Living Justly Amidst Moral Complexity

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I’m reading Andrew Delbanco’s fascinating The War Before The War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War. In it he shows how central the nation’s debate about slavery was to its understanding of its identity. In the introduction he writes,

It is too simple to tell this tale as a fable of good versus evil, not because of any ambiguity about the evil of slavery itself but because – given the facts of antebellum politics, the compulsion of economic interests, and the constitutional protections slaveholders enjoyed – it was far from clear how the evil could be destroyed. “Humanity cries out against this vast enormity,” Herman Melville wrote in 1849, “but not one man knows a prudent remedy. By “prudent” he meant some way of destroying slavery without destroying the union itself. Nor was this a matter of two competing goods: abolition on the one hand versus union on the other. There was reason to believe that destroying the union would actually strengthen slavery rather than weaken it. If the constitutional guarantee of the right of slave masters to recover their runaway slaves were to collapse, an outraged South might go its own way, emboldened to build a slave-based empire beyond the limits of the United States.

Delbanco’s point about the complicated factors facing abolitionists has me thinking about the responsibilities facing those who oppose today’s injustices. Do we too often frame these fights simplistically, as though they are matters of easily chosen right and wrong? Imagine, for example, being an abolitionist or free Black person in the decades before the Civil War. What if your efforts led to greater power for the slave states and, thus, more enslaved people overall? What is your responsibility amidst such awful ambiguity?

I wonder, though, if the real moral complexities identified by Delbanco are experienced differently by Christians. People like Frederick Douglass, to take just one example, never wavered about the imperative to reject slavery no matter the political costs. For him, as David Blight shows in his recent biography, his reading of Scripture and personal experience of the wickedness of slavery, made him impatient with those who allowed murky political possibilities to slow down the work of liberating actual people. Might one of the things that sets Christians apart in the battle for justice be that we move forward in the face of the many unknowns, convinced that we’ll never know enough and assured that the righteous God goes before us?

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