It can be all too tempting for us to look to one particular event or issue as defining our lives. As a student of 19th century history, for example, I have spent a great deal of time studying the Civil War since childhood. In looking at the causes of the Civil War, there is a great deal of debate as to whether the Civil War was caused by slavery or by whatever ad hoc other reason, like “state’s rights” or different cultures, divided the Union so dangerously. The fact is that slavery was the cause, at least ultimately, but that its influence upon events was not always straightforward. Slavery had so deeply shaped the economic and political system of the South that they could not conceive of life without it, as those whites who had wanted a better life for themselves, like Abraham Lincoln’s own ancestors, had moved to the free states for themselves. The concern that freed blacks would behave towards whites as they had themselves been treated personally and ancestrally remains a fear of Southern society, even in border states like Maryland and Missouri, to this day . The same arguments about the importance of defending the purity of blood from admixture that were trotted out in the 1850’s were then trotted out a century later when Jim Crow laws were threatened . This is not to say that those who were opposed to slavery were free from racism—states like Illinois and Oregon wanted to be free of both slavery and blacks—but it is to say that slavery was seen as either a necessary prop for culture or as an insidious cancer inside the body politic that brought corruption wherever it spread to. That my views are clearly the latter does not mean a lack of empathy for those who struggled with the moral dilemma, or a belief that I am free from what I detest in others, but rather that by pointing to an ideal of health within society even as within individual, we can then achieve such health, whether as people or institutions or society.
It is not by coincidence that I started studying the Civil War as a child. Indeed, as is the case with so much else in life, it may have been overdetermined. As I child I grew up as a Yankee, with a mild Western Pennsylvanian accent, in rural Central Florida, where even into adulthood giant Confederate flags flew beside the interstate, and smaller versions of the flag commonly graced the beaten-up pickup trucks of my neighbors. The past was not dead; it was not even past. The fact that my own neighbors treated me a certain way not to my liking because of something that had happened long before made the past a matter of present interest, and the fact that the Civil War mirrored the divided state of my own family and many of the institutions I have been a part of has also made the Civil War of particular relevance, especially because one could see the similarity between familial and institutional and societal struggles for power where failure to achieve or maintain dominance was followed by the threat of or move for separation and divorce. These sorts of similarities led a buddying young cynic to see institutions of importance to many others not for the sake of those institutions or the people who they serve, but rather as a place for offices and preferment. The cost of witnessing and experiencing this behavior and reflecting upon it was not all at once, but it took a while to develop.
My elementary school was founded by Irish-American immigrants in 1867, just after the Civil War, as Cork Academy . Even during the Civil War, Cork Station had served as one of the points along the cattle drives that went up from the Peace River basin in Polk and Manatee Counties to the larger cities like Ocala and Gainesville to the north. During reconstruction, a modest private school was set up in the area where I grew from a toddler into a teenager that later became the elementary school for a substantial portion of rural Hillsborough County, from Knights Station (a neighboring area) all the way to Antioch near Lake Thonotosassa, and down to Dover, an area best known, if it is known at all, for either its strawberries or its kitschy Dinosaur World. I mention this because 1867 was during the Reconstruction where the victorious political and military leadership of the North sought to reconstruct the defeated South in order both to rebuild the capacity for republican self-government as required in the Constitution and justice for its full citizenry. The goals were at cross-purposes—justice for blacks and poor whites required the restraint of unredeemed and unreconstructed traitors, and republican self-government meant being run by racist hooligans. Eventually the North tired of direct rule, and let the Southerners alone, at the cost of decades of Jim Crow and literacy laws that made poor whites and blacks sharecroppers in a dismal land viewed by those few Yankees who visited as the site of their own entrepreneurial efforts of railroad and resort-building. It was in one of those efforts that in the 1880’s both Plant City and Tampa, Florida would be incorporated as cities thanks to the efforts of Henry B. Plant, and thanks to the railroad and the roads that followed, from US 92 to I-4 to a bevy of expressways and parkways, the area has been connected to the growing megalopolis of Peninsular Florida. Yet even as the area was connected to the larger world, that area was not rehabilitated in any meaningful sense—its people were mocked as being uneducated rubes, and anti-intellectual attitudes towards the few bookish people who lived there served to justify that mocking among those who would be inclined to seek such justification. Whenever I would visit the area, I would be seen as an outsider, someone who was not from around there, and I made little effort to fit in, it must be conceded. Yet whenever I left there to go somewhere else, I was seen as being from there, of being the same sort of people as those who tormented me for being a fast-talking and bookish Northern boy with a fondness for befriending a multi-ethnic group of diverse fellow outsiders.
