Thursday, March 12, 2009

Faith, Context and Blindness

The other night my 8 year old son was reading his “Pathway Reader” a really effective book published by the Anabaptists for the purpose of teaching reading to younger children. My wife, being a professional educator and a reading specialist, chose these books simply because their approach to teaching reading is excellent. We use them in addition to what our kids are learning at school and between them and my wife’s hard work, my sons are both reading at least three years ahead of their grade level. Yes, I’m proud of that…

But I digress…

My son was reading the 8th grade book, which includes a great deal of Christian history and specifically Anabaptist history which, as you may know, is full of stories of martyrdom at the hands of other Christians in Europe back in the 16th and 17th Centuries. He said to me, “Dad, I thought Martin Luther was saved!” I said that he was… or is.

“Why do you ask?” I asked.

He was reading about how there was organized Protestant persecution of the Anabaptists (from an Anabaptist perspective, obviously) and Martin Luther was not being painted in a very positive light.

It raised a very poignant question: How could Christians kill other Christians? Was one group not really saved? Were they both good illustrations of why religion is a problem? Was it an issue of blindness or blind spots? It reminded me of my own, similar questions regarding the execution by drowning of Felix Manz at the hands of Ulrich Zwingli…

I considered Zwingli a great reformer and almost certainly regenerate. And then I read my Christian History book. But does his role in the death of another Christian negate all he did for the Kingdom? Maybe it does…

This very paradigm brings me to today’s post. Essentially, if a Christian or someone else from history who was famous for great things is found to have done something we now see is horrible, do we dismiss that person completely? Does the bad not only outweigh the good as far as our historical assessment, but does it cancel it out completely?

I thought of this in relation to another historical figure of enormous proportion – Stonewall Jackson. Considered a hero by many, both north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line, Jackson owned slaves. White people cannot fathom how painful it is for African-Americans to sit in school and hear about heroes like Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, etc. knowing that these men, on their best day, saw Black people as less than human and as mere property.

So do we discard these men – the Founding Fathers? Do we discard men like Jackson, who by all accounts was a devout Christian?

Consider these accounts:

"Stonewall" Jackson (1824-1863)

Both in faith and in battle, he would not be moved.
Thomas Jonathan Jackson was as thorough a Christian as he was a soldier. One writer described him: "He lives by the New Testament and fights by the Old." Orphaned at age 6, Jackson grew up poor and uneducated in foster homes. He entered West Point near the bottom of his class, but he graduated seventeenth. The second lieutenant then served in the Mexican-American war. Following the war, while Jackson was in the occupation force, his superior challenged him to study Christianity. He did, all the while struggling with intestinal problems. He wrote his sister that his digestive problems "were decreed by Heaven's sovereign, as a punishment for my offenses against his Holy Laws and have probably been the instrument of turning me from the path of eternal death, to that of everlasting life." He was baptized at age 25.

Five years later, his young wife and unborn child died, which devastated him but ultimately strengthened his faith. He remarried, and his second wife, Mary Anna Morrison, lived until 1915. Though baptized an Episcopalian, Jackson became a Presbyterian, and he was a noted tither to his home church. The Jackson family held prayers at seven A.M., and even servants were required to attend. Jackson never waited for anyone, not even his wife, to begin prayers. Following breakfast, Jackson would leave for his teaching duties at Virginia Military Institute (where his students called him "Tom Fool Jackson"). Jackson would return home for Bible study, which he did using a commentary.

Jackson believed that slavery was ordained of God. Strict but kind with his own slaves, he asked his wife to teach two slave boys to read. He even organized a Sabbath school for African-Americans in Lexington and taught a class for five or six years. "My Heavenly Father has condescended to use me as an instrument in getting up a large Sabbath school for the Negroes here," he wrote. "He has greatly blessed it."

In April 1861, Jackson prayed with his wife and his cadets, and then left for Richmond to assume his command. At the Battle of Manassas in July 1861, he took a green infantry brigade and turned the tide of the battle. During the fighting, Brigadier General Barnard E. Bee instructed his men: "There stands Jackson like a stone wall. Rally behind the Virginians!" The name stuck, and "Stonewall" Jackson soon became Lee's right arm in battle. He daringly moved large numbers of men quickly (some say too recklessly). In one sixty-day period, his troops marched over six hundred miles and fought five major battles and numerous skirmishes.

