Happy Juneteenth.

Happy Juneteenth, everyone. In case you need a little history, you can check this out here.

I am writing this post, not to add any more division and misunderstanding. God knows we have had enough of that. Nor am I writing to point fingers at anyone. I am simply seeking to understand and seeking to be understood. So this might be a bit of my own history here. I know more about the hidden recesses of my own heart than the hearts of others anyway, and I am still searching.

All of my life I have heard of the confederate “heroes”. You know the ones. Stonewall Jackson. Robert E Lee. Jefferson Davis.

I have heard of the southern heroes of Presbyterian orthodoxy as well, men like R.L. Dabney, J.H. Thornwell and others.

And I know now of the controversy surrounding these men. With all of their achievements, there was one huge glaring error – the support of the horrible institution of slavery.

To critique these men in some circles is to incur the wrath of the orthodox. One simply needs to spend a moment on Twitter to see it. Now it seems more relevant than ever, when the movement is so strong to remove the statues of Lee and Jackson from southern cities.

There was a time in my life when I also would have said, “Yes, slavery was wrong and it needed to be abolished. But it was only a very small aspect of who these men were. Certainly we can honor their achievements and their character while disagreeing with their stand on slavery.”

Yes. I used to think that way too. And then I listened.

It occurred to me that my saying this exposed a very ugly part of my own heart. The only way I could say this is if black lives didn’t REALLY matter to me. In theory, they would have mattered. I would say, “Of course, black lives matter. ALL lives matter.” But in practice, things were different.

It pains me to say this. Repentant sin still has the power to shame.

But let me explain. To say that Robert E. Lee or Thomas Jefferson or George Whitefield were true heroes except for their views on slavery is the same as saying that black lives really DON’T matter. There are certain viewpoints that color everything about a man.

One recent tweet from a very famous, conservative Christian leader and apologist exposes what I am saying. He said, “Slavery was a very small part of who Robert E Lee was.”

Which you can only say if slavery doesn’t really matter. And you can only say that slavery doesn’t matter if black lives don’t matter.

Please think it through. Would it be tolerated in any other setting?

“Marquis de Sade was a fine citizen except for his habit of torturing young women.”

“Bill Cosby was a great man, with strong family values except for that little peccadillo of drugging and raping women.”

“Larry Flint was a great champion of freedom. Violent Pornography was only a trivial part of who he was.”

“Dennis Rader was a fine Christian man, who taught Sunday School and was a leader in his community. Binding, torturing, and killing was only a trivial part of his character.”

I think you are getting my point. When we say that Robert E Lee or R.L. Dabney were great Christian influencers, and that slavery was only a small part of who they were as men – here is what is heard: Black lives are trivial and don’t really matter.

If you want to know why there are so many who are insisting that black lives matter, there it is.

Here is how slavery operated. Read a history. Men, women and children were sold on auction blocks, inspected like cattle. Families were torn apart, children were sold apart from their mothers, husbands and wives separated for the profit of landowners. Men, women and children could be raped, beaten, tortured. And they were, frequently. They did not count as humans. It was a crime to teach them how to read. They were not allowed in white churches. It was illegal to put them in “white” clothes. A white man seen in the company of a black man was considered an accomplice to an escape in Virginia. Laws were passed that made it impossible for slaves to be freed.

Whole presbyteries owned slaves and rented them to land-owners who worked them into the ground until they were dead. And the churches used the proceeds to pay for their pastors so that they could continue to preach the gospel over the bodies of the slaves.

The first gun control laws in Virginia ordered all white men to come to church armed to prevent any blacks from trying to seek asylum.

And so when we say, “Robert E Lee was a good man, except for his support of slavery” we are counting all of that history as trivial. And the only way that we can do that is if black lives don’t really matter.

PS – I guess I also need to say this. Apparently there is a movement and an organization called “Black Lives Matter”. I know nothing about them. This post isn’t about them.

It is about real lives and real people. Your daughters matter, which is why we don’t have statues of Marquis de Sade in our public squares. Your children’s lives matter, which is why we don’t put up statues of Dennis Rader. And black lives also matter. The first two aren’t disputed, but tend to be well-agreed-upon.

But as long as people keep considering slavery to be a trivial issue, or “good for the African”, or, “A product of its time”, then we will also need to continue to insist that black lives do indeed matter.

