material that was deemed inflammatory to the oversensitive delicacies of their prickly and thin-skinned neighbors. Did the North push the South to rebel? To be sure, there was a lot of squabbling, but it was over a series of political fights that had a lot to do with slavery—the organization of territories into states, whether free or slave, that would be defined by certain economic practices and governed by certain laws, all of which were related to the larger debate over slavery. In a way, the South was trapped with all bad options—its overzealous attempt at protecting slavery through the Senate and Supreme Court failed in the 1850’s as Northerners began to politically unite in large part over the free soil issue, which was ominous for the protection of the slave power, as it meant that a candidate (like Lincoln) would be able to win office simply by winning the free soil votes of the North, even without any votes at all in the Deep South, its attempts to expand into Kansas and Nicaragua and Cuba were all defeated by various measures, and those attempts at expansion (and others in Texas and Florida and New Mexico/Arizona) only made slavery less common in border states like Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware, as more and more slaves were sold down the river and the number of people living in those border states dependent on slavery for their economic well-being dropped to critically low levels that would end up leaving them unwilling to wholeheartedly support rebellion in 1861.
Despite the claims of many fierce and defiant Southerners, slavery was at the core of the differences between the sections, especially after the 1830’s. What issue led to the gag rule that denied the right of petitions to be read publicly in the House of Representatives, which was the constitutional right of the people of the United States? Slavery. What issue was at the core of the difference in the economic systems between the different parts of the United States that led to differences over tariff levels? Slavery. What issue was at the core of the “rights” that the South wanted to protect through the tactical approach of state’s rights? Slavery. What issue was it that discouraged immigrants from settling in the South while filling up the Midwest and the cities of the Middle Atlantic states and New England? Slavery. What issue was it where criticism inflamed the South eventually to rebellion because they were ultimately unable to reconcile their prickly and delicate sense of honor with the continual and pointed invective that was pointed their way by uncharitable abolitionists? Slavery. It is easy to see why Southerners do not want to admit all of the blame for the Civil War—they lost, some of them at least want to rise again at some point, and at any right even those whose political and social ambitions have been defeated in war are still human beings with honor and dignity that they wish to protect. No one wants to lose their power, their wealth, their sense of honor, and to be eternally foisted with the blame for a war that destroyed their hopes and dreams and ambitions. To be fair, there was a great deal of hypocrisy in the odium that was attached to slavery by those who took advantage of women, children, and foreigners in industrial factories for their own profits. Likewise, much of the language that was used to describe slaveowners, including those who managed to restrain themselves from the temptations involved with owning human property was uncharitable and hostile to an extreme degree. Any time there is a war or a conflict, there is plenty of blame to go around, much of it resulting from the attempts of those who consider themselves to be vulnerable and weak and under attack to defend themselves aggressively, provoking conflict that only leads to greater weakness and destruction. The situation of Germany in 1945 is not so different from that of the defeated Confederacy in 1865. Both defeated regimes were abhorrent in their ideals of racial domination, and both were ultimately defeated by more numerous and more logistically superior opponents. Yet in a sense both had felt provoked by their previous weakness, and by perceived injustices in treatment in the economic sphere by others. One need not concede the justice of their causes, for their causes were immensely unjust, to recognize that human beings do not handle continual assaults on their dignity and honor very well. A situation where one feels constantly under attack is generally one that will bring out the worst in all of us. Having need of compassion for our own situations, we ought to be charitable towards the agony of others, even those we deeply and profoundly disagree with.
When I am in a debate, or a fight, or some other kind of unpleasant confrontation, and when I am an unable to gracefully exit or defuse the situation and find a more congenial place for myself, I tend to be an extremely ferocious opponent. In debating the Civil War with others personally, for example, or any other number of issues that strike close to my childhood, in my heart I forget that I am a relatively strong man in my mid-30’s with a lot of education and a vastly better social and emotional context than I did as a small child. I forget the fact that I am larger, more popular, stronger, more understanding, possessed of more knowledge and wisdom, and more mature than I was at that young age. Despite all of the beneficial changes that have resulted since my early childhood, in my heart, when I am confronted with unpleasant and hostile environments, I am a small child again, vulnerable but particularly fierce, and those who attack me in that state of alarm often find out to their sorrow that I am not a pleasant person to spar with under such circumstances. I may be able to patiently endure slights and attacks for years, but woe be to those who push too far, and who attack my dignity and honor when they live in glass houses, because such people have often lived to feel the wrath of my pen as their hypocrisies and deep moral failings have become open subjects of impolite conversation. To be sure, after things have settled down and life is at peace again, I have often regretted the ferocity of my pen, regretted the ruptures with former friends and acquaintances who pushed too far and did not fully realize the depths of their offenses towards me because they were too concerned with themselves and their own ambitions and plans, but as is often the case, what has been said has been said and cannot be unsaid and what is done is done and cannot be undone. Yet the wounds, theirs and mine, remain, and in the aftermath of such ferocious conflict few people are able to apologize and accept their share of responsibility and blame for a catastrophe that no one ever really wanted in the first place. And even when some parties are willing to apologize for their own blunders, often their apologies are not recognized, understood, or accepted.
Unsurprisingly, it was childhood that gave me my first insight into this painful and unpleasant aspect of human life and behavior. Yet this is a lesson I have seen over and over and over again in the course of life. At the core of so much of the arguing and fighting, the silence and the violence that destroys friendships and marriages and the bond between parents and children and fellow brethren in congregations, there appears to be a consistent dissonance between how one sees oneself and one’s own demands for treatment and how one sees others. We see our own dignity offended and feel dishonored and disrespected, and we lash out, maybe with spoken or written words, maybe with evil glares and unfriendly body language, maybe with physical violence. And yet the people we attack feel the same way towards us, feel disrespected and disregarded by us, and do not recognize their own offenses towards us that are contributing to the problems. Often they may think we deserve the poor treatment by them, just as we may think the same in reverse. Everything that comes naturally to us, or to them, will only make the situation worse. We must act contrary to our human nature, and to do so requires the help of God. How are we to restrain ourselves from responding in kind to the abuses and torment that we suffer, so that we will help keep bad situations from spiraling down into worse and worse ones? How will we respond in love and kindness and graciousness to those who are totally unworthy of any of those by their own actions towards us, language used about us, and thoughts held towards us? How long does this have to be done before there is a chance to either find a better context where one is or find a better situation where the problem has been resolved definitively in some fashion, even if others never recognize or appreciate the kindness that has been shown to them. May God, who knows the suffering and torment of our hearts and spirits, the wounds within that we usually cover with a friendly smile and a grim determination to do the best we can, see us and vindicate our causes and give us the honor and dignity that we so richly deserve and by others are often and flagrantly denied. For there is little justice or mercy in this world; may we be fitting examples of the world to come, and help bind the wounds of our broken world, rather than merely create more wounds and breaks in the course of our blundering existence.