His military prowess earned him the fear of northerners, who regarded him as "a species of demon," "a fallen angel," and "a cold-blooded rascal." But Jackson never forgot where his abilities came from. After Lee commended his performance at Chancellorsville, Stonewall replied: "General Lee is very kind, but he should give the praise to God." On the battlefield, Stonewall Jackson maintained his devotional life. According to historian John W. Schildt, "His men saw him stumbling and falling over trees and rocks. They almost thought he had too much to drink. That was not the problem. He was praying with his eyes closed while he walked." Following every victory, Jackson ordered his chaplains to hold thanksgiving services. He was known to ride through the camps distributing tracts to his soldiers, and he often took part in his troops' religious meetings. Wrote Henry Kyd Douglas in I Rode with Stonewall: "And when he had reached the place of prayer, lo, the camp was there. Bowed heads, bent knees, hats off, silence! Stonewall Jackson was kneeling to the Lord of Hosts, in prayer for his people!"

Sundays were generally a day of rest. "Deacon Jackson," as his men sometimes called him, hated doing battle on Sunday. Jackson was rigid and stern, and he fought intensely with his subordinates. Some thought he was insane. But despite the way some writers have portrayed him, Jackson was not a fanatic. It's simply that, in one historian's words, his "primary interests" were "Biblical theology and Christian discipleship." Because of this, he could declare: "My religious belief teaches me to feel as safe in battle as in bed. God has fixed the time of my death." After being accidentally shot by his own forces, he died on Sunday, May 10, 1863. "I always wanted to die on a Sunday," he said.

From Wikipedia:
Little as he was known to the white inhabitants of Lexington, Jackson was revered by many of the African-Americans in town, both slaves and free blacks. He was instrumental in the organization in 1855 of Sunday school classes for blacks at the Presbyterian Church. His second wife, Mary Anna Jackson, taught with Jackson, as "he preferred that my labors should be given to the colored children, believing that it was more important and useful to put the strong hand of the Gospel under the ignorant African race, to lift them up." [15]

The pastor, Dr. William Spottswood White, described the relationship between Jackson and his Sunday afternoon students: "In their religious instruction he succeeded wonderfully. His discipline was systematic and firm, but very kind. ... His servants reverenced and loved him, as they would have done a brother or father. ... He was emphatically the black man's friend." He addressed his students by name and they in turn referred to him affectionately as "Marse Major."[16] Jackson's family owned six slaves in the late 1850s. Three (Hetty, Cyrus, and George, a mother and two teenage sons) were received as a wedding present. Another, Albert, requested that Jackson purchase him and allow him to work for his freedom; he was employed as a waiter in one of the Lexington hotels and Jackson rented him to VMI. Amy also requested that Jackson purchase her from a public auction and she served the family as a cook and housekeeper. The sixth, Emma, was a four-year-old orphan with a learning disability, accepted by Jackson from an aged widow and presented to his second wife, Mary Anna, as a welcome-home gift.[17]

After the American Civil War began, he appears to have hired out or sold his slaves. Mary Anna Jackson, in her 1895 memoir, said, "our servants ... without the firm guidance and restraint of their master, the excitement of the times proved so demoralizing to them that he deemed it best for me to provide them with good homes among the permanent residents." [18]

James Robertson wrote about Jackson's view on slavery:[19]
“Jackson neither apologized for nor spoke in favor of the practice of slavery. He probably opposed the institution. Yet in his mind the Creator had sanctioned slavery, and man had no moral right to challenge its existence. The good Christian slaveholder was one who treated his servants fairly and humanely at all times.”

Let me put it another way: A friend of mine was interacting with me on the issue of abortion during the 2008 campaign and indirectly agreed with me that Abortion is genocide. He stated it this way: “Abortion amounts to genocide.” In other words, the abortion doctor or the pro-choice people are not setting out to kill babies, though that is in fact what happens.

I understood his meaning, and he unknowingly helped me clarify my thoughts on Zwingli, Jackson, and other historical figures. They saw themselves as doing something good, even though in fact it was not something good.

The vast majority of abortionists and pro-choice activists really, truly do not see abortion as murder. That’s why it does not help us to call them “pro-death” any more than it does for them to call us “anti-choice” (or misogynists or bigots or whatever else they like to call us). They truly believe a baby is no more that a piece of tissue. They are wrong. So while they are still murderers in the sense that their direct, intentional actions lead to the death of other human beings, they are not murderers in the same way that Saddam Hussein or Adolf Hitler were.

But my question is, does their understanding of what they’re doing (or lack of it) mitigate how we assess them? The same principle and question apply to people like Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli and yes, Stonewall Jackson.

If you view the world through the lenses they had, just like if you view abortion through the abortionist’s lens, it helps you see things a bit clearer. Jackson, for instance, grew up in a world where slavery was a way of life and had been for hundreds of years. It was “normal”. In spite of this, he broke the law to teach his slaves to read and to evangelize them. He loved them and they loved him. How should that impact the way we look at him? Slavery and its long-lingering effects have been beyond horrific. Can there be any "buts"?

