I’m currently, and very slowly, reading through a book called ‘The Civil War As A Theological Crisis’. It addresses the major faith problem for the Christians on both sides of the conflict. That problem is best summed up in this statement: both sides were convinced they were on the side of God. Both sides believed the ‘true meaning’ of the Bible supported their cause. Both sides believed goodness and common sense backed them up. With a few exceptions, both sides believed their rightness was quite obvious. Not many people saw or were willing to see how their own culture and bias played into their convictions.
The Christians in the South pointed to the ‘clear’ support of scripture- scriptures from both New and Old Testaments- which sanctioned slavery. America was commonly interpreted as a type of New Israel, a nation with His distinct favor and special purpose. White superiority and black inferiority was assumed based on ‘the curse of Ham’ and “common sense”. Slavery appeared to be an economical and social necessity. “If scripture and common sense supports racism and slavery”, they said, “then who are we to disagree… and who are those blasted Yankees in the north to tell us to abandon this God ordained institution called slavery?”
The Christians in the North tended to point to the ‘spirit of scripture’- the commands to love our neighbors and to treat others well. Many felt that slavery was clearly out of sync with Christianity, though those who argued this in the most broad terms came across to more conservative Christians as using scripture too loosely. There were also plenty of northerners who didn’t feel they could argue biblically with slavery as an institution per se, but turned the biblical commands around to point out that southern slavery wasn’t following ‘the rules’ put forth in biblical slavery passages. For example, slavery in the Bible had guidelines for how one could punish slaves and prohibitions on man stealing (kidnapping). Others appealed to “common sense” and “common decency” to decry the grotesque abuses of southern chattel slavery.
Then there were the black Christians, who lived in both north and south, whose passion and theological arguments had unique depth. They were obviously deeply acquainted with the abuses and results of slavery- the physical and sexual abuse, the destruction of marriages, the broken souls. The black Christians appealed the horror of these conditions in appeal for abolition. They pointed to scriptural commands against stealing, adultery, harming children, as well as to deeper biblical themes such as Christian brotherhood regardless of race. They also called attention to the disconnnect between the concept of a ‘free country’ and a country propped up by the bondage of slaves and the harmful effect of slavery on missionary efforts. While I don’t recall the book making specific mention of the exodus narrative and Israel’s identity as liberated slaves, I know this story was also a powerful sign to slaves of how God’s will was for their freedom. Not surprisingly, black arguments, despite their power, were rarely paid much attention by white folks.
On the whole, the common mindset of the day was that ‘we are clearly in the right here’. In all cases, their sense of justice was affected by their particular perspective. The most alarming part of this for me as a Christian is how scripture was used with such confidence and perceived clarity as ammunition in BOTH pro-slavery and anti-slavery arguments. Actually, what gets my attention even more is how we do the same thing today- often with continued absence of self-awareness. We continue to appeal to the clear meanings of scripture when we discuss controversial cultural and theological issues; often with little to no humility or awareness of how our own bias plays in to our sense of clarity.
What do I mean by bias? I mean that we all have lenses and assumptions, often unexamined, about the nature of scripture, of our country, of God’s will, and of what it means to be a good Christian. That unexamined part is key. Having a lens- a perspective or basic working assumptions- is inevitable. The question is whether we examine those lenses. Some of our perspective is influenced by unchosen factors- our personalities, past experiences, and cultural background are not generally things we have a choice in. Other parts of our perspective are chosen, even if they are chosen by default. Factors such as our religious beliefs, the values we embrace, what new experiences we pursue, and how we educate ourselves are chosen factors.
However, our perspective is widened when we do our best (for that is all we can do) to examine our own lenses and take time to put on the lenses of others. We do the former by asking ourselves what our assumptions are. One way to do this is to ask’why?’ questions, like kids ask.
Kid: ‘Mom, why do you tell us to eat healthy?’
Mom: ‘Because I want you to have a healthy mind and body.’
Mom: ‘Because I love you and want you to be all you can be.’
Mom: ‘Because that’s what good Moms do!’
As you see, “why?” questions, while potentially never-ending, help unearth our basic values, assumptions, and beliefs. So what if we tried the “why ?” question with some of our convictions? Pick one of the following that fits you, or make up your own: ‘Why do I trust the Bible?’ ‘Why do I believe the Bible is clear?’ ‘Why don’t I believe in a personal God?’ ‘Why do I trust science?’ ‘Why do I believe in hell?’ ‘Why do I believe America is a great nation?’ ‘Why do I believe the government should ensure people are cared for?’ ‘Why am I a Christian and not a Hindu?’ While it’s likely that you will unearth a less than perfectly cogent or logical rationale, it IS helpful and humbling to recognize that our assumptions and lenses exist. We can pair the “why ?” question with the question of “have I other considered other possibilities?” We can examine a core belief and it’s alternatives, then ask ourselves if we need to adjust our lenses- if we are making assumptions or living in beliefs that we really ought to shed.
Next, it’s helpful for us to try on the lenses of others. We do this when we listen without judgment to the perspectives of others- their experience, their insight, their assumptions. Listening with an ear to understand, not argue, helps us again see how real those lenses are and where others’ lenses may be allowing them to see things our lenses blurred out. When you listen, always expect to learn something. This can admittedly be hard, especially when you are pretty sure you know what the speaker will say, but it’s worth the effort. Good listening conveys respect and enables us not to understand and empathize as deeply as possible what the other person feels, thinks, and believes.
Last, if both sides are agreeable to it, we can argue. Allowing critique of our lenses is an important part in gaining better understanding of ourselves and our lenses. Humbly giving push back and accepting push back is a virtue. However, even among Christians, as we see in the Civil War, there is no ideological tie breaker unless it is mutually agreed on. The best we can hope for is humility and self-awareness. Well, and through my (admittedly Christian) lens, there is also the hope that if we are humble and willing, God will illuminate our lens with His wisdom so that we have an increasingly clear view of reality.
One of the most significant aspects of my lens is that the God who made us loves us enough to redeem us. This is a chosen conviction, the chief assumption through which I see the world, my fellow man, and God. It is a lens I willingly examine and own. It’s a lens through which the world seems clearer to me. It guides my path. I need to be willing to admit though that that lens alone doesn’t provide 20/20 vision in every aspect of life. Having a Christian perspective doesn’t mean my lenses are instantly suited to clarify every political, relational, scientific, or even religious question. I have blind spots. The only way to address those blindspots and hopefully see a clearer picture of the world is to examine my many perspectives and biases, humbly ‘try on’ the lenses of others, consider wise critiques, and try my best to adjust my glasses accordingly… and our best is all we can do.