[Image: Life's Highway, 2013, JA Van Devender]
Philemon 15–16 (NKJV)
15 For perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, 16 no longer as a slave but more than a slave—a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
I have only recently become acquainted with the very interesting life of John Lafayette Girardeau. He was a Southern Presbyterian minister during the complex and chaotic national crisis that swept our nation to bloody war in 1860 and has left its imprint on our national soul ever since.
Girardeau was a French Huguenot born in South Carolina in 1825. You can see a brief survey of his life HERE and HERE. He was an ardent patriot which in those days was expressed (in both North and South) in devotion to his home state rather than to the Federal government which was somewhat nominally over it. What is most notable about Girardeau though was his controversial and even dangerous work with slaves. There is not enough room here to detail all that he did but I would ask that you envision a church, in the very heart of the Ante-Bellum South, in what may be described as its premier city for culture and passion, that had over 1500 members, gathering for three worship services every Sunday, with about 200 white Southerners and 1300 slaves worshiping together in apparent unity. Think of a disciplined catechizing effort that taught the slaves so diligently that many were essentially taught to read when teaching a slave to read was banned by state law. He is credited with being the first to raise up black elders as leaders in the church and the church's social work, seeking to offset some of the more miserable conditions among the poor and oppressed, significantly influenced the entire city culture.
He served during the War between the States as a chaplain, was imprisoned for a while by Union forces and returned afterwards to his beloved "country." The black congregation did not hesitate but called him to continue as their pastor, famously remarking "He face is white but he heart is black!" (sic)
The social situation in the South (and also the North) during this period was more complex than most modern, simplistic, reductionist minds will allow. In an age when bumper sticker philosophy reflects passionate adherence and pursuit of slogans rather than thought out positions, it is not easy for folks to even comprehend how the most famous Northern General, U. S. Grant, freed his slave only in 1859 as the crisis hit while the most famous Southern General, Robert E. Lee, and his wife were actively seeking to free slaves as early as 1840 and to illegally educate them and improve their lot.
I find the following quote very penetrating.
Robert E. Lee: "How long their servitude may be necessary is known and ordered by a merciful Providence. Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild and melting influences of Christianity than from the storm and tempest of fiery controversy. This influence, though slow, is sure. The doctrines and miracles of our Saviour have required nearly two thousand years to convert but a small portion of the human race, and even among Christian nations what gross errors still exist! While we see the course of the final abolition of human slavery is still onward, and give it the aid of our prayers, let us leave the progress as well as the results in the hands of Him who, chooses to work by slow influences, and with whom a thousand years are but as a single day. Although the abolitionist must know this, must know that he has neither the right not the power of operating, except by moral means; that to benefit the slave he must not excite angry feelings in the master; that, although he may not approve the mode by which Providence accomplishes its purpose, the results will be the same; and that the reason he gives for interference in matters he has no concern with, holds good for every kind of interference with our neighbor, -still, I fear he will persevere in his evil course. . . . Is it not strange that the descendants of those Pilgrim Fathers who crossed the Atlantic to preserve their own freedom have always proved the most intolerant of the spiritual liberty of others?"
Lee, like Girardeau, saw that the best hope for curing the evil of slavery was through the leavening process of Christianity at its radical and most compelling best when the whole counsel of scripture is brought to bear on the prevailing cultural context and tradition be damned if it stands in opposition to what is taught therein.
Girardeau took the lesson of Paul's letter to Philemon strictly to heart (apparently). Everything changes when a slave is no longer viewed as unequal in status, humanity and potential, but rather as a brother. The institution of slavery cannot long coexist with such a prevailing and transforming idea. It takes courage to stand against family, culture and tradition, especially when all those are beloved by the one so standing, but that is what must happen. As Jesus, a Jew, had to stand in critique of His culture and do so with a heart that longed to draw Jerusalem to His breast and over whom He wept bitter tears, so Girardeau and perhaps to a lesser, but no less real, extent Jackson, mourned over the grief that the 'peculiar institution' brought in its train.
There are lessons here I think that need to be learned again.
Christianity is not now nor has it ever been a proponent of a "sanctified status quo." The Kingdom of God came not "to bring peace, but a sword." The seeming paradox that it is a Kingdom of Peace and is proclaimed as such is only apparently so. Because the message of peace is antagonistic to those whose hearts are dedicated to warfare, whether physical or otherwise. The Kingdom of God stands as a constant reminder that man is accountable for his life and that any arrogance on his part, whether toward his God or toward his brother, is by that very stance condemned. It brings Good News but not everyone receives it as such.
So the "status quo" in every generation is challenged by the gospel, to examine and re-examine the things it has taken for granted and to be transformed in its thinking toward a better way, a better world, a better life. The Church, in every age, including the prevailing Church in the South during the Ante-Bellum days, has not always nor even primarily humbled itself as it should, to be admonished by God's Word. But God has never left Himself without a witness and this heroic Presbyterian pastