Last week city workers removed a statue of Jefferson Davis from a prominent city thoroughfare in New Orleans. This action marked the second removal of a Civil War era structure in the city; statues of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard are slated for relocation in the near future. Ever since nine people were murdered at a black church in Charleston, SC in 2015 we have seen an upsurge in efforts to remove Confederate monuments around the South.
New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu remarked in a statement: “I believe we must remember all of our history, but we need not revere it. To literally put the Confederacy on a pedestal in some of our most prominent public places is not only an inaccurate reflection of our past, it is an affront to our present, and a bad prescription for our future.”
Mr. Landrieu is right to raise the issue of an affront to our present, for such an affront certainly exists. But the sin of our great-grandfathers is not the primary atrocity we must address today. C.S. Lewis, as usual, is helpful on this point: “The first and fatal charm of national repentance is, therefore, the encouragement it gives us to turn from the bitter task of repenting our own sins to the congenial one of bewailing but, first, of denouncing the conduct of others” (Lewis, 2014, 206). What we are witnessing in the latest attempts to scrub our memories of all the vestiges of an unsavory past is a culture-wide failure to remove the plank from our eyes. Our forefathers committed very real sins, and it is not my intention to argue one way or the other whether or not they should be honored with statues. Rather, I want to point out that our nation is in the throws of committing its own very real sins, some of which are worse than slavery. So if we really want to deal with an “affront to our present” and a “prescription for our future,” then we ought to repent of our current sins first. For this is what the Scripture requires.
“You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”—Matthew 7:5
Jesus commands us to first go about the bitter task of repenting of our own sins. We must each do this individually prior to pointing out the sins of our larger culture, which is Lewis’s main point, but if we adapt his wisdom to the larger cultural level, then we must first repent of our current sins before making atonement for any historical transgressions. Our present sins are sticking out of our eyes like a two-by-four, and if we are ever going to see our past clearly we must deal with the lumber.
Jesus also commands equity in judgement:
“For with the judgement you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.”—Matthew 7:2
For what sins were southern slaveowners guilty? At the very least they were guilty of theft, racial pride, malice, and sometimes murder. These sins undeniably violate the imago dei, property rights, and personal liberty. Using the same measure, how do we stack up? Are we guilty of violating the image of God, stealing, murder, or enslavement?
The answer is, “Yes,” and the most obvious example is the abortion carnage since 1973. In the forty-four years since the Roe v. Wade decision nearly 60 million divine-image-bearing babies have been killed. This figure is four times the number of Africans that were ever transported along the awful Middle Passage, and approximately fifteen times the slave population at the beginning of the Civil War. Pointing out the discrepancy in the number of victims does nothing to diminish the true evil of chattel slavery, but emphasizes the high-handed wickedness of our constitutionally protected abortion industry that is happening right now. Our nation is currently doing more and worse to those who bear the image of God.
But our sins do not stop at abortion, and the Thirteenth Amendment did not outlaw all slavery. It left one exception: prison. We incarcerate people at incredibly high rates. Though the U.S. has only five percent of the world’s population, we account for a quarter of the world’s prisoners. We disproportionately arrest and imprison minorities for drug offenses—one in three black males will likely spend time in prison, according to one report. We are still enslaving large amounts of people, and disproportionately enslaving black men through sentencing guidelines that mete out punishments that do not fit the crime. Often the sentences do not even help the victim. For example, take someone who has been robbed. Prison, not restitution, is the likely punishment for the offender, which does nothing to compensate the victim. Rather, through coercive taxation, the victim will then have to pay for the upkeep of the thief in prison. He is robbed twice.
Let us proceed with rapid fire. Unjust taxation steals personal property. In 2015 the average American’s effective tax rate was 29.8%, nearly three times what Samuel called tyrannical and enslaving (2 Sam 8:17). Unjust wars and military excursions kill innocent people and stir up strife around the world. Since 1991 the United States has been at war every year, but three—not always meeting just war criteria. Unjust economic policies prey on the poor. Our welfare state creates permanent dependents, a form of economic slavery. In the name of helping the poor, we put them out of jobs; for example, minimum wage hikes lead to low-skilled workers losing their jobs.
If we were to use the same measure to judge ourselves as we do to judge the antebellum South we would see that we currently violate the image of God, steal property, and kill people, and we often do so at disproportionate rates to minorities. Because of these sins we are a guilty people, and as such, we look for ways to atone for that guilt. We try to find a scapegoat, and the ghosts of Confederate past fit the bill. We can expiate our guilt without actually repenting of our own sins. We can haul Jefferson Davis down to the chopping block and feel righteous (for a little while).
But we still have the tree protruding from our eye sockets. We still cannot see clearly. We still have blood on our hands. The only true way out is to repent of our sins and trust in the broken body of Jesus—hung on a tree— for forgiveness. Only then will we be qualified to deal with our historical sins.
C.S. Lewis, “Dangers of National Repentance,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014) [Orig. pub. 1970]