The God of Signs & Wonders: Or, Race in America

First Posted on January 16, 2012

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Broken relationships sometimes seem absolutely hopeless. Beyond repair. Sometimes the intractability of conflict moves us to despair. There seems no way forward. The trenches are dug. Nobody is going to budge. One might just as soon raise a person from the dead as achieve reconciliation with a bitter enemy.

And that is why, to me, reconciliation is proof that God exists. The God who really did raise Jesus from the dead (and thereby achieved reconciliation with us, his enemies) continues to exercise that resurrection power in the world, achieving what should rightly be called "signs and wonders." Signs and wonders, you say? Surely hyperbole, right?

Not really. Bear with me. Today I want to celebrate one such miracle, in honor and remembrance of the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Today is, of course, the day set aside to celebrate Dr. King's legacy, and I recommend that you do just that. You can start by watching his "I Have a Dream" speech here. Without fail, it brings tears to my eyes: "I have a dream that one day my four little children will live in a land where they are judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." Truly legendary rhetoric, and we should actively work to preserve it in our collective American memory. Then I recommend following that up by reading Dr. King's "Letter From a Birmingham Jail," a tract which, to my mind, belongs in the canon of great American political writings.

Who can read this and remain unmoved?

I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say "wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she cannot go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos, "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger" and your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and when your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodyness" -- then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

But back to the "I Have a Dream" speech. Dr. King began by invoking the name of Lincoln, under whose symbolic statue he stood when giving the speech in 1963. He was bringing to mind, of course, the great conflict of the civil war. And he effectively went on to describe the gaping chasm between the great promise of emancipation and the reality on the ground a hundred years later.

One of the evidences of just how extravagantly gracious God has been to the American people is the fact that we forget just how deep the divisions over race once were. No, we don't "forget." We have no concept whatsoever just how dire the situation was. The situation at the close of the war was utterly hopeless. Beyond repair. The breach between North and South would never be healed. The breach between white and black would never be healed. This is not hyperbole.

On April 1, 1865 the Richmond Times-Dispatch opined: "After what has occurred for four long years, the future unity of America is a dream of maniacs." That's right: only a "maniac" could dream of a United States. In the editor's opinion, "the mode of conducting this war had been shaped for no other purpose than to render a restoration of the old Union impossible." He is referring, of course, to the brutality of Sherman's campaign in the South:

Some of our contemporaries publish a statement that General Sherman, in conversation with a lady in Fayetteville, said that if the results of his late visitation of the South did not restore its people to loyalty, he should, on his next invasion, burn every house to the ground, and if that did not work a cure he would put all the inhabitants to death, without regard to age or sex.

If you're tempted to think that this anecdote is unreliable or, again, hyperbole, think again. In the post-war period, Sherman reacted to an Indian massacre thus: "We must act with vindictive earnestness against the Sioux, even to their extermination, men, women, and children.” General Sherman seemed to have a decent bit of "genocidal ideation." In 1873 General Phillip Sheridan wrote to Sherman about his strategy for fighting Indians, and directly tied it to their mutual treatment of Southerners during the war:

In taking the offensive [against Indians] I have to select that season when I can catch the fiends; and, if a village is attacked and women and children killed, the responsibility is not with the soldiers but with the people whose crimes necessitated the attack. During the war did anyone hesitate to attack a village or town occupied by the enemy because women or children were within its limits? Did we cease to throw shells into Vicksburg or Atlanta because women and children were there?

In 1865 the prospect of any kind of fruitful reconciliation between the North and South seemed absolutely ludicrous. Hopeless. The dream of maniacs. Take a look around today. Signs and wonders, I dare say.

That is just political reconciliation. What about reconciliation between whites and blacks, former slave-owners and former slaves? Prospects for any kind of reconciliation between white and black in America were even bleaker than the prospects of political reconciliation between North and South. Take, for example, the renowned Southern Presbyterian theologian, Robert Louis Dabney. Dabney had served as Chaplain to General Stonewall Jackson, and was widely admired (and still is today in many circles). Dabney was a Christian gentleman, a servant of God, a leader in the Presbyterian church, and a learned man of the Word. Yet in 1867 he stood on the floor of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church and opposed the ordination of blacks. He did so with rhetoric that cannot be read without blushing. How ugly was it? Well, I don't want to spoil your appetite, but I will (especially on this day) because we need to collectively remember these things. The dark canvas I'm about to paint will allow us to see the signs and wonders in all their brilliance and glory.

Dabney argued:

While I greatly doubt whether a single Presbyterian negro will ever be found to come fully up to that high standard of learning, manners, sanctity, prudence, and moral weight and acceptability which our constitution requires, and which this overture professes to honor so impartially, I clearly foresee that, no sooner will it be passed than it will be made the pretext for a partial and odious lowering of our standard in favor of negroes [....] There has broken out among many a sort of morbid craving to ordain negroes -- to get their hands on their heads.

And later:

Now, who that knows the negro does not know that his is a subservient race; that he is made to follow, and not to lead; that his temperament, idiosyncrasy and social relation make him untrustworthy as a depository of power?

Or this:

And now that every hope of the existence of church and of state, and of civilization itself, hangs upon our arduous efforts to defeat the doctrine of negro suffrage [...]

Or perhaps the most ugly passage of all:

[O]nce political equality is confirmed to the blacks, every influence will tend towards that other consummation, social equality, which they will be so keen to demand, and their demagogues so ready to grant as the price of their votes [....] He must be 'innocent' indeed who does not see whither all this tends, as it is designed by our oppressors to terminate. It is (shall I pronounce the abhorred word?) to amalgamation! Yes, sir, these tyrants know that if they can mix the race of Washington and Lee and Jackson with the base herd which they brought from the fens of Africa, if they can taint the blood which hallowed the plains of Manassas with this sordid stream, the adulterous current will never again swell a Virginian's heart with a throb noble enough to make a despot tremble. But they will then have, for all time, a race supple and grovelling enough for all the purposes of oppression.

I know this is difficult, but bear with me for one last quote.

Now then, gentlemen, come with me, and let us see whither this iron consistency in which you boast will lead us [....] [Y]ou must have this negro of yours reviewing and censuring the records of white sessions, and sitting to judge appeals brought before you by white parties, possibly even white ladies! [....] You made race and color no obstacle to putting this negro equal to yourselves [...] So there you have a black pastor to white families, clothed with official title to ask their experimental, heart secrets; to visit their sick beds; to celebrate baptisms, marriages and funerals over their children! And this, on your principle, is no Utopian picture, but what may become a literal fact in a month after you execute your plan.

Keep in mind these were the words of an otherwise exemplary Southern Christian gentleman. If that was how the Christians thought, what do you think the opinions were more broadly? As I say: racial equality and reconciliation? Absolutely HOPELESS.

It took a good bit longer for racial equality to materialize than it did political union. Dr. King lamented that the "promises" in the aftermath of the Civil War had not been fully realized a hundred years later. He argued that the Declaration of Independence was a promissory note: "All men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." He and his followers in 1963, those gathered at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial, were there to peacefully demand payment.

With all that background, today I want you to stop and look around. The signs and wonders are so obvious and apparent one has to be utterly blind to not see it. God has been extravagantly gracious to this unique nation of ours. Where once racial and political equality was a dream only of "maniacs," today there are few who can read the words of a 19th century Southern theologian without cringing in abject horror.

That sort of turnaround does not happen on its own. It is not the natural order of things in this fallen world. It does not happen with good intentions. It does not happen by passing laws or social engineering. It is not the outcome of somebody just making a good argument. It happens because the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead, the One who is "making all things new," really is at work in the world.

I know that people are often discouraged about lingering race issues in America.

As for me, I think the history of race relations in America is proof positive that God exists.