The line at the very heart of Mark Twain's Huck Finn, maybe the most famous novel in American literary history, is line Huck tells himself when it becomes clear that turning his traveling partner in to the authorities as a runaway is not only wrong, but evil. He'll risk hell rather than turn in his friend Jim, he says:
I was a-trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: All right then, I'll go to hell"--and tore it up. It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming.It was hard work to teach that novel because my students, good Christian kids, found it unimaginable that good, bible-reading believers, could be so diabolically wrong about slavery. Very, very few kids understood that sweet Christian people believed God himself had ordained slavery, that it was not only good, it was right, no Right.
Then I'd haul out the old Catharine Vos Children's Bible I was raised with and read that passage about the sons of Noah--how son Ham had been sent south, to Africa presumably, where he and his descendants would be sentenced forever to serve the progeny of his two siblings, which is to say, us white folk. There it was, plain as anything in the Bible I was read to as a child. If you believed that Bible, than those fiery abolitionists were not only unAmerican, they were unChristian.
I was somehow shocked to see this story up in the State Historical Society Museum in Des Moines yesterday, the story of a runaway slave named Lucy, because somehow the idea of monetary rewards and runaway slaves in Iowa seemed wrong--Louisiana, sure, but Iowa, no. I was wrong.
Even in Waterloo, white people wanted to hold on to their property--good, law-abiding, praying people, good Iowans.
On the other hand, there was this man John Brown, whose body lies a'mouldering in the grave, John Brown, the subject of a famous patriotic anthem, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," a piece of music most American kids assume comes from the same hymnal as "My Country 'Tis of Thee" and even "Amazing Grace." Glory, glory, hallelujah.
In this portrait from the museum exhibit he's actually cradling a rifle, which shouldn't be strange because his cause--abolition, the end of slavery--was something he worked at with a righteousness he spelled out to the nation in real human blood. He was--as were most abolitionists--virulently anti-slavery because they were Christians.
The Civil War, a war fought 150 years ago now, killed 620,000 Americans, more soldiers than all other wars combined right up and through Vietnam, although some say the toll was as high as 800,000. Iran and Afghanistan have only recently put us over the top. But the War Between the States was the only one fought here, where all that blood flowed right into the soil. It was fought here, between Christians.
For the most part, my DNA missed the fighting since most of my Dutch immigrant ancestors made it to this country after the Civil War. I can't tell the story of my great-great uncle Dirk, who died at Andersonville or Pea Ridge or somewhere along Sherman's March to the Sea. But I am an adopted child of the war itself, of the Federalists.
And I and my Christian students are also heir to unsettling incongruities of life and faith, heirs of a history that shows clearly how good believers can and do get it all significantly wrong. What we know is that He loves us somehow, miraculously even, and that's all we know.
I suppose Catharine Vos taught me a great deal as a little boy, when my father used to read that old blue children's bible at the dinner table. But she also taught me that I'd better be humble about things, especially faith, because, Lord knows, I don't know it all.