[Note: Although I do not mention it specifically below, the contents of this blog entry were strongly influenced by a book I have been reading for the past couple of days, with its review forthcoming.]
This morning as I woke up, after doing my daily Bible reading, which happened to be some of the early chapters of Exodus where God was smiting the rebellious slaveowners of Egypt with plagues, I read a biographical essay on General Sheridan, which talked about how his experiences in the Civil War led him to see the directed military force from the federal government as the solution of choice to various problems of the postwar world like recalcitrant Southerners, western tribes of indigenous peoples who stood in the way of settlement, and striking urban industrial workers. A thought came to my mind that the lessons we learn from history are not necessarily the right ones. Once we have held the boom hammer and used it on someone, there is the tendency to view every resistant population as needing to be hammered into submission. We use exceptions and crises as providing the precedent for normal behavior, eschewing the ways of peace or the time it takes to build consensus, demanding rapid change or else.
I spent most of my childhood in the rural South between the ages of three and fourteen. Although the South had been defeated in the Civil War, and forced by that defeat to give up their slaves, the destruction of their slaveowning republic did not lead to a societal repentance over their sins. Far from it. Defiant against federal efforts at protecting the freed slaves, for almost a century the South (and not only the South) preserved a system of unjust racial dominance that was stopped by nine unelected Supreme Court justices using rather at times bogus legal reasoning in service of a just end, just as decisions like Dred Scot and Plessy vs. Ferguson had used bogus legal reasoning in service of unjust ends. For those who merely looked at the ends, it looked as if there was the possibility for social justice at last, after so many centuries of exploitation and abuse, but those who were more pessimistic would have been justified in recognizing that the bogus means of justifying massive social change by appealing to the feelings of those who were considered oppressed could be used in ungodly ways as well as godly ones. And so it has been.
As Americans, we live in a society that is caught up in a false dilemma. On one side of the dilemma is a South that still flies the battle flag of the army of Northern Virginia, that still honors its sculptures of long-dead rebels and traitors who lived and died in defense of their corrupt traditions. On this side of the false dilemma the supporters of tradition are supposed to stand, at least by design. There is no question that the South, at least the core of the South, still holds to their traditions despite everything that has happened in the past 150 years. Yet, in part, that is part of the problem, for traditions are not necessarily good. There has been no societal repentance, no widespread desire to be forgiven for the sins of our wicked fathers, for the theft of land, and the sale of human souls, for the treatment of children of God like mere chattel property. No, there has been a sullen replacement of the goals of dominating the country with a willingness to defend states’ rights, but just as consistently the federal government has been willing to enforce social change, deeply unpopular social change, via federal power.
Nor do those that cheer justice and moral excellence have anything to rejoice when force is necessary to enforce just laws and decisions, for a willingness to support what is right by force makes it easier to support what is wrong by force and to unforce ungodly social change by the mechanisms of government power, and with the goal of demonizing those who oppose such corrupt social change by tarring them with the same brushes of delegitimization as happened to those who were obviously and flagrantly unjust. No, the victorious North, and the supporters of the expansion of federal power and the use of that power to support social justice, has its own deep flaws, including the arrogance that comes from victory and the belief that progress is irresistible and irreversible, and that those who stand in the way of social progress and what one believes to be justice are enemies of the human race and outside of any need to negotiate, to restrain oneself, and to treat as a being created in the image and likeness of God. No, there is no celebration to be found in the other side of the false dilemma either, as we see that power being abused to punish those who resist the corrupt social changes of our corrupt and wicked progressive elites.
What, then, is left for good men, women, and children to do, who neither blindly follow tradition nor who blindly hate it ? How are we to resolve this false dilemma that pits justice against righteousness? We must defend another option, an option that does not at present appear to be part of the larger social discussion, but one which properly frames contemporary questions of societal immorality with questions of historical justice that are used to justify the same sort of oppressive behavior against both the righteous and unrighteous. In short, we must expose the false dilemma for what it is, and point to a standard of ethics and moral conduct that stands outside of us all, that is unchanging and eternal, and that is not subject to the whims of corrupt elites, or the shifting tides of what are considered to be progressive and enlightened views. We must resurrect the biblical worldview, and view both our contemporary society as well as history from that perspective, and in doing so we ensure that we are not committing the same sort of wickedness as either side in placing either a corrupt view of inevitable social progress or a corrupt holding on to any sort of tradition, without regard to whether it is good or evil as the standard by which to judge.
