Previously in this column I wrote about the collapse in 1967 of the Silver Bridge, connecting Point Pleasant, West Virginia, and Gallipolis, Ohio. The bridge had received much attention for being the first eyebar suspension bridge in the United States, which made engineering history. When it collapsed without warning, it raised concerns about our nation’s infrastructure, and led to the US Congress passing the 1968 National Bridge Inspection Standards Act.
Though the initial investigation showed that the bridge had been carrying more weight than it could sustain, that’s only half the story. A more thorough investigation revealed that the primary cause was the failure of one of the main eyebars, a problem that developed over time, beginning with a tiny crack just three millimeters deep. A small fracture in the bridge’s mainframe eventually resulted in what has been described as the deadliest bridge disaster in US history.
The Silver Bridge incident mirrors a thousand scenarios in which a small problem left unattended later results in disaster. The civil unrest in our country, on the heels of months of challenging circumstances due to the global pandemic, exposes one such scenario, going all the way back to the founding of this country.
Jim Wallis, a globally recognized Christian writer, teacher, preacher, and justice advocate, calls this America’s Original Sin, the title of his 2017 book on racism in America. Wallis, a white American, found himself at odds with a white church that considered his attempts to address racial injustice to be taboo. He would have given up on faith entirely, had it not been for discovering a biblical faith that commands us to “do justice.” He made this discovery through his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement.
Wallis’ full book title, America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America, doesn’t bode well with staunch defenders of America’s impeccable heritage and those wanting to deny any culpability with the history of slavery.
But it takes only a quick look at America’s early history, with intellectual honesty, to recognize what the book title implies. The first set of Africans brought to America as slaves arrived in 1619. This began a long and tragic history of blacks being violently ripped away from their language and culture and brought to America against their will, under the most inhumane circumstances.
Things only got worse once they got here. These traumatized Africans were treated as property. They could be sold on an auction block to the highest bidder, very much the way animals are auctioned at a cattle sale. The treatment of blacks during that era is therefore rightly described by historians as “chattel slavery.” This dehumanization was necessary in order to control them. But in a twisted kind of way, it also provided an alibi for slave owners. Blacks needed to be treated as less than human because that’s what they were, as the United States Constitution would later define them.
This inhumane treatment therefore became standard on slave plantations, often managed by cruel taskmasters hired by absentee slaveholders to get as much free labor as possible out of the slaves. Thus, within one hundred years after declaring her independence from Great Britain in 1776, America had developed the most powerful economic engine in the world, mostly achieved at the expense of the freedom and human dignity of her enslaved people.
It is this evil that tarnishes early American history. This breach of moral justice, a breach of humanity itself, was practiced for hundreds of years with constitutional backing. Unlike the tiny crack in the Silver Bridge, this is a gaping hole in America’s very foundation. Indeed, this is her original sin.
Attempts to right this wrong resulted in a bloody Civil War and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. But the Thirteenth Amendment was passed in 1865. One newspaper columnist said it “takes out of politics, and consigns to history, an institution incongruous to our political system, inconsistent with justice and repugnant to the humane sentiments fostered by a Christian civilization.”
Yet as recent tragedies confirm, our nation continues to suffer from the legacy of slavery and racial injustice. Thanks to body cameras and cell phones, what the black community has long claimed concerning police brutality is now undeniable.
So here are the questions. What do we do now? As “the American way” collides with the changing demographics of an increasingly diverse country, how should the church respond? How can we as the body of Christ speak into this national conversation? After all, aren’t we the salt of the earth and the light of the world?
Adequate treatment of this topic is impossible in a two-page article, but I’m grateful that we’re at least having the conversation. This is a historic moment, and during these unprecedented times, the task of leadership is to help people take their place on the right side of history.
Generations coming behind us will want to know how we responded to the current crisis. Hopefully, we won’t have to confess that we stood by and did nothing, or that we became caught up in the divisiveness of it, but rather, that we responded in redemptive ways — that we were “repairers of the breach.”
In Isaiah 58, that phrase describes those who loose bonds of wickedness, undo heavy burdens, free oppressed people, and break every yoke (v. 6). And they rebuild waste places, raise the foundation of generations, and restore streets to live in — “make the community livable again” (v. 12, MSG).
We will revisit this topic next time with practical suggestions on how Christians can foster healing and reconciliation. Meanwhile, let us listen, care, seek more to understand than to be understood, and pray that through Christ, we will be responsible agents of history.