Like anyone, where I grew up has shaped me in deeply profound ways. The extent of the influence of my context reaches further and deeper than I yet know, though I am slowly beginning to trace its long trails. It has planted within me seeds of a worldview, the lies of which I am, shamefully, only recently recognizing as the evil perversions of truth that they are. But praise God. The age of ignorance is over.
I grew up in the South in the shadow of Stone Mountain—the same Stone Mountain where the Klu Klux Klan was both founded in Georgia and was later revived, the north face of which is etched with so-called heroes of the Confederacy, and from where Martin Luther King, Jr. dared to dream that the ring of freedom for all people would one day overcome the dissonance of hate. History collides here. It is a place where the sins of the past still linger, screaming though silent, without recognition and without repentance. The future seems at times on hold, unable to escape its haunted past, though the present always reserves some ounce of hope.
One of the main reasons this tension remains so thick is that there hangs in the air a deceptive lie that re-writes history, distorts the present and burdens the future. That lie is the narrative of the Lost Cause. The Lost Cause is a false narrative of the Civil War that attempted to craft a new identity for the defunct Confederacy whose defeat left its followers without an identity. The Lost Cause narrative can be summarized in three key themes. One, it romanticizes the Civil War as a struggle against the villain aggressor from the North, viewing the South as the victim and worthy recipient of pity. Second, as an attempt to preserve its shattered past and retain some hope for a distinct southern identity in the future, the Lost Cause venerates the virtues of antebellum southern life. Third, in some twisted way of reckoning with the inhumane horrors of the cause for which they fought, the Lost Cause denies slavery was the cause for which the Confederacy took up its swords and readied its rifles.
The persistence of the Lost Cause narrative in the white South blindly perpetuates the racial tensions that divide even the one church of Christ.
This is not merely a history lesson. This narrative has persisted down through the generations into the present in large part because we are blind to it. And it has done so with disastrous consequences. Most significantly, the persistence of the Lost Cause narrative in the white South blindly perpetuates the racial tensions that divide even the one church of Christ. As Martin Luther King, Jr. lamented, “It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” This is because, at least in very large part, the Lost Cause fuels an arrogance in white culture that willfully ignores our participation in racism. Consider that, without thought, let alone resistance, I adopted the thinking that the South was morally and religiously superior to those yankee tyrants in the North; the Civil War was a noble defense of state’s rights, not really about slavery; that celebrating the Confederacy was about honoring heritage, not perpetrating hate; that Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson were heroes deserving of statues; that black people were now free and afforded the same opportunities as white people, if only they worked hard enough; that the reason black people don’t have the nice things white people do is that they don’t work hard; that white neighborhoods are somehow inherently safe while black neighborhoods were the rough and sketchy part of town; that too many black families moving into the neighborhood would be bad for our otherwise excellent schools. All of these beliefs are evil, sinful fruit of the seeds of the Lost Cause and proof that its presence in our collective conscious is a stumbling block to which we are blind, and until we have eyes to see the offense that it is, there is no hope for real racial reconciliation.
No one sat me down and taught me these things. I was not systematically instructed to believe them. I merely absorbed them like a sponge absorbs water. It was in the air that I breathed. Because the Lost Cause narrative is so engrained into the collective consciousness of white southerners, to not actively articulate an anti-Lost Cause narrative is to passively agree with its distortions of truth and to embrace its sinful consequences. To not labor to expose its fictions and proclaim what is true is to partner with sin. More than that, it is to impede the reconciling power of the gospel that works to dissolve discord and cultivate unity. However, before we can proclaim and participate in truth, we must see rightly the sinful roots and fruits of the narrative we have adopted.
There is a brand of white supremacy much more subtle than Confederate flags and Klan rallies that has found welcome in our churches.