Think of Zwingli. His convictions were that the Anabaptists were imperiling the souls of innocent children. He was wrong. But if you could stand in his shoes, in a mindset that was just emerging from Medieval thought where everything was absolutely absolute, might you do the same thing? Or at least feel the same way?

Of course, I’m with the Anabaptists. They got it right – the Bible clearly portrays believer’s baptism if it portrays anything, and the Anabaptists were acting on their biblical convictions. They were truly martyrs. But looking through different lenses helps me see how one Christian could kill another, unjustified as it was. They were blinded by culture, bad theology and Medieval thought.

The list could go on… Luther, Thomas Jefferson, some of the Popes. You see what I mean. I feel we cannot dismiss historical figures because we now see certain things so much clearer.

Did they sin? YES! Will they answer to God? God is both just and impartial. They will certainly answer. But my guess is that the righteous Judge will take things into account that we cannot know. We may be surprised at some verdicts that are handed down on that Day.

Q: What do you think of historical figures that are regarded as heroes by many but got some things inexplicably and terribly wrong? Do we dismiss them in our “superior” moral perspective? Do we blindly praise their accolades while ignoring their evil? How do we process this?

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

We should not really "dismiss" him in a sense.

This should bring us to strive to become more aware of those whom we admire.

Their strengths and weaknesses should bring us to the understanding that men are human and they will let you down; but the Lord Jesus Christ is Holy and Sovereign and "worthy" of such admiration rather than mere man, and will never let you down.

Jesus is all powerful, man is not.

Jesus never breaks his promises, man will.

Jesus is king over all, man cannot.

How much more should this bring us to seek and savor, Him who is worthy to be craved.

March 12, 2009 at 3:15 PM  
Blogger Eliot said...

I've heard Stonewall Jackson referenced in many Bible Study lessons and sermons and it has always left me feeling a bit uneasy.
Your argument regarding blindness and context is legitimate, but when I think of the context of Jackson, he most certainly knew of slave treatment, the abolition movement (where pastors and church leaders were helping slaves hide and escape), and most obviously a war that concerned slavery. I think it's probably easier to forgive the Founding Fathers who, although believing that blacks were inferior, were taught to believe that as truth and knew nothing else.
The same can also be said of Lincoln in regards to slavery as well, although he changed more during the last years of his life.
But all of history is filled with contextual blindness, for lack of a better word. Think of the treatment of women up until the 20th century. Those men in history, and certainly a number of them were Christians, treated women inferior and disrespectfully because that was all they knew and what was seen as acceptable in their time period.

March 12, 2009 at 3:24 PM  
Blogger Steve said...

Great points, guys.

Eliot, what would you say to the fact that Jackson had a sincere but misguided theology for slavery?

March 12, 2009 at 3:38 PM  
Blogger Eliot said...

That's tough to say. If he is sincere, then that "sincere but misguided" assessment can be applied to every Christian denomination or sect as well as other worldviews. All weird, outlandish, and dismissive Scriptural views most likely come from people who were "sincere but misguided." The question, I believe, should be if it is worth anything to be sincere but misguided.

March 12, 2009 at 4:23 PM  
Blogger Steve said...

Very good point.

I guess I'm fishing for a workable, accurate and fair grid to assess historical figures.

I don't necessarily buy "if they sinned they're utterly no good", because as Julius points out, everyone blew it somehow. But I'm also uncomfortable with uncritical hero worship or glossing over. I think the totality of any historical figure must be looked at and their context taken into account.

Another question this raises is this: What are our blind spots?

I do believe that the amount of history we have helps us be considerably less blind than our ancestors - biological, political or theological. We have more perspective. But I bet there are some things none of us are seeing clearly.

Think of the take of the 1st Century Jews on OT prophecy. They missed stuff because it could not be seen from their seat. Guilt came when they were made aware of their blindness and still refused to see, however.

How do we remove or at least detect our own blind spots?

March 12, 2009 at 4:39 PM  
Anonymous Steve Martin said...

If a group of Christians, or a single Christian was engaged in killing inocent people, I too, would have a duty to protect those innocents, by force if necessary.

I know that it is not the focus of your post, but here is an article on the Anabaptistas of Munster.

March 12, 2009 at 9:45 PM  
Blogger Steve said...

I read that in my Christian History book too!

But those guys were the exception, not the rule. It would be difficult to justify characterizing Anabaptists, of all people, as violent.

