The Emancipatory Power of Political Mythologies
Today, I want to talk about religion and how myth drives politics in many instances, and how it can be helpful and freeing rather than oppressive. Now, on the oppressive side, as I blogged about multiple times last month, the myth of “the Northern Aggression” against in the Southern States during the Civil War. On no level in the African American communities is there anyone, perhaps maybe Martin Luther King Jr., who is idolized as much as General Lee and other persons of the Lost Cause. While MLK Jr. impacted history in a positive way, and people use historical facts to make that point (over and over again), the heroes of the Lost Cause have none of the like, and their proponents like Christianity Today’s Douglas Wilson, a so-called Paleo-Confederate, will purposefully look over the facts and lie to spread his racist propaganda.
The inverse of this myth-making took place during the Civil War and after Emancipation. In order to combat racist cultural myths purported by white supremacy, enslaved and freed blacks made their own folktales about Abraham Lincoln before there was ever such thing as Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. Lawrence W. Levine, in his Black Culture and Black Consciousness, noted that the slaves created cultural memories such as Abraham Lincoln preaching to them about the brotherhood/sisterhood of humanity, and that Lincoln would come in disguise to visit the oppressed enslaved Africans (Chapter 2: The Meaning of Slave Tales). Lincoln joined the pantheon of heroes in African American culture, like Daniel, Moses, and Jesus were: “Lincoln died for we, Jesus died for we” (Chapter 3: Freedom Culture, and Religion). Now, of course, the historical Abraham Lincoln believed that the integration of the races meant instability. No need to sugarcoat these facts, but what matters is this, on the issue of being the nation’s moral leader and Commander-In-Chief in the war that meant the freedom of black bodies and souls from human oppression, he was on the right side.
Lincoln had racist views, and probably did not believe that racial reconciliation was possible. However, liberation must come before reconciliation, freedom before unity. How can you be reconciled to the person you have put into bondage? As Christians, we are just beginning to realize (tragically and joyfully), the reconciling power of the Cross, the eschatological vision of Revelation and Isaiah, of the nations coming together to worship YHWH, and his Temple, the Christ Crucified. Lincoln was an instrument, according to the folktales of enslaved Africans, of divine providence, and NOT the slave-holders. God is omni-benevolent and God’s goodness cannot be separated from God’s providential plans. Human freedom and sinfulness can try to interfere, but God’s goodness (we see in the Resurrection) overcomes all evil. Believers in the Lost Cause and neo-apologists of slavery, in contrast, continue to believe that the plantation owners were somehow “providential” in the end, but that’s only because of their belief in an evil, tyrannical god.
So, when I see posts like Lincoln’s Panama Plan, his failed proposal to send FREED blacks to Panama, rehashing Lincoln’s segregationist tendencies, I don’t flinch or make excuses. I simply ask, “What’s the point in telling us what we already know?” Also, it’s not like Lincoln didn’t have historical precedent. Ever heard of the Monroe Doctrine and Liberia? Lincoln (as a Christian) is guilty of not having enough faith in the reconciling power of the Cross. Tell me what Christian hasn’t done so? Lincoln has no excuses, there were brilliant abolitionist intellectuals who believed in the integration of the races. What did matter, in the mind of the liberating political mythology of the mid-19th century black community, was that Abraham Lincoln’s war to “save the union” meant the redemption of black bodies. I have chosen to respect, in part, this political mythology, to combat racist Lost Cause stories and the politics of the Southern Strategy. That is my personal choice.
Liberation first, reconciliation later.
Also, how come blacks can’t believe “Lincoln freed the slaves” but white conservatives can believe that Ronald Reagan turned diarrhea into gold?