We are accountable, even condemnable, for our sin—whether blindly ignorant to it or acutely aware of it. Sin is sin and truth is truth. The Lost Cause is sin because it is at its root a lie. It jettisons reality in favor of fiction. It pretends ignorance yet is never able to excuse reality. Therefore, even our passive embrace of its ideology is sin. It should be of no surprise to us that what is sinful at its root produces sinful fruit. The arrogance of white supremacy may seem like an extreme example, but there is a brand of white supremacy much more subtle than Confederate flags and Klan rallies that has found welcome in our churches. Consider how white people typically respond to persons of color moving into their neighborhood or school district as a threat to the status quo. Or how white people typically view the poverty and incarceration of persons of color only in terms of poor choices or lack of work ethic and not in terms of systematic injustice. Or how white people are fearfully on guard driving through an African American neighborhood. Or how white people assume that what a poor neighborhood needs is our help—our money or our skills or our network. Though few white Christians rightly recognize it, we functionally believe that white people are superior to others—whether that supremacy is economic, social, moral, religious, academic, or the thousand other ways we are predisposed to set ourselves supremely over others. All of these actions are compelled by belief in the fictional and sinful narrative of the Lost Cause—or at least some brand of it.
We continue to take up the pen to write the story of history from our experience as white people. For example, we tell the narrative that police are good and serve to protect people for the evils of society. In this narrative, there is no room for systematic mistreatment or habitual abuse of persons of color by police. It holds the white experience as the objective judge of the experiences of others. In this way, we comprehensively reject the real experience of others and downright ignore the real existence of sin in the world. We are no less complicit in our present day than our forefathers in ages past.
For the sake of the gospel and for unity in the church, the age of ignorance must come to an end. We must no longer in ignorance close the doorway to repentance of sin. We must no longer hide behind false narratives of history or false narratives of our present reality. We must examine our hearts for the sinful fruit that false ideologies such as the Lost Cause have produced in us, and we must repent. We must repent sincerely in the secret of our hearts and with tears before those that we have held captive by our sin. Only then are we postured to proclaim the truth over and against the lies that so long held us captive.
There is no room for holding any race as superior at any turn in the gospel narrative. To elevate one race above another is anti-gospel, and it has no place in people of God.
The most truthful, anti-Lost Cause narrative is the gospel narrative. That is, of course, because the gospel narrative is the true narrative of the world. It is the gospel narrative that is ultimate judge of all other narratives. It alone has a unique claim to objective truth. The gospel narrative proclaims that all persons have inherent and equal dignity being made in the image of God. Further, upon the entrance of sin into the world, all persons are equal being under the curse of sin and are in equal need of rescue from that curse. The gospel narrative presents Jesus as the one who came to break the curse of sin by taking the penalty of death upon himself in order to reconcile to himself all things and all peoples so that one day there will be gathered in his kingdom a people from every tribe, language and nation. From beginning to end, Scripture holds there is an inherent equality among God’s image bearers and especially among God’s redeemed people—equal in our creation, equal in our fall, equal in our depravity; and as the people of God, equal in redemption when met with the undeserved grace of God, and equal in the eternal kingdom in which the redemptive glory of God will shine brightest through the array of his diverse people. There is no room for holding any race as superior at any turn in the gospel narrative. To elevate one race above another is anti-gospel, and it has no place in people of God.
Further, Jesus sums up the whole counsel of the Scriptures as love God and love neighbor. In this way, the ethos of the gospel narrative is love. This shouldn’t be any surprise since its author is himself love. In what certainly has a pointed criticism to the subject at hand, the apostle characterizes this love like this:
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Does this type of love characterize our relationships with persons of color as we seek to listen and understand, or are we quick to speak, only wanting to be heard? Does this type of love rise up when we hear the news that an unarmed black man was murdered by police, or are we quick to judge through the lens of our arrogance? Does this type of love pervade our thoughts as we drive through unfamiliar neighborhoods, or are we governed by the fear of our prejudices? Does this type of love undergird our response to the oppression of others, or do we merely assume they must be reaping what they have sown? The age of ignorance is over, and we are implicated to respond to these things in a way that loves God and loves neighbor.
While these are things that we know, we know them only at a superficial level. The truth of the gospel narrative has yet to overtake the fictions we have passively adopted. Certainly, prayer is a fine place to start, but we have received the true story of the whole world. It is time to walk in it. It is time to actively rebuke the fiction of the Lost Cause and the thousand other lies that we hold as true recognizing that we are complicit even in our passive embrace of these evils, to repent, and to turn the one who has authored a better, truer narrative and who, by his blood, has purchased redemption and ransom for God’s people.
It is no coincidence that this post is dated June 19th, Juneteenth, the oldest celebration of the end of slavery in America. May this post spur efforts to bring to an end the underlying fictions that perpetuate the oppression of persons of color—for the glory of Christ and the good of his world, especially his church.