It is time to do justice to the millions that died, trampled into the dust by white slave owners, pulled from their homes by white slavers, and sold like cattle to plantation owners. A good first step would be to acknowledge that the “defense of slavery” is not a trivial thing. It overshadows everything else about a person.

A pedophile might otherwise be a good person. A murderer might not be murdering 99% of the time. A bank robber doesn’t rob every bank. A man beating you up might be a kind and loving husband the rest of the time. A cheating wife might not cheat 6 days of the week.

But they are defined by the one thing – pedophile. Murderer. Robber. Brawler. Abuser. Adulterer.

Or a slave owner. One who used the body of another against his or her will for their own profit. And then tried to justify it from the scripture.

Quit honoring these men. We can do better, and we should.


Filed under Race, slavery

22 responses to “Happy Juneteenth.

  1. Great article, thank you.

  2. Grace551

    Great post, thank you.

  3. Thank you for using your voice. I pray it is heard by those who need to hear.

  4. Jennifer Bales

    Thank you so much for sharing this !

  5. Janet

    Thank you, Sam. Wise words, as usual.

  6. Bunkababy

    Here is another article about how the law got around slavery with a loophole until after WW2.

  7. just ... K

    I read this on the day that you posted it, and have been slowly chewing and thinking about it ever since. Powerful. Convicting. Pertinent. Thank you. (The quote by Frederick Douglass in the first article you link to is profound, thank you for that link also.)

    I have a curious parallel that has been running through my mind … a group of men who were totally against pornography, abortion, swearing, homosexuality, promiscuity, divorce – and their beliefs showed in how they governed and ruled a country. They scrupulously attended church, they ascribed to Calvinism, a very specific form of divine election, and also complimentarianism. The bible was read in schools and prayers were said. For serious crimes, capital punishment existed. I realise that I just described nirvana for many Christian people – “Where is this country and how do we get there???”

    Well, it was “old” South Africa and the group of men I just described were the broerdebond. They also happned to be the staunchest defenders, architects, apologists and promulgators of apartheid.

    I can’t imagine anyone in North America turning a blind eye to someone who wanted to erect some sort of memorial to these men, excusing their racist views as “just a part” of who they were?

    The greatest lesson these men taught me, was that when Christianity is framed as simple morality, or holding the “right” view on certain topics, the entire gospel is lost. That gospel where we learn to love our neighbour as ourselves – because of the Great Love that was extended to us first.

    Black lives do indeed matter.

    Thank you for your writing Pastor Powell.

    Happy Juneteenth!

  8. Em

    Thank you Pastor Sam, for helping me to more fully understand this. I didn’t like the removal of the statues initially, as I saw it as more erasure of history, but I now agree with you. I understand now. Pull them down. Don’t even put them in a museum with some sort of explanation which is likely to be wishy-washy. We should not idolize anyone or anything anyway, and we as Christians should never and I mean NEVER excuse evil! The world does that, we must not.
    And thank you to just…K as well, for more enlightenment. Unfortunately, I have had personal experience with the “just a part” of who they are attitude. They were called “good old boys” by two elders in a church that I left after being told that. Good? Where is that attitude that excuses, and therefore promotes evil, ever good?
    Thank you both!

  9. Aussie

    Hi Sam, Greetings from Australia! I don’t think I have commented here before and want to tell you how encouraging your blog is to me.
    I have just stumbled across a very encouraging reading on YouTube of a pamphlet : “Emancipation in the British West Indies” published in 1838 in The Reformed Presbyterian. YT Chanel is The Covenanter. The author describes the great rejoicing in Christian circles at the news of Queen Victoria’s approval of this legislation. A heartwarming *read*.

  10. Aussie

    Ps…sorry Sam…please edit my post which is awaiting moderation…correct title on yt is “Emancipation in the British West Indies”

  11. Sonja Nop

    I’ve been struggling with this post since I first read it in June. I’m hoping you will help understand.

    Slavery is an evil; I’m glad it’s gone. Black lives do matter. All lives matter. All deserve justice under the law and fairness in the system. I agree with you in this.

    At first I thought my struggle was in the comparisons you drew. Dabney and Lee (and Jefferson and Washington) lived within the rule of law, while de Sade and Rader and Cosby were acting outside the law. Flint, horribly, was within the law, so I don’t think that’s my struggle.

