I relayed in a previous blog post that my father lived with a fear of snakes. I have never had this fear myself. On my recent vacation my sisters were horrified, upon discovering a snake in the garage of our rental facility, that my first instinct was to conduct an up-close examination rather than, I guess, calling 911. They are their father’s daughters. I have no fear snakes. Spiders on the other hand…I have always, at least as long as I can remember, been afraid of spiders. The fear is not based on anything any spider ever did to me. Giant horror movie spiders do not move the terror needle for me. But honest actual spiders of almost any size just give me the willies. They have too many limbs, too many eyes (I realize the same could be said for the Biblical descriptions of Cherubim and Seraphim) too strange methods of moving, hunting, eating, and – I don’t know that I can quantify it. Spiders are just creepy.
I don’t generally go into histrionics; I just develop strategies to avoid spiders when I can and murder them when I can’t. I always recall an occasion when my daughter, Sarah, and I were setting a trot line in the Muscatatuck River. I had tied off one end of the line to a tree on the bank and the two of us canoed out to a mostly submerged tree that had fallen into the river and washed to its current location. As we approached the tree I spied a short knobby branch I thought would be perfect to tie off the other end of the line and pointed it out so Sarah could see what I wanted her to steer toward. As she took the last few strokes I leaned over the prow of the canoe, line in hand, ready to tie off. What had appeared at a distance to be the swollen end of the knobby branch – that swollen end I thought would serve so well to keep the line in place below it, THAT swollen of the knobby branch raised up on its eight legs and made to defend it’s position. It was a big old wolf spider like the ones that used to make waves moving through the grass in my parent’s lawn. Those long-ago spiders persuaded me I did not actually want to lay down in the grass. This spider persuaded me that another branch would be even better for tying off the trot line.
As a child I thought the big black and yellow ‘Writing Spiders’ were the worst – partly because they would weave their large orb webs right over tomatoes and strawberries that needed picking. At least my mother thought those particular fruit needed picking. I was fairly sure we would never miss them.
Then as a young teen I learned about tarantulas – spiders that eat birds and mice – and trap door spiders, Ugh! It just kept getting worse!
Then as a grown man I found out about Camel Spiders. Look them up. Seeing that American soldiers in the Middle East had to deal with these arachnid monsters made me glad I never enlisted. Camel Spiders are not venomous. They don’t need to be! They eat tarantulas! Also lizards. Sometimes kittens. All of which they murder by brute force. Worse, they have a propensity to chase human beings. I should add that the technical literature assures me the chasing thing is not actually the case. Here’s what happens. A soldier will be stationed on guard duty in that extra hot part of the world. The Camel Spider is simply looking for shade and sometimes finds it in the shadow of the soldier/sentinel. Eventually, the Camel Spider actually leans against the soldier’s boot. The Camel Spider is large enough that leaning creates a pressure sensible to the soldier who looks down and realizes there is a spider the size of a chihuahua leaning on his boot. The soldier moves, often with alacrity. The soldier’s shadow goes with him. The Camel Spider says – Hey that’s my shade! And makes every effort to keep in the shadow of the retreating soldier – which increases the speed of the soldier’s retreat, which… So, you see, the Camel Spider is not actually chasing the soldier. It’s only trying to stay in the soldier’s shadow. … I’m sorry, but the distinction seems a little hazy to me.
Well, in the world as it once was, before the fall from Eden, man was at peace with all creatures. In the world as it will be, I am certain God can bring us to peace again. Even the spiders and I.
