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Charlottesville and America’s Original Sin

August 22, 2017


I vividly remember my first visit to Charlottesville, Virginia.  It was about twenty years ago, and I was on vacation with a good friend, who shared with me a passion for American history and for Thomas Jefferson in particular. We had toured a number of Civil War battlefields in Maryland and Virginia and then had made our way to Jefferson’s University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Finally, we ventured outside the city to the little hilltop home that the great founder had designed and built for himself, Monticello. It was a glorious summer day, and the elegant manse shone in all of its Palladian splendor. We took in its classical lines, its distinctive red and white coloration, the understated beauty of its dome, its overall symmetry, balance, and harmony. On the inside, we saw all of Jefferson’s quirky genius on display: scientific instruments, inventions, books galore. Just outside the house was the simple, unpretentious grave of Jefferson, the tombstone naming him as the author of the Declaration of Independence. There was no question that the very best of the American spirit was on display in that place.

But then we noticed something else. Below the sight-lines of Monticello, literally underground, were the quarters of Jefferson’s slaves. These were hovels, really little more than caves, with bare earth floors and flimsy roofs, not even a hint of the elegance, comfort, and beauty of the great house. Jefferson had brought some of his slaves to France with him when he was the American ambassador to that country, and he had taught them the fine art of French cuisine. When he entertained at Monticello, these servants, dressed in the finery of courtiers at Versailles, would serve the savory meals that they had prepared. Afterwards, they would return for the night to their underground hovels. A woman, who had been invited to stay for a time at Monticello, recorded in her diary that she woke up one morning to the sounds of horrific screaming. When she looked with alarm and concern out her window, she saw the author of the Declaration of Independence savagely beating one of his slaves.

Jefferson the morally upright sage; Jefferson the merciless slave-owner. Splendid Monticello; its sordid slave-quarters underground. One could literally see at this great American house the divide, the original sin, that has bedeviled our nation from its inception to the present day. The framers of the Constitution fought over slavery and race; the issue preoccupied the politics of America for the first half of the nineteenth century and finally drove the country to a disastrous and murderous civil conflict; it perdured in somewhat mitigated form in the segregation, both sanctioned and unofficial, that reigned in America in the decades following the Civil War; it came to a head during the great civil rights struggle of the mid-twentieth century, culminating in landmark legislation and in the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.; it continued to assert itself in the Detroit riots of 1967, the Watts uprising, the unrest after the beating of Rodney King, the street violence in Ferguson, Missouri, and in many other events.

For me, it was weirdly fitting that its most recent manifestation would be in Charlottesville, Virginia, where, twenty years ago, I had so vividly seen the moral contradiction at the heart of American history. Thomas Jefferson’s principle that “all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights” came face to face, on the streets of Charlottesville, with representatives of the most nefarious ideology of hatred and racial superiority. God knows that, since Jefferson’s time, many, many battles have been won in this struggle, but the events of last week proved that the war is not yet over, that the original sin of America has not been thoroughly expunged.

I have been using the term “original sin” very much on purpose, for it is my conviction that both the problem and its solution are best articulated in theological categories. Finally, our awful tendency, up and down the ages and in every culture, to divide ourselves into opposing camps, to demonize the other, to scapegoat, to take away fundamental human rights is a function of the denial that all people are made in the image and likeness of God. It is, first and last, a sin. And finally, the answer cannot be a matter of political machination but only of grace. No one saw this more clearly than St. Paul, who was dealing with the very same issue within the cultural framework of the first century: Jews and non-Jews were at odds, Romans dominated and everyone else obeyed, slavery obtained throughout the ancient Mediterranean world, etc.

Paul came to understand that, strangely enough, a crucified victim of the tyrannical Roman authorities provided a way out: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” It would require a lengthy theological tome fully to unpack the meaning of that phrase. Suffice it to say that the crucifixion of the Son of God disclosed the entire range and universality of human dysfunction: stupidity, violence, injustice, cruelty, victimizing, etc.: “We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” And the resurrection of Jesus revealed the entire range and universality of the divine mercy: “Where sin abounds, grace abounds the more.” In a word, we are all sinners upon whom an amazing grace has been poured out. So let us stop playing games of domination, us against them, racial superiority, masters and slaves. In Christ, all of that has been exposed as fraudulent and swept away.

This is the saving word that the Christian churches can and should bring to this age-old and still festering wound in the body politic of our nation.