Because they lead my people astray, saying, “Peace,” when there is no peace, and because, when a flimsy wall is built, they cover it with whitewash, therefore tell those who cover it with whitewash that it is going to fall. (Ezekiel 13.10-11)
Midnight of the Soul
On this date, 150 years ago, Confederate soldiers sweep into Charleston Harbor and attack US troops stationed at Fort Sumter. Their gunfire rings in America’s midnight of the soul—an hour whose darkness grows so impenetrable it hovers above us still. It was destined to happen, of course, this violent reckoning with contradictions the Founders naïvely entrust future generations to reconcile. Democratic ideals like personal freedom and social equality are too rich for our pragmatically capitalist blood. While a federal government ensuring states’ rights works in principle, it’s stubbornly impracticable. The revolutionary pledge to promote such inalienable human rights as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness only holds for male landowners of European descent. The Founders aren’t so naïve they don’t notice potential cloud chambers pocking their Great Experiment’s fortress of freedom. They see where its walls are flimsy, its joints weak. As Founders, their first duty is laying solid groundwork for upcoming architects and builders to refine their original design and shore up its initially patched-together construction. In this, they’re utterly magnificent.
Their faith that future Americans will heed their precedent of revering national unity above political ideology and personal ambition is naïve to the point of foolishness, however. Succeeding generations find choosing sides far less demanding than compromise. Greased palms feel friendlier than hands calloused from tireless labor to build an increasingly great nation. Instead of bolstering the Founders’ beacon against clouds that dim its brilliance, they settle for slapping on a fresh coat of red, white, and blue from time to time in the name of “patriotism.” Then April 12, 1861 arrives. Before God’s sun rises, our midnight lands in a blaze of artillery. America’s bastion of liberty all but implodes as nearly a century of pent-up bickering and neglect eclipse the horizon.
Naturally Superior and Morally Bound
We’re well versed in mounting conflicts that erupt into Civil War. We’re taught the South’s agrarian economy can’t survive without slave labor; the real issue is states’ rights, not slavery; slave trade has become such a fixture in Southern culture few who benefit from it question its justice. Yet when we envision hundreds of gray-clad youths stealing into position to slaughter their fellow countrymen, we can’t discern what they hope to gain by use of violence. What’s in it for the wealthy elite—plantation owners and merchants reaping huge profits at human expense—is too apparent to refute. Nor is it sane to suggest anything but wealth and favor motivates toadying politicians and preachers who hawk distorted ideology and diabolical doctrines of racial inequality. Confederate military command is decidedly upper crust, either ardent slave owners or their sons. But the faceless troops—hardscrabble farmers, day laborers, millworkers, and miners whose misery mirrors slavery more closely than the privileged manner they volunteer to die for—what’s in it for them?
The standard answer: they fight to protect their way of life, a laughable conclusion about an average Confederate soldier with neither means nor need to own slaves. No, these men risk their lives because they’re seduced to believe they’re inherently superior to slaves and morally bound to murder anyone opposed to their belief. (Sidebar: how is it we Americans harshly reproach Germans who tumbled for Hitler’s evil while sentimentalizing our very same dance with the Devil?) Without a morally sound foundation on which to build, the Confederacy’s architects erect a façade that mimics America’s freedom fortress. Borrowing from their recently disavowed compatriots’ playbook, they mask their rickety structure in red, white, and blue patriotism—cleverly sticking to stars and bars and all that goes with inflaming unwary American minds to hate, wound, and kill for “love of country,” rather than defending their nation’s ideals. (Remember: that’s really hard work to be avoided at all cost—“cost” being the operative term.)
Thus, in the first instance of what would become a deadly habit, decades of lazy politics and poor citizenship lead America to equip enemies of freedom and equality. The young Rebels have absolutely nothing to gain by killing and maiming their brothers. If anything, the slavery crisis provides their generation’s best reason for uniting to remedy a fundamental flaw in the Founders’ plan—to make the freedom’s fortress sturdier, more impregnable to threats of tyranny, corruption, and senseless violence. With neither side having witnessed this, though, taking up arms seems logical to both; a lifetime wasted on watching paint dry conditions North and South alike to turn a blind eye to their civic duty to uphold moral principles and social justice. When midnight descends on the American soul, the Union stumbles and staggers in search of a way out. Meanwhile, the Rebels can’t see they’ve elected to be slaves to slave-owner wealth and power. Lives across the divide are cheapened past the price of the cheapest slave—and debt our nation accrues in the process has yet to be cleared. April 12, 1861’s toll on racial harmony, equal rights, and personal freedoms may never go away.
Addicted to Whitewash
Inattentive upkeep of fortresses and fondness for façades are neither recent phenomena nor uniquely American. They’re common to a universal tale as old as time. Ezekiel’s prophecy addresses a nation born in bondage and nurtured in freedom, only to be divided into two kingdoms, north and south, that turn on each other and consequently fall captive to Babylon. (Their 70-year exile is lamented to this day as the midnight of the Jewish soul.) The prophet is a captive through whom God charges the people with apathy that accounts for their demise. Content to watch paint dry, they disregard the hard work of building their nation. Convenient ignorance evolves into a crippling habit they can’t break. In Ezekiel 13.10-12 we see an oft-repeated pattern throughout the prophecy. God cites leaders for abusing their nation’s trust but ultimately indicts the people for letting them get by with it: “Because they lead my people astray, saying, ‘Peace,’ when there is no peace, and because, when a flimsy wall is built, they cover it with whitewash, therefore tell those who cover it with whitewash that it is going to fall. Rain will come in torrents, and I will send hailstones hurtling down, and violent winds will burst forth. When the wall collapses, will not people ask you, ‘Where is the whitewash you covered it with?’”
America has become addicted to whitewash. No sooner do we kick the habit than we permit leaders to seduce us with fresh paint. Our resistance weakens with each relapse. Cycling up to deadly overdoses takes less time: 80 years to the Civil War; 60 tolerating robber barons and political graft before crashing into Depression; 40 excusing paranoid propaganda and moral hypocrisy before the Sixties unleash a tsunami of unrest and violence; 25 pretending not to see the Religious Right creeping into bed with neoconservatives and big business; 15 tuning out cautions that rampant materialism and media overload will be our undoing. And every cycle cheapens lives past the cheapest slave’s price.
Every time our walls cave, we grab the whitewash and leave freedom’s trowels and hammers to somebody else—somebody who doesn’t exist, never did, and never will. Out of the mouth of God we’re warned that whitewashed walls will surely fall. The most patriotic façade is still a façade. It cannot endure. Fortresses require constant attention and fortitude to strengthen ramparts, seal cloud chambers, and mend moral decay. As believers who know the ways of justice and righteousness, we have no excuse for not speaking out against moral apathy or conveniently ignoring flaws we can remedy. If no one else pitches in, with God’s help we can do the hard work of liberty and equality. We can break the whitewash habit and kill our contentment to watch paint dry. May it be so.
On April 12, 1861, eight decades of convenient ignorance erupted in a blaze of brother-on-brother violence. Since that day, our whitewash addiction has escalated into increasingly shorter cycles between calamitous overdoses.