    Then I wondered if you’re against statues honoring any people, since all sin and are not worthy. But I don’t know of any statues of Dabney, so you seem to be against the words he’s written, not merely images.

    The Greeks and Romans had slaves. We borrow our system of government from these cultures. The works of ancient Greeks and Romans are studied, but they had slaves. We read writing from many sources, knowing these people were sinners whose lives would not hold a godly example. Tolstoy, for example, believed prostitution was necessary. This is awful. Michelangelo and Donatello, a couple more examples, weren’t godly men, but their skill as artists is still commended.

    I was raised in a continental reformed denomination. No books were forbidden. We were taught to read with discernment. No man can be set on a pedestal, but the God Man, Jesus.

    I have appreciated your blog and found it useful. This is the first time I’ve felt it sounded destructive. How far do you think we should go? Are you saying we should no longer read Dabney? Should we no longer read Aristotle?

    I’m wanting to understand.

    • Perhaps another example – Dabney, Washington, Jefferson, Lee were within the rule of law. So was Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and Haman. There is a law that is higher than man made laws and it is that we are accountable to.
      Would you believe that enslaving Jewish people, forcing them to work themselves to death, buying and selling them, was simply a “sin” like everyone “sins”? At what point does a man’s sin become intolerable.
      Robert E Lee is not celebrated for anything OTHER than his role in keeping men enslaved. That is all. We do not celebrate him for being a father or a musician or an artist or an author. There is only one reason statues of him were put up – to honor his role in keeping men enslaved.
      I would recommend Dabney to NO ONE, for I find his views on slavery intolerable. It taints the entire lump. Everything that he wrote was either done better elsewhere or was dead wrong.
      To a person of color, Dabney is viewed as the equivalent of Himmler to a Jewish person. How can you honor and recommend someone who believed that blacks were inferior, deserved to be enslaved and maltreated because of the color of their skin???
      Romans practiced slavery. Yes. True. They did not pretend to be a Christian society. The church at the time did everything they could to buy slaves and set them free, whereas in America, the church worked with the plantation owners to pass laws making it impossible for a black man to EVER gain his freedom. They even slaughtered one another for the right to do so.
      I have no problem with statues in general. One puts a bust of Beethoven on his piano. Beethoven is celebrated as a composer. His views on morality aren’t being celebrated.
      Michelangelo is not celebrated as a Christian ethicist, but as a sculptor. Einstein for his physics, and so on.
      But love for one another far, far, far exceeds my “right” to have a statue. If a statue of Lee causes my black brothers and sisters so much pain, tear it down! By the way, people have been fighting in courts and in legislatures for years to remove those statues. Why are we honoring men who are ONLY KNOWN FOR ONE THING: their insatiable appetite to keep men and woman and children enslaved.
      Please understand this. There is no difference between the American slavery of the south and the holocaust of the Jew in Germany. Both were driven by the exact same wicked view of human beings made in God’s image – that there are certain races that the white man has absolute power over, to do with as they see fit.
      If we can’t denounce that view, then it is no wonder that the church in America is such a mess. We aren’t even proclaiming the gospel any more.

  12. gnnop

    Paster Sam,

    Thanks for the article. It’s an important read. After thinking about it, there are two questions I have on your views.

    The first is how you treat biblical slavery. I know people talk about the year of jubilee and various laws on treating slaves well, but those were directed primarily towards Israelites. Foreign slaves received no such treatment. Both Solomon and David had slaves, for Solomon I’d argue that it is his defining feature, given that much of what he accomplished was construction presumably by means of slavery.

    The Bible seems to celebrate Solomon’s wisdom in the same way as many celebrate Robert E Lee’s ‘honor’ while (claiming) to despise him for his slavery. Do you separate Lee out as being unusual sinful compared to say David, who murdered, committed adultery, practiced slavery, etc. I believe there are two curricula in the US. One northern influenced that focuses on Lee’s slavery, and one southern influenced that focuses on his honor in the field.

    When people I know praise Lee, they claim to do it for the same reason Samson or Solomon from the Bible might receive praise, despite being unusually depraved, and the Biblical parallels with these extreme sinners are often brought up.

    How would you respond to this kind of reasoning?

    The second question I have for is is about the changing of names internally in modern tech. Here’s an article describing the changes: https://www.wired.com/story/tech-confronts-use-labels-master-slave/

    Some protocols are called master/slave protocols. Additionally, the terms whitelist and blacklist are in common usage. Should Christians seek to avoid these race/color based terminologies for the same reasons you outlined above?

    Thanks for your answer.

    • The Bible is not a book on moral example, but a book about Jesus Christ. Slavery is a result of the curse that is on the world. Christ came to do away with the curse.
      For this reason, and because the law could never set anyone free, the law did not forbid slavery, for that would never set anyone free. It mitigated the abuses.
      For example, nowhere in scripture is it taught that one race has the right to dispose of any other race as they see fit. No one could buy or sell human beings like cattle. They could not rape or “breed” their slaves.
      Your statement about Solomon and David could also be made about their polygamy. They are never celebrated in scripture as fallen human beings, but as types of Christ. If you read David and Solomon as moral tales, you won’t have any idea what those accounts are about.
      They are types of Christ. Christ alone is the true Prophet, Priest and King.

      It won’t wash, you know. No matter how you whitewash it, no matter how much you say, “Yeah, but….”, no matter how many Bible verses you quote as “proof”, slavery as it was practiced in the United States was an abomination before God and cannot be justified.
      The buying and selling of human beings in scripture was always punished by death.
      Israel was not the people of God because they were inherently better than any other nation, but because God chose Abraham to bring Christ into the world. It is about promise.
      If the use of “master/slave” causes my coworkers or anyone else to be distressed, then I will be the first to advocate changing it. Words should never be used to hurt and tear down.
      You are also being hopelessly naive. those who praise Lee and defend his statues uniformly deny that he had any sin whatsoever, other than the “all men are sinners’ types. Instead, they praise him as an upright man, who fought for Virginia, who hated slavery and wanted to abolish it, etc, etc. These are all false.
      Nowhere does scripture cover over the sins of anyone – not even Solomon or David.
      They were never praised as righteous before God. They were types of Christ.
      And one other point, you asked if I made Lee out to be a worse sinner than David, who committed adultery.
      Yes. David repented. Lee continued in his hardened hatred of human beings, his contempt for an entire people group, and his belief in his own superiority until the day he died.
      so yes, he shouldn’t be celebrated as an upright person.

      • gnnop

        Pastor Sam,

        Thanks for the reply. I hope to continue this conversation in love, though I hope I am not ‘hopelessly naive’, There are more than those who defend his statues -who uniformly deny that he had any sin whatsoever- as I’ve learned by talking to them. I also agree in large part with the end result of your moral reasoning

        “”For this reason, and because the law could never set anyone free, the law did not forbid slavery, for that would never set anyone free. It mitigated the abuses. “”

        Are you arguing for a form of Dispensationalism? Or are you saying that the moral law of the old testament is not the true moral law, but a surrogate for a people who could not appreciate the evils of slavery?

        “”Yes. David repented. Lee continued in his hardened hatred of human beings, his contempt for an entire people group, and his belief in his own superiority until the day he died.””

        Except that David, while repenting of adultery, did not repent of owning his slaves or of his polygamy.

        You seem state specifically that Lee’s and other similar persons should have their statues removed, but your defense of David is that Scripture does not count him as righteous apart from Christ.
        There are three main lines to take.
        The first is that all are fallen under sin, but for Christ. This is the primary way you talk about David and Solomon.
        The second is to note that some forms of sin are greater than others. For instance, premeditated murder vs slapping someone.
        The third is the weaker brother argument. Some brothers and sisters may feel uncomfortable, and of course we should attempt to help them and become like other peoples to find more brothers and sisters in Christ.

        When you talk about the master/slave terminology, you use line three. When you talk about David, for about half of your response, you use line one. When you compare Lee to David, you use line two.

        It’s unclear to me how these different lines relate in your mind.
        If you are arguing from line one, then removing Lee’s statues would imply removing David’s statues, as all are fallen.
        If you are arguing from line two, then where you draw the line is unclear to me. If you are against statues of both David and Lee, then that’s clear: Any countenance to slavery warrants removal. If you are not against statues of David, then the point at which you draw the line is not slavery. But somewhere else.
        If you are arguing from the third line, then that makes sense, though it would seem to conflict with the main gist of your statement in the main post.

        Finally, on a note unrelated to the above, but focusing on your comments on Biblical slavery, what are your comments on Deuteronomy 21:10-14? In any modern sense, this describes the capture, slavery, and rape of a woman. For the sake of openness, I subscribe to the solution given by the paper The Intrusion and the Decalogue by Meredith Kline.