I have just returned from vacation and will be keeping my distance from most people since I have been out of state. That said, I’m pretty sure no one can catch anything worse than irritation from reading my blog posts – so here goes. Mikel and I visited several waterfalls, crossed a pretty good ‘sky-walk’, took a tube ride in the Chattahoochee, went on a dolphin tour, kayaked in the Atlantic, put in some time on the beach, visited old friends, spent time with my sisters, did a little fishing, and toured several museums. Among the museums, the smallest and perhaps most interesting was the Uncle Remus Museum. I report on this with some trepidation as the whole ‘Uncle Remus’ thing – considered so innocent in the days of my childhood – is a matter of great controversy today. I have also subsequently come to realize that many members of the last couple of generations don’t know anything about Uncle Remus or his cast of characters: Brers Rabbit, Fox, Bear, et al. So, a brief reminder – Joel Chandler Harris grew up in the late Ante-Bellum south and spent part of his childhood on a plantation where he had some association with actual slaves. Harris became a newspaper man and, later in his life, wrote a series of children’s stories about a little boy (himself) who loved to hear the stories told by an elderly black man on the plantation – Uncle Remus. The stories are related in a thick deep south dialect and involve a community of animals who behave like human beings.
Even the fairly sanitized Disney version (Song of the South) is frowned upon these days (The film has not been re-released since 1986 and has never been released in any home video version in America.) and the elements of it that are still present in the theme parks are in the process of heavy revision. I doubt there remains a public school in the United States in which any of the Uncle Remus stories are told in any form.
Editors at the time advised Walt Disney to make it clear that the film was set post-civil war – after the slaves were freed. Disney did not take that advice. The great weakness of the Disney story is clear – it presents a sanitized version of an old south in which the white people live in mansions and the black people live in shacks (charming Disney-ized shacks but shacks nonetheless) and the white people are definitely in charge and the black people are definitely not but everyone, including the black people are OK with the arrangement and it’s all one big happy community. This was a serious mis-step on Disney’s part but cut Walt this much slack – the film was released in 1946. Even if we all should have known better – some of us didn’t. Some of us weren’t even born yet!
But here’s the big disconnect for me. The Disney version – which is the version most familiar to most of the population – is no more true to the original story(s) than are the Disney versions of Robin Hood, Pocahontas or the Hunchback of Notre-Dame – which is to say – not very. The original stories (in all cases) are both better and worse but in any case, ought to be judged on their own merits. The Uncle Remus stories are, by and large, older African folk-tales recast to make use of American Flora and Fauna (Brers Rabbit and Fox take the place of Brothers Leopard and Antelope, etc.) The point of the stories is the same in the American versions as in the older African versions – sometimes your enemies are bigger and stronger than you and have sharper teeth and claws. Fine: outwit them. The outwitting process may well involve deception and mis-direction but you survive as opposed to being gobbled up.
In their original context the stories were harbingers of hope for an oppressed people who often dared not say certain things in plainer language. Forget racism for a moment – by modern standards Brer Rabbit was a sociopath. But before we get too upset at the way he deceives Brer Wolf into volunteering to be locked into a chest and scalded to death, let’s remember that Brer Wolf had been busy devouring Brer Rabbit’s children. Think about it for a minute. It bothers me that Brer Rabbit so cavalierly arranges for the innocent Brer Possum to meet a fiery end. But even though Brer Possum did not eat up all the butter (Read the story for yourself – if you dare!) his innocence was marred by the despised cowardice he showed in leaving Brer Racoon to face the dog alone! Again, think about it for a minute.
Should the Africans have been brought here as slaves? Absolutely not! But they were here. Was their English a little accented and did their grammar depart somewhat from the English norms? No more so than any other first-generation people learning to speak a strange language. Remembering and preserving these things does not strike me as racist nor does any particular dialect strike me as an indicator of ignorance or lack of intelligence. And did they sometimes have to live by their wits in a situation where all other forms of power were in other hands?
Well, I will cease my rant and say only this. Set Disney aside for a moment and judge the Uncle Remus stories for what they are. I hate to see history – even the black parts – maybe especially the black parts disappear. I believe there is a light at the end of the darkness. But we won’t get there by pretending the darkness didn’t exist. Pronounce it Brers or Brothers – all men are mine.
