I vividly remember my first visit to Charlottesville, Virginia. It was about twenty years ago, and I was on vacation with a good friend, who shared with me a passion for American history and for Thomas Jefferson in particular. We had toured a number of Civil War battlefields in Maryland and Virginia and then had made our way to Jefferson’s University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Finally, we ventured outside the city to the little hilltop home that the great founder had designed and built for himself, Monticello. It was a glorious summer day, and the elegant manse shone in all of its Palladian splendor. We took in its classical lines, its distinctive red and white coloration, the understated beauty of its dome, its overall symmetry, balance, and harmony. On the inside, we saw all of Jefferson’s quirky genius on display: scientific instruments, inventions, books galore. Just outside the house was the simple, unpretentious grave of Jefferson, the tombstone naming him as the author of the Declaration of Independence. There was no question that the very best of the American spirit was on display in that place.
But then we noticed something else. Below the sight-lines of Monticello, literally underground, were the quarters of Jefferson’s slaves. These were hovels, really little more than caves, with bare earth floors and flimsy roofs, not even a hint of the elegance, comfort, and beauty of the great house. Jefferson had brought some of his slaves to France with him when he was the American ambassador to that country, and he had taught them the fine art of French cuisine. When he entertained at Monticello, these servants, dressed in the finery of courtiers at Versailles, would serve the savory meals that they had prepared. Afterwards, they would return for the night to their underground hovels. A woman, who had been invited to stay for a time at Monticello, recorded in her diary that she woke up one morning to the sounds of horrific screaming. When she looked with alarm and concern out her window, she saw the author of the Declaration of Independence savagely beating one of his slaves.
Jefferson the morally upright sage; Jefferson the merciless slave-owner. Splendid Monticello; its sordid slave-quarters underground. One could literally see at this great American house the divide, the original sin, that has bedeviled our nation from its inception to the present day. The framers of the Constitution fought over slavery and race; the issue preoccupied the politics of America for the first half of the nineteenth century and finally drove the country to a disastrous and murderous civil conflict; it perdured in somewhat mitigated form in the segregation, both sanctioned and unofficial, that reigned in America in the decades following the Civil War; it came to a head during the great civil rights struggle of the mid-twentieth century, culminating in landmark legislation and in the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.; it continued to assert itself in the Detroit riots of 1967, the Watts uprising, the unrest after the beating of Rodney King, the street violence in Ferguson, Missouri, and in many other events.
For me, it was weirdly fitting that its most recent manifestation would be in Charlottesville, Virginia, where, twenty years ago, I had so vividly seen the moral contradiction at the heart of American history. Thomas Jefferson’s principle that “all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights” came face to face, on the streets of Charlottesville, with representatives of the most nefarious ideology of hatred and racial superiority. God knows that, since Jefferson’s time, many, many battles have been won in this struggle, but the events of last week proved that the war is not yet over, that the original sin of America has not been thoroughly expunged.
George MacDonald once remarked that God is easy to please and hard to satisfy. This is generally seen in the Church’s approach to penitent sinners. Confessors are generally absurdly lenient in their penances for sin. The mere fact that somebody is in the confessional is usually sufficient evidence that they are trying to repent their sins. So the Church does not beat people up over their moral weakness. And that is how it should be.
But one consequence of that is that it can take an enormously long time for deeply rooted systemic evils to really be faced. Particularly, when those evils are embraced by Nice People and tolerated by Great Men. This is not an American issue, but a human one. The Old Testament shows us a people who were, in many ways, far greater than their neighbors. They had a (for the time) enlightened moral code, great heroes they could point to, and the true revelation of God in their back pocket. And yet, they took bloody *forever* to work things out. It was a big deal when Ezekiel figured out that the son is not guilty for the sins of the father, for instance.
Since the Reformation, the way Christians have repeatedly dealt with the failure of their fathers and mothers is to hive off and start something else. Seems obvious. Papa Pope sucks. So we’ll break with him and do it better. But then the King sucks too, so we’ll go the New World and make a City on a Hill. And when the New Jerusalem turns out to be New York, we’ll break with that and start a Confederacy that will do it right–founded on slavery. Or at least we’ll try until New York destroys it and *makes* you stay part of the American communion.
Meanwhile, the biblical witness is something different. Confronted with ancestors who had sinned against God for generations, Jeremiah doesn’t call for a break with the ancestors and the foundation of a new kingdom. He identifies with them and calls for mercy for them for one very good reason: he needs the same mercy:
We acknowledge our wickedness, O LORD,
and the iniquity of our fathers,
for we have sinned against you.
Do not spurn us, for your name’s sake;
do not dishonor your glorious throne;
remember and do not break your covenant with us. (Je 14:20–21).
Postmoderns, not believing in mercy, have only two options to whipsaw between: excuse and merciless condemnation. With the racism of our fathers (and many of our neighbors) there is condemnation (totally deserved when it comes to defenses of white supremacists, Nazis, the Confederacy which–yes–existed to preserve slavery). And there is far too much excuse-making for the slavery of the Founders, etc.
But once that is acknowledged, what then? Shall we expunge without mercy the memory of a Jefferson, Washington, etc? See nothing *but* that sin and never forgive them?
I think that’s folly. But it is also obviously folly to paper over these sins, to pretend that any man today who owned other people, raped them and beat them should get off lightly for such a crime. So what do we do?
I think what Jeremiah does is a good start. Because, of course, *we* are complicit in slavery still. We overlook our friends the Saudis. We are the principal funders of the sex slavery trade in Asia. We are actively and urgently defending wage slavery here in the US. We and our fathers have sinned. We ask mercy for them as we ask it for us.
And then we make a firm purpose of amendment which includes both the resolution to not make excuses for such crap anymore *and* the resolution to extend to our fathers and mothers the same mercy (not excuses) we ask for ourselves.
The key is to remember what mercy *is*. It is not the lie that the sinner “meant well”. It is the frank acknowledgement that he did not mean well, that he deliberately chose to do something despicable–and we forgive them anyway. There was not a single hand-wringing penitent in the mob that stone Stephen. He forgave them anyway. He willed their good. He pled with God not to hold their completely unrepented sin against them. We must do the same.
And we have to pray for ourselves and our fathers and mothers, “Look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church.” This, again, is not a denial that those sins exist, but a choice to see them as ones for whom Christ died. That frees us to see what good can be seen in them.
All this is true, not only of national figures, but of our familial ancestors too. All of us have relatives who failed us. So will our children. So God have mercy on us all.