        Thanks for your consideration.

      • I have several large projects going on and so i don’t want to continue this forever. Anonymous exchanges are difficult for me.
        To make myself clear, I am opposed to ANY statues – whether David, Solomon, Jesus, Lee, or anyone else. Statues as art are one thing. When one looks at Michelangelo’s David, they are not saying, “What a great man David was. We should honor him and rage against anyone who speaks against him”. It is about the human form, and about art. Not about honoring a man.
        Every image that is designed to honor a man falls short, and borders on a violation of the 2nd commandment.

        Second, God’s moral law forbids slavery. I am not a dispensationalist. To deny that righteousness and true freedom would come through the law is not the same as being a dispensationalist. There were many things that Moses “allowed because of the hardness of your hearts”, as Jesus put it in Matt. 19. Taking captives in war was one. Taking multiple wives was another. It was not the intention of the law to create a utopian state, or to bring about a new Eden. The law was to point to Christ, reign in the lusts of Israel to preserve them, and to teach the holiness and nature of God.
        When I reject theonomy, I do not at the same time embrace dispensationalism. I also do not believe that Sabbath breakers should be stoned, or adulterers, or anything else.

        I also did not say that scripture did not count David righteous except in Christ. I didn’t mention imputed righteousness at all. David and Solomon were TYPES of Christ. They were honored as kings of Israel, who typified the Son of God/Son of David who was to come (2 Sam. 7).
        When you ask anyone who has read the Bible, and you ask who David was – what will they say: He killed Goliath. He was king of Israel. He ushered in an era of peace. He wrote Psalms. He is honored for those things (NOT statues. But remembered.
        Solomon – wise, built the temple, wrote a bunch of proverbs and a love song. Honored for those. Oh, yeah. He was really stupid about women….

        Lee – confederate general. What else? Confederate general.
        He believed that slaves should be flogged well and often. He sold children away from their mothers. He bought and sold human beings as animals. He killed people in order to keep that right.
        As for number 2 in your post, there are certain things that we find intolerable. Everyone has them. What you find intolerable says a lot about a person.
        For example, your defense of statues of Lee says to me that you do not find the chattel slavery of human beings to be intolerable. You might say, sinful – and I hope you do. You might say, really bad. And I hope you do. But you wouldn’t say intolerable.
        I say it is intolerable. To enslave generations hopelessly, with no opportunity for freedom. What if it were you?
        I find it intolerable.

        For this reason, we don’t celebrate the medical discoveries of Joseph Mengele, for most people find his live vivisection of Jewish subjects to be intolerable. And yet, we have statutes of Marion Sims, who did the EXACT SAME thing to black women.
        Why do we have statues of Sims honoring him and find statues of Mengele to be repugnant?
        So, yes, there are certain things that I find intolerable. The goal is really to align what we hold intolerable to what God says is intolerable.
        I find the inconsistency disturbing.

        To be fair, I never once said that Robert E Lee wasn’t saved. he might have been. That is not my place to say. What I am saying is that he shouldn’t be HONORED.
        If he had gotten what he wanted to get, generations of African Americans would still be working on plantations, owned by white men, and disposed of as the rich saw fit. Despicable.

        I, for one, am for removing all statues that honor men. We are to give honor to whom honor is due, but the honor of a statue is due to no man.
        Memorials for remembrance, sure. Works of art celebrating human form and beauty, sure. Statues of honor, get rid of all of them.
        Anyway, I do not have the time to continue this discussion. Thank you for your comments.

  13. gnnop

    Pastor Sam, since you’re busy, don’t reply. I just want to let you know that your online discussion made a difference. This is my final comment.

    I find your argument from the 2nd commandment convincing. The article seemed to posit “super sins”, an extra category of sin applicable to statues. Against this extra category of sin, because I felt a statue of Gandhi was justified, despite Gandhi’s sins, I would have argued even Joseph Mengele statues could, in theory, exist, despite his evil nature. Your 2nd commandment against statues of honor argument persuaded me.

    • Thank you. Yesterday when I was writing, my arthritis was acting up so I hurt, and was snippier than I should have been. Please forgive me. It is hard sometimes to write for long periods of time.
      This whole debate has sharpened me also on the seventh commandment, and I appreciate that. Thank you and thank you for the follow-up.

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