In a past discussion of my church’s doctrine on military service , I commented that the reason why it is improper for a Christian to volunteer for military service is that as a Christian we have already signed up for the army of God, to commit to fighting spiritual battles with spiritual weapons, and commit to a code of conduct that is strongly at variance with that required by soldiers who submit themselves to the authority of human officers who have no particular loyalty to God’s laws, under the guiding authority of a corrupt federal government that uses its military and constabulary consistently in support of unjust efforts both in the United States and abroad. As citizens of the Jerusalem that is above, and as soldiers in God’s army, we are to realize that ultimately the battles we engage in are not physical in nature but are spiritual, and are not to be won through conquest but through conversion of hearts and minds to God’s ways, through the development of godly character by the indwelling presence of God’s Holy Spirit and a lifetime of growing obedience to God’s laws and through outgoing love and graciousness towards other people, including those who do not in the least way deserve it, or even recognize it.
It is too late for us to undo the mistakes of the past. We cannot go back in time and urge the corrupt slaveowners of the South, or racists in the North, for that matter, to act in accordance with Christian justice and our common origin as children born in the image and likeness of our Heavenly Father. It is too late for us to act with malice towards none and charity towards all, so that defeated Southerners did not feel it necessary to hold on to their wicked cultural traditions in self-defense of their own human dignity. It is too late for us to undo the precedents of the past in the use and abuse of federal power to enforce unpopular social change without working slowly and gradually and effectively to build a consensus for those changes, to change hearts and minds and not only laws and authorities. What is done is done, and it cannot be undone. The evils of the past cannot be wiped away; we can only fight against their effects and seek to counteract them through retraining ourselves to act in better ways ourselves and not to fall into the errors of our fathers before us.
Yet in seeking to overcome the patterns of the past, we cannot demonize those who came before us either. Our fathers were people like ourselves, of a mixed nature of good and evil, just like everybody else. In honoring them despite their sins and wickedness, we set a proper example for others to honor us despite our own flaws and sins and weaknesses. In remembering that our enemies are created in the image and likeness of God, we are restrained in our hostility and our bloodlust, so that we treat even those who act against us with respect and concern and love, even as we oppose the wickedness they seek to force on the rest of us. When wielding the two-edged sword of the Word we must remember why that sword has two edges—it not merely seeks to cut others to the heart, to provoke them to godly sorrow leading to repentance from their wicked ways, but it also cuts against our own complacency and our belief in our own moral perfection. The same Bible that we use to cry aloud about the sins around us is the same Bible that we use to reprove ourselves of our own sins, and to remind us that just because someone commits evil does not mean that they are unworthy of love or respect, or else none of us would ever be deserving of these things that we all value so greatly and that we are commanded to give to others.
The right thing done the wrong way is the wrong thing. We cannot justify either supporting evil ends with good means, or supporting good ends with evil means. God is working with eternity in mind, focusing on the development of godly conduct, and the slow change of patterns of inbred wickedness, as well as the restraint of overly rapid and destructive social change. In seeking to become molded by the master potter into His image, we are to remember that this process requires that we abandon the wicked traditions of our fathers, but to remember that not all that is old is obsolete and worthy of being tossed out. Not all that is new is worthwhile and good either, but both tradition and change must be judged by the external standard of God’s ways, and must be lived in a way that is in keeping with our behavior in loving and respecting others and in behaving justly in a world that is often deeply unjust. Let us therefore live according to standards that are right, standards that are righteous and enduring, worth keeping not merely for being old, but because they represent the unchanging character of God above, and are ever new only because they are never perfectly modeled in any human institution or society, because every one of us and every age has its own distinct mixture of good and evil that requires its own repentance and reformation.
 See, for example:
 See, for example: