Sunday, January 2, 2011

A Hard Lesson from the Abolitionist Movement

I just finished reading Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau several days ago and the following quote struck me:

"I do not hesitate to say, that those who call themselves Abolitionists should at once effectually withdraw their support, both in person and property, from the government of Massachusetts, and not wait till they constitute a majority of one, before they suffer the right to prevail through them. I think that it is enough if they have God on their side, without waiting for that other one. Moreover, any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already."

As I have found myself more and more involved with the Christian peace movement I have found that when I read stuff like this I find myself inserting the word "peacemaker" where the author identifies himself. In this passage I found myself reading it like this: "those who call themselves Peacemakers should at once effectually withdraw their support, both in person and property, from the government of Massachusetts". It sounded inspiring, it sounded radical, initially it sounded right.

Later, as I read more about the Abolitionist movement here in my own home state of Massachusetts (which included several Christian ministers), I realized something upsetting. Check out the following excerpt from The Liberator, a Boston publication authored by William Lloyd Garrison, a minister and outspoken abolitionist who was also a pacifist:

"At the tenth anniversary of the American Anti-Slavery Society, in New York City, May 7th, “it was decided by a vote of nearly three to one of members present….that the existing national compact should be instantly dissolved; that secession from the government is a religious and political duty, that the motto inscribed on the banner of Freedom should be NO UNION WITH SLAVEHOLDERS; that it is impractical for tyrants and the enemies of tyranny to coalesce and legislate together for the preservations of human rights, or the promotion of the interests of Liberty; and that revolutionary ground should be occupied by all those who abhor the thought of doing evil that good may come, and who do not mean to compromise the principles of Justice and Humanity…..”

"No Union With Slaveholders": This was the position that the Abolitionist movement had taken in regards to their opponents and it was at this point that many men in the movement gradually began to shift towards the use of violence. Their anger at the perceived enemy had grown and grown until finally they could only see their opponent as a monster, a "tyrant", an "evildoer" that "good men" had to separate and distinguish themselves from in order to defeat. Finally, when they could no longer recognize the humanity of their enemy and could no longer see the image of God in him, the abolitionists were won over to the cause of the War. Of course, at that point they had little option since they had no relational ground with their enemy by which to cause change, end slavery, and bring about peace.

Right away I questioned my earlier insertion of "peacemakers" into Thoreau's work. This idea of having no relationship with the enemy suddenly seemed totally contrary to Christ's example and did much greater damage in its divisiveness than it did good. What does "No Union" infer? Is this idea of "No Union With Slaveholders" christlike? Is the voice in my head that wants to separate itself from those who espouse just war theory coming from a good place?

The more I thought about it the more I recognized, as we look back through history, that this kind of self-righteous refusal to associate with sinners was just what Jesus condemned about the pharisees. Jesus spent much of his time with tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners: those who the Law had condemned. How do I apply this to my peace witness? What can I infer from Jesus example?

Clearly we are to call out evil where we see it and we should continue to speak out against evils like slavery, nuclear weapons, war, and collateral damage; But if we refuse the enemy the same grace God gives us and we close the door between us and them and say "No Union", we make it impossible for the "enemy" to join us in our cause and we act without humility. It is more important than anything that, as this peace movement moves forward, we do not fear relationships with those who oppose us. They are, I feel, key to the success of bringing about an end to war.

BTW: Check out these three sites. Lots of great material here:
Thoreau's Civil Disobedience
The Liberator: A collection of excerpts from the Abolitionist publication.
A Pacifist Response to Military Chaplain's Day