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 History/Culture: The Power of Underlying Principles

SpiritualityBy Howard Bess

We Americans are observing the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War between the States, North and South. During the past week I watched major portions of Ken Burns’ documentary about the most vicious war in the history of the United States. At one point I had to hit the off button. I could not handle the slaughter.

Some years back I did some tracing of my family history. My great-great-great grandfather and his brother moved from North Carolina to Southeastern Missouri. The great grandfather of my grandfather and his family became abolitionists. His brother became a slave owner. When I traced down the records of Bolinger County, I realized the awful truth. Cousins were killing one another in that awful war.

We now have more and better historians in America than ever before. The Civil War’s 150th anniversary has provided historians the opportunity to come center stage. The prime issue that is being debated is the cause of the war. Incredibly a majority of Americans believe the war was fought over the issue of state’s rights. Nothing could be more wrong. ...

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President Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address should settle the question. “One section of our country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended. This is the only substantial dispute.” It is apparent that the nation has worked very hard at rewriting history for the purpose of covering up the nation’s greatest scandal. The Great Melting Pot refuses to face its underlying racism.

In the midst of my ponderings, I returned to the Declaration of Independence. Right there are the words that should have overriding power. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” I noted that there was no turning to religious authority for justification. “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” There was no need for a proof-text. It is as plain as the nose on your face. All men are created equal.

As Americans we have the right foundational belief. The framers of the Declaration of Independence got the founding principle right. Americans postponed the facing of the implications of our most basic principle for 85 years. When they finally faced the issue, they killed one another to determine who was correct. My desire is to hit the off button. But alas, there is no off button. History is history.

I would rather not acknowledge the truth, but there it is. Skin color continues to be the most divisive issue in America. Our great founding principle be dammed.

I am very pleased with the debates that are being triggered by the 150th anniversary celebration of the Civil War. Possibly not a few will give thought to the tragedy of the Civil War and the ugly and real reason for the conflict. I consider myself a protesting loyal American. My first identity, however, is that of a Christian. I find a tragedy in the earthly kingdom of Christ that parallels that of America. Even as I am a protesting American, I am also a protesting Christian. Jesus was once asked about the greatest of all commandments. His answer was on target. You shall love the Lord your God with heart, mind and soul. He then added a second that he called similar. “You shall love your neighbor.” In almost every English translation of the Bible, the text adds “as yourself.” This is the equivalent of Americans believing that the Civil War was fought over state’s rights.

The command to love neighbor was not new with Jesus. The command has a long and rich history. The roots go back over 3500 years to the days when the children of Abraham were landless. They were a wandering clan. They were not the only wandering clan in the expanses East of the Mediterranean Sea. It was not uncommon for clans to fight one another. It was also true that some sought a different way to deal with other clans with conflicting interests. It was in that setting that the Israelite laws of hospitality took root. Hospitality became an important element of the ancient Israelite ethic. The highest ethic was to show hospitality. The standard was to treat other clans as you would members of your own clan. It was their formula for peace.

The most ancient form of the command to love neighbor is “you shall love your neighbor as though he were a member of your own clan.” In the teachings of Jesus, hospitality was a key element. The concept of self-love was not a part of the culture that surrounded Jesus. Jesus was committed to others, not himself. Loving neighbor as yourself would have been non-sense to Jesus.

Just as we have Americans who think the Civil War was about state’s rights, we have a multitude of Christians who have made Christ’s command an invitation to give priority to self-love. The result has been well developed self-interests with little commitment to neighbor. The pursuit of self-interest destroys the essence of our Christian Faith.

Founding principles should never be forgotten. America will never know its greatness until they remember “all men are created equal.” Christians will not know their potential until they remember they are to “love their neighbor as though they were members of their own households.”

Getting your basic principles correct is very important.



The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His email address is [email protected]


[16 April 2011]

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