“If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.” — Abraham Lincoln
This is from Jack Forstman’s book Christian Faith in Dark Times. It’s the opening paragraph of his second chapter, which discusses the eminent Lutheran theologian Emanuel Hirsch:
Emanuel Hirsch was one of the most brilliant persons in the field of theology of his or any other generation. During the 27 years between the end of the Second World War and his death, blind and in poor health, he published a massive, five-volume history of modern Protestant theology, translations of Kierkegaard from the Danish with historical commentary, eleven novels and collections of stories, and eight theological books. In addition to his brilliance, he was a rigorously moral person, and the question of social ethics was a cardinal feature of his theological work. Even so …
I should prepare you for this. “Even so” is a useful little phrase that, like the conjunctions “but” or “yet,” warns us that what is about to follow will contrast with, qualify, or contradict what has just gone before it. It’s quite capable of communicating exactly that.
Even so, “even so” has perhaps never before been asked to bear quite as much weight as Forstman asks of it here. So be careful reading what follows that in this paragraph. The next step is a doozy.
Emanuel Hirsch was one of the most brilliant persons in the field of theology of his or any other generation. During the 27 years between the end of the Second World War and his death, blind and in poor health, he published a massive, five-volume history of modern Protestant theology, translations of Kierkegaard from the Danish with historical commentary, eleven novels and collections of stories, and eight theological books. In addition to his brilliance, he was a rigorously moral person, and the question of social ethics was a cardinal feature of his theological work. Even so, he not only hailed the assumption of power by the Nazis in 1933, he also continued to believe in Hitler’s mission for Germany throughout the years of the Third Reich and afterwards — so far as we know, as long as he lived.
And Emanuel Hirsch lived until 1972.
Now let’s consider that five-volume history of modern Protestant theology written by Hirsch. Do you want to read that? Do you think it would be accurate? Or would you, perhaps, prefer to read the history of modern Protestant theology from the perspective of someone who did not still believe, four years after the death of Martin Luther King Jr., that “Hitler’s mission for Germany” was a Good Thing?
Please don’t invoke Godwin’s Law here. We’re not making a Nazi analogy here. We are, rather, discussing an actual, card-carrying Nazi.
And that fact indelibly taints Hirsch’s writing and his theology.
How, precisely, does it do that? Well, that’s the difficult thing. It’s not compartmentalized, not a distinct, discrete ingredient that can be easily separated from the rest of Hirsch’s theology. It’s pervasive, a leaven that leaveneth the whole lump. We can’t simply read Hirsch’s theology, subtract the Nazi bits, and cheerfully keep the rest.
So we cannot trust Emanuel Hirsch. We may concede his brilliance, but we cannot trust it, because we know it accommodated a pervasive rot. We can acknowledge that he was a “rigorously moral person,” but we cannot trust his morals because they allowed him to embrace a monumental immorality. He was brilliant, but his brilliance went askew. He was rigorously moral, but that morality stands irredeemably condemned. Brilliance, piety and rectitude are not sufficient to earn our blind trust once someone has failed the test.
We simply cannot and should not trust Emanuel Hirsch. We know this.
We’re confident concluding that about Nazism. Even so, we shy away from the same conclusion when it comes to slavery. Why?
In part, I think, it’s because we’re Americans and not Germans. And in part it’s because, as Americans, we’ve already had some practice and some hard lessons in distilling what’s worthy and trustworthy in the inheritance we’ve enjoyed from our ancestors who were deeply complicit in the grave evil of slavery. The mixed legacy we have received from people like Washington, Jefferson, Edwards and Whitefield includes much that is to be retained and celebrated, much that should never be forgotten, and much that is worth the hard work of extricating, as much as we can, from the pernicious poison that inheritance was soaked in.
But I think part of the difference is also that we underestimate, understate and under-understand the actual immensity of the evil of slavery. We couldn’t fully grasp that even if we tried, but we mostly don’t try. We mostly refuse to try.
And because we do not try to grasp the enormity of that evil, we also fail to subject those complicit in it to the distrust they deserve. We read them without the kind of scrutiny with which we would approach Hirsch’s grand history of Protestant theology.
That’s dangerous because their complicity in the vast injustice of slavery is, like Hirsch’s moral blindness, pervasive. It’s also not compartmentalized, not a distinct, discrete ingredient that can be easily separated from the rest of their thought. We can’t simply read them, subtract the slavery bits, and cheerfully keep the rest.
It won’t do to say,”Well, they were wrong about that one thing, but perhaps on everything else they were right.” They failed a hugely consequential test. The enormity and gravity of that one thing they were wrong about makes everything else they said or did suspect. That one thing is one thing you cannot get wrong unless you also get a whole bunch of other things very wrong as well. You have to get a host of other things wrong in order to arrive at the place where you get that one thing wrong. And then, as a consequence of getting that one thing wrong, you will thereafter unavoidably be very wrong about a whole other host of things.