Given our current state of race relations, the whole question of what exactly constitutes racism, and the (it seems to me) current tendency to judge figures from the past (Andrew Jackson, Robert E. Lee, et al) by the standards of the hyper-present, it may be profitable to recall that the particular Christian brotherhood in which I minister (The Restoration Movement) was born just prior to the Civil War and grew to a national movement in the shadow of that conflict. Thus, the questions of race relations and slavery were woven deep into the fabric of the movement. I will do my best here to consider the good, the bad and the ugly and perhaps we will understand the past a little better and in so doing, understand ourselves better as well.
The primary leaders in the founding of the Restoration Movement were Thomas and Alexander Campbell (father and son) and Barton W. Stone. And, of course, all three men had definite opinions.
In 1801 Barton W. Stone freed the one slave he owned – a slave inherited along with a small farm. As Stone preached his message of religious freedom (A Christianity free from the conventions of society and denominational hierarchy, guided by the Bible, particularly the New Testament, alone) he urged all who heard his message to follow his example and free their slaves. He saw slavery as another of the many societal conventions which were at odds with the teachings of Christ and the apostles. To use Stone’s own language – Slavery does not harmonize with the principles of the kingdom. We view the period, not far distant, when African slavery shall no more be known in our happy country – when mercy and truth shall meet together and righteousness and peace kiss each other.
Still, Stone’s views would not pass the test of political correctness today. It is uncertain whether Stone had a low view of the character of the African slaves or whether he thought the situation had simply been rendered impossible by the cruelty of our national circumstances, but he did not believe the slaves could be successfully integrated into American society. He favored an organized Federal program to free the slaves and return them (if they could or would not return to their native tribes) to a colony to be founded for the purpose in Africa. There was this difference from today – the arrival of the slaves from Africa was much more recent. The idea was also favored by Andrew Jackson, James Monroe, and others. In fact, something on the order was tried though it was managed by a private foundation rather than the federal government. Research the American Colonization Society. The first group of slaves were taken by ship to a strip of land purchased in Sierra Leone in 1820. There were also several black led ‘Back to Africa’ movements. But the vast majority of the freed slaves wanted to stay here.
Again, whether from a low view of slave character or a despairing view of the situation is unknown, but Stone’s views on the subject were so strong he vowed that if the slaves were freed to live among the general population of America he would quickly move somewhere else to be beyond their reach. This statement prompts many to think Stone’s chief fear was that freed slaves would seek vengeance on their former oppressors.
As it turned out, Stone did not move to another country or move on account of freed slaves at large in society. After some years of being frustrated that the vast majority of his southern Christian brothers would not free their slaves, and dealing with the backlash of being considered an abolitionist trouble maker, he moved to Illinois to escape that tension – in other words, not to escape freed slaves but to escape intransigent white slave owners.
Thomas Campbell, operating a little ahead of Stone but in the same locale (Kentucky) organized special religious services and Sunday School classes for slaves. He was quickly confronted by the white members of his congregation and the larger community and informed that it was illegal to educate slaves except in the presence of several white witnesses to make sure rebellion was not being fomented. Campbell protested that surely such societal shackles were not intended to be placed on the simple teaching of the gospel. He was sternly told otherwise. Warned of penalty to come if he did not discontinue the slave services, Campbell moved to Pennsylvania where (he thought – another story) he could “teach all men freely”.
Following several other adventures, Thomas and his now adult son, Alexander settled in Bethany, VA – around 1811. Alexander, like Stone a decade earlier, inherited slaves (several) along with a large farm from his father in law. Campbell immediately freed the slaves, gave each family a little property and educated any who wished in his own school, alongside his own children. Campbell also thought the Federal Government should organize and fund a program to free and return all the slaves to Africa – but that was, he thought, the government’s job. These freed slaves were here and he would do what he could.