For whatever it's worth, I'm not anything close to an Anabaptist. They simply are a good starting point for the concept I'm trying to wrestle with.

That is, we can point to any number of historical figures, specifically Christians, who did remarkably bad things. Things that were as wrong then as they are now. But seeing how they saw things informs our estimation of them and hopefully helps us see ourselves more clearly.

I want to drill down into this.

March 13, 2009 at 6:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Even though we live in this world....we are not to live like the world. The thing is...our culture has an effect on us.

When I was 10 years old (many years ago) if a person were to go out in public as some christians dress when they go to the beach today in the name of freedom.....they would have been arrested or taken to a mental hospital by the unregenerate authorities.

I'm old enough to remember when Elvis appeared on the Ed Sullivan show. Again....back then the unregenerate producer's would not allow the camera's to show Elvis below his waistline. Today that seems silly to the average christian.

Not that long ago the unregenerate public in general knew the homosexual lifestyle was wrong. Today there are certain denominations debating this?? My point is there has always been a gap between the church and the world. The problem is that 50 years ago the world was where many churches are today.

March 13, 2009 at 8:13 AM  
Blogger Aaron said...

I have wrestled with this before myself. The glaring example for me is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He in my eyes was very much a regenerate man some evidence suggest that he was unfaithful to his wife. Do we just disregard that? I know for a fact that a lot of the white church certainly brings that up often and sort of disregards his impact and his Christian message and methodology.

The treatment of MLK has caused me to re think a lot of historical figures who have been my heroes. Martin Luther was a bigot and called Jewish people "pigs." Jonathan Edwards had slaves. Many other American pastors/teachers/professors of the Gospel had slaves or hated Native Americans. I think you get my point.

We just have to celebrate God's sovereign Hand in all this.

March 13, 2009 at 11:10 AM  
Anonymous Nate Payne said...

Here are just a few thoughts I have on this issue. It has been and continues to be a source of tension.

1. "That's SAINTIFICATION, not sanctification.
I believe that our assessment of people in biblical and civil history have often taken on an air of saintification. We grant a certain "halo" effect to them.

a. Biblical characters: we often ignore the humanity demonstrated in the scriptures themselves of those who we look to as heroes of the faith. Take Heb. 11 as an example. We have David, Samson, and Lot in there to name a few. Each had their own sordid episode of sin. Ask yourself this: If David, Lot, or Samson were alive today, how would you view them? Modern Christian "sensibilities" often strip the "inappropriate" episodes from the lives of the saints. We end up with an incomplete view when we ignore these things.

b. Historical figures
We often grant this same glowing effect to historical figures. In the case of men who made a significant impact both historically and spiritually, there is an even stronger tendency to do so. Martin Luther, Gen. Stonewall Jackson, and M.L. King serve as fitting representatives. It is quite interesting that depending on what side of the historical impact one stands on, the individual's spiritual impact is measured by such. Stonewall Jackson would be at best suspiciously a Christian to an African American who endured the humiliation of Jim Crow, segregation, and racial violence. For a patriotic southern Caucasian, Jackson represents valor, honor, and integrity. The evidence of Christian faith must remain locked in the grid of what Scripture describes, not success or failure in the military, social, of civil arenas.

2. Here are some questions to think about:
a. Would there be any discussion if Jackson was a miserable general?
b. Would Martin Luther's views cause any tension if he remained an unknown monk?
c. Would M.L. King's unfaithfulness be either ignored or overemphasized if he remained a simple unknown country preacher?

3. Conclusion
I took a long time to arrive at what I think about a workable grid for assessing historical figures. I think there are a couple of components to keep in place so that we neither glamorize nor unnecessarily condemn.
1) Keep an honest view of what the individual said and did.
2) Assess that individual's actions on his world then and our world now.
3) Do not attempt to excuse, paint over, or hide sinful actions or behavior.
4) Be ready to explain your conclusions without being overly defensive of an individual to whom you have looked as a hero.

Ok, that's all I have for now. Actually, I have one last question. What are our blind spots today?

March 13, 2009 at 8:03 PM  
Blogger Nancy said...

The first two I thought of were David and Paul...

David considered a man after God's own heart...Did God change his mind after the adultery and murder?

Paul...well, that was before his that just doesn't count....right?

Guess that leaves us back at the cross and the blood of Jesus...was it enough...for the past...for the present...for the future...

March 14, 2009 at 9:38 AM  
Anonymous ellen stevens said...

interesting thoughts. thanks for making us all think.

March 17, 2009 at 9:33 PM  
Blogger 香魚烘蛋Tata said...


June 3, 2010 at 5:16 AM  

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