I came across this entertaining little video from the Christian Broadcasting Network which examines the religious convictions of John Jasper, R.E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson. It is somewhat humorous to find these two men being raised to something along the lines of civil rights activists. The questionable story of Lee accepting communion in a Richmond church next to a black man and just after the war is explored along with Jackson’s mission to educate his slaves and other blacks in the Lexington area. I found this passage by James I. Robertson to be just a bit curious:
As he saw it, slavery was something that God ordained upon black people in America for God’s own reasons," Robertson said. "And he had no right to challenge God’s will. That was blasphemy. And so, while he hated slavery, he was opposed to slavery, Jackson had to obey his Heavenly Father and accept the system. And he accepted it through doing the Golden Rule, do unto others as he would wish they do unto him.
Here is what I don’t understand. If God brought slavery to black people than how is it possible that Jackson "hated" or was "opposed" to it? To put it another way, isn’t God’s ordaining something to be the case a justification of its existence? As I understand it, if Jackson questioned slavery than he was also questioning God’s justification for it – whether he understood the reasons or not. I don’t see how it is possible to reconcile the claim that Jackson "had no right to challenge God’s will" on the one hand and the belief that he hated slavery. On what grounds could Jackson question slavery without coming into conflict with God’s willing it to be the case? I am the first to admit that I am no expert on these difficult religious issues.
There is something very disturbing about this evangelical view of religion. On 9-11 I lost a cousin to religious fanatics who fervently believed that their God demanded that they fly planes into buildings and kill innocent people. No one reading this blog would have been disappointed if before the attack one or more of the terrorists had come to the realization that this in fact is not what God demands. We wouldn’t argue that this revised/non-violent view is "blasphemous", but that it is in fact closer to a proper religious/moral life. We expect people to question the way they treat others.
This brings me back to the question of why we are so tolerant of this authoritarian mindset in other cases. The idea that a slaveowner had no reason to or couldn’t question the theological foundations of slavery is ludicrous. By the mid-19th century there were plenty of examples in both north and south of individuals and groups who repudiated the idea that God sanctioned or imposed slavery on blacks. The idea that Jackson was unaware of such movements is impossible to imagine. Did Jackson believe that those people who were working towards the freedom of slaves on religious grounds were disobeying God’s law? If so, then who ought we be critical of and who, in fact, should we celebrate for doing God’s work? I am not criticizing Jackson’s Presbyterian convictions, but what I am wary of is what appears to be an authoritarian psychology that allows for little questioning or the possibility that one’s moral view of the world needs to evolve. We’ve seen the consequences of blind obedience over the course of the twentieth-century, from the Nazis to Stanley Milgram’s labs at Yale.
The other thing that irks me is this notion that we can make sense of the Golden Rule within a slave system. I am always left with the same question: does a slaveowner wish to be treated like a slave? What about the perspective of the slaves themselves – where do they fit in? Did Jackson’s slaves believe that the Golden Rule was being followed? Is the lesson of Jackson that as long as we apply the Golden Rule within our own set of assumptions regarding its extension than it is safe to conclude that we are living a moral life or carrying out God’s expectations? I am going to go out on a limb here and suggest that slaveowners do not properly apply the Golden Rule. Seems to me there are plenty of examples of individuals in history who come much closer to doing justice to this beautiful moral/ethical concept than a slaveowner.