In 1829 Campbell became a delegate to the Virginia Constitutional Convention. He had two connected aims – to prevent the split of Virginia and West Virginia and to advocate for the Abolition of slavery. In both cases, he wished more than anything else to prevent the Civil War which even then he saw as a distinct possibility. Incidentally, both his aims for the convention and his desire to prevent the war were epic failures.
In 1830 Campbell began to shape his appeal against slavery in the terms for which he has become famous/infamous – Enlightened White Self Interest. Campbell, though against slavery was also against radical or militant abolitionist views. Consider a few of his published quotations.
Slavery is … The largest and blackest blot upon our national escutcheon, that many headed monster, that pandora’s box, that bitter root, that blighting and blasting curse under which so fair and so large a portion of our beloved country groans.
As sure as the Ohio winds its way to the gulph(sic) of Mexico will slavery desolate and blast our political existence unless effectual measures be adopted to bring it to a close while it is still in the nation’s power to do so.
Regarding radical/militant abolition – It shall only be realized in the light of burning palaces, cities and temples amidst the roar of cannon, the clangor of trumpets, the shrieks of the dying, the horrid din and clash of a broken confederacy and the agonizing throes of the last and best republics on earth.
Back to Enlightened White Self Interest – Campbell taught and wrote that slave holders were, themselves, slaves to the system of slavery. Often linking the idea to Romans 6:16, Campbell pictured slavery as a societal system which actually reduced innovation, restricted the economy, and held slave holders back. Apart from the immediate economic shortfalls of slavery, Campbell taught that slave states had to spend an inordinate amount of time and resources on legislation to prop up their failing system – an effort which must ultimately be in vain. In all these ways and others, Campbell appealed to white slave owners to give up slavery for their own sake and for the sake of increased prosperity which, he assured them, would follow.
Campbell’s primary proposal was for the government to set aside about $15,000,000 per year for a few years, the money to be used to reimburse white slave owners the calculated value of any slaves they freed and pay the way for the freed slaves to return to Africa. Campbell predicted that by the end of the three to four years, slavery would have vanished and the wounds be healed for $45,000,000 to $60,000,000 – a tiny fraction of what an otherwise coming war would cost the nation.
Whether or not one agrees with the practicality of Campbell’s proposed solution, the main problem people have with him today is that he appealed only to ‘enlightened white self-interest’ and never spoke (publicly anyway) of the tragedy of slavery for the slaves. It was just that all those poor white slave owners were cheating themselves!
Many argue that Campbell did feel the horror of slavery for enslaved blacks but that his public campaign was directed to those he thought capable of solving the problem and framed so as to give those who could solve it the motivation to do so. Certainly, the way Campbell treated his own inherited slaves may back that narrative. And Campbell did give this one other hint – he taught that radical abolitionists missed exactly one half of the point in that they loved the slaves but hated the slave owners, many of whom were culturally trapped in their flawed position. Beyond that, Campbell is not here to defend himself. And, at any rate, his efforts failed and the Civil War happened,
By 1845, Restoration Movement churches existed in several states but were splintered along with the rest of the nation. Congregations in Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania tended toward radical/militant abolition. Congregations in states further south tended to be pro-slavery (more on that in a moment). Campbell and the cluster of congregations in Virginia tried to walk the middle path he had laid out.
As to those pro-slavery southern congregations, a minister by name of James Shannon was the most outspoken leader, defending slavery on the basis of Ephesians 6:5-9, Colossians 2:22-4:1 and the book of Philemon. What Shannon never asked (out loud) was whether there was a difference between presenting a moral justification of slavery and giving spiritual rather than political advice to unfortunates who found themselves trapped in slavery as a condition of the fallen world rather than the kingdom of God.
As with every time and every human movement, there was right and wrong – things wisely understood and things sadly missed. Many of today’s sages would be surprised if they knew how they will be judged by the standards of days to come. For myself, I choose to appreciate the wisdom and compassion of men like Campbell while understanding that they were men of another time, shaped by and dealing with a culture vastly different than our own.