In many ways, though, this interest in broken institutions was overdetermined. I would have likely have been as interested in the Civil War as I am had I not grown up in an area where its relevance was painfully and insistently obvious. But I would not have grown up in that area without my own family being broken. And without that background, would the later brokenness of churches and even a nation in a rising period of partisan divides have been quite as serious a burden? When we examine the cost of something like a broken family or child abuse, it is not merely the direct damage that we must consider, but also the indirect repercussions of that damage as they course throughout a life and even throughout history. We must also take into account the way in which we can respond to the patterns we find in life. Yet when we consider the role of events, there is a tendency, as is the case with slavery as a cause of the Civil War, to wish to stop examining its full depth and attack an oversimplified version of it and claim to have dealt with the whole. We, and the circumstances we deal with as human beings, are far too complicated for such treatment to be just.
The hidden price of abuse reminds us of the complexity of our deeds and of our legacy. Abuse harms bodies, leaves the mind wrestling with scars, hinders the ability to let one’s defenses down for intimacy, harms the ability to trust, lowers the legitimacy of authority, and makes ordinary behaviors far more difficult to do successfully. These repercussions can extend far beyond the deeds done, for many generations. Even if someone is successfully able to resist copying the same behaviors modeled by others, there is the cost of resistance, of restraint, and of retraining and rebuilding. The reconstruction of a life is not unlike the reconstruction of a war-torn land like that of the American South or post-Nazi Germany. Sometimes there is no claim to reconstruction being made at all as every piece of moveable wealth is stripped from an already ravaged land, and at other times the desire to be seen as entirely reconstructed leads to sweeping unpleasant truths under the rug and not addressing them seriously or thoughtfully. In such a way, a party line can quickly be developed that keeps future investigations at a distance from the whole truth of a situation, so as to protect the fragile egos of secondary villains or enablers, even at the cost of denying justice to survivors of great evil.
Yet those who have survived evil cannot forget the evil that lies in their own heart and that, if unchecked, would do harm to others. A study of history, whether personal or societal, can often be an attempt to affix the blame for one’s suffering on other people. Yet those who are the most shrill historical victims often end up being the most notable oppressors—the example of Nazi Germany profiting off of a belief in victimization at the hands of vengeful enemies in Versailles in order to become global oppressors and evildoers on a massive, industrial scale comes readily to mind here, but it is far from the only example, as the history of any Communist regime will amply demonstrate as well. If we are to avoid this trap of seeing ourselves only as the victims of others’ evil and not as at least potential evildoers ourselves, our focus must be on standards of behavior and not on questions of identity politics. Yet when we look in our society at present when it comes to addressing wrongs, identity politics are what take place over and over again, where standards are inconsistently judged, and where people loudly demand their own right to do what they want, and refuse to grant to others the rights that they demand so stridently for themselves. If we are to avoid being hypocrites of the worst sort, we must recognize that evil is not a question of groups of people, but rather a problem that cuts across every human heart, even our own .
And perhaps that is the most insidious price of experiencing evil: the knowledge of the depths to which a soul can sink into darkness. Those whose lives are run-of-the-mill, whose experiences are tranquil and peaceful and ordinary have a certain dim moral imagination when it comes to being able to grasp just how dark mankind can fall. Those who have stared into the horror of great evil have no such luxury, for our own moral imagination is darkened because we know what people can do to other people. We may not have any firm idea why, but once one knows what is possible, giving the benefit of the doubt and assuming the best become all the more difficult. The most lasting and deep sort of knowledge is experience, and the reality of that experience is something that must be addressed in any efforts at restoration and rebuilding. If we wish to make the desert blossom like a rose, or if we wish to set free those imprisoned, or give sight to the blind, or give bread to the hungry till they thrive, we must recognize the repercussions of drought, imprisonment, blindness, and consuming hunger. For it is not merely the temporary gift of filling a need that we wish, but rather the changing of a life, to bring it in harmony with God’s ways, and that is a far greater task, and a far more lasting reward, than most of the efforts at reform and amelioration that we content ourselves with in this life.
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