This may be surprising, but Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee called slavery a “political and moral evil.” He himself owned no slaves, although he came from a slave-holding family, and his wife, a descendent of Martha Washington, owned slaves.
The general, who eventually commanded all the Confederate military forces during the Civil War, surged back into public view recently when demonstrations erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia, at least in part as a result of a decision to remove Lee’s statue from a public park there.
(Charlottesville is hardly the only place with monuments in Lee’s honor. Counties in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas are named for him. So is Washington and Lee University. So are untold numbers of other landmarks. A statue of him stands in the U.S. Capitol. A U.S. Navy ship carried his name. His image has been on five U.S. postage stamps.)
Throughout most of his life, Lee lived in the United States, where slavery was sanctioned by the Constitution and supported by dozens of laws passed by Congress. For most of his adult life, slavery also was a hotly debated political question, so he always was well aware of the intense feelings of many Americans regarding the question. He saw only one truly effective answer to the question of how to abolish American slavery.
This answer, he once wrote, was in the “mild and melting influence of Christianity.” He fully realized that humans are limited, and they can be quite hard-hearted, but the human spirit is uplifted and healed and guided by grace. Lee was a devout Episcopalian.
A series of laws passed over the course of a century-and-a half have addressed the plight of African-Americans. Many of these laws have been passed in living memory, just as the end of legal segregation in 1954, and voting rights for blacks in 1965. In so many areas of life, racial discrimination is outlawed.
Still, events such as those in Charlottesville occur.
I recall an event years ago during the height of the civil rights movement, but after the enactment of many statutes designed to assure in particular equal rights for African-Americans. Speaking at the event was the president of a prominent, historic Southern university founded after the Civil War to educate the children of freed slaves. He was a Catholic.
“We don’t need any more laws,” he said with fervor, “We need hearts to change!” This was where, in his opinion, churches had their role to play, Christians had their role to play. Churches, and individual Christians, can change their hearts and inspire others as well.
No reading of history in Western civilization escapes the fact that Christianity has had such a wondrous influence on thought and on behavior. Where would we be if our culture had not had this influence?
Hatred and suspicion among people cannot be erased by the enactment of laws. Laws may suppress certain actions and permit others, but peace and harmony come only when hearts change.
The call to Christianity essentially is a call to imitate Christ, to be obedient to God’s law in every respect, to forgive even when it hurts and to love every person, whether we judge that person to be worthy of love or not. This call transcends issues. It applies every day, in every circumstance. It is as simple as asking the question of where Jesus would be in this or that situation, and then of acting accordingly.
Trust the “mild and melting” influence of Christ on human ideas and human activity. This trust makes perfect sense. Imitate the Lord. Christianity has brought the greatest good to humanity because it has unleashed the greatest love.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s chaplain.