Lessons Unlearned and Sins Committed (Reflections on The Republic for Which it Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896)

I have been slowly reading Richard White’s entry in the Oxford History of the United States series on the decades after the Civil War, titled The Republic for Which it Stands. This book is detailed and thick and I’d be lying to say I found every section as interesting as every other. But the sections on Reconstruction and rebuilding the American south, as well as the sections on Western expansion and the violence towards Native American Indians were engrossing.

I’d also be lying if I did not admit part of the reason these sections struck me so deeply had nothing to do with what is happening in our country right now. I mean, to read about white mob violence in the 1860s and 1870s and then to turn on the news and see white mobs storming the capitol is jarring. President Biden gave a speech saying “this is not who we are,” yet this is kind of who we have always been. We also have never really held white people accountable, whether those who rebelled in the 1860s or those who had an insurrection a few weeks back.

One passage that stuck out to me most was when White contrasted how the federal government treated Confederates after the war with how they treated Native Americans protecting their own homeland:

In the West the federal government boldly undertook policies considered too radical for the old Confederacy. Acting as an imperial state against semisovereign tribes, it forced the cession of Indian lands and redistributed them to both individuals and corporations, in effect instituting the land redistribution that was rejected in the South. Congress voted direct federal subsidies to corporations, something they largely refused to do in the South. The army attacked and disciplined noncitizen Indians in ways the government never attempted with citizen Southerners after the Civil War (112).

I’ve written about how it is impossible to have reconciliation without repentance. The more I think about it, the more I think confession and repentance are not just missing from white American Christianity, but are vital if we hope to become better.

In the next couple weeks I am going to share a few posts of things I learned from White’s detailed and thick, perhaps even magnificent book. Some may ask, why dredge up the past? Jemar Tisby addresses this in his book How to Fight Racism. Why is it my problem, we may ask, that other people committed sins decades ago? Tisby shows that this argument fails based on the teaching of the Bible. He cites Ezra’s prayer in Ezra 9:6-7 which goes:

I am too ashamed and disgraced, my God, to lift up my face to you, because our sins are higher than our heads and our guilt has reached to the heavens. From the days of our ancestors until now, our guilt has been great

Notice, Ezra does not just mention his own sins or sins of others, he speaks of all the sins in the history of the people. Tisby comments:

Ezra understood the communal nature of sin and righteousness. Every community sets the boundaries for what beliefs and actions are deemed acceptable. A community can judge racist attitudes and actions acceptable for its members and create the context for individual acts of prejudice. While each person is responsible for his or hew own choice’s, one’s moral conscience is formed in relationship with a community of people. This means that all people in that community have a responsibility to examine the boundaries of their bigotry. What has your community tolerated when it comes to racism? What has it permitted as far as prejudice? What has your community determined to be the acceptable pace of change” (p. 96)

My answers to those questions are that my community – white American Christians – have tolerated too much racism and prejudice. We’ve never really reckoned with or repented of it.

I think part of it is that we haven’t learned this history. Well, reading The Republic for Which it Stands taught me some history I didn’t know, and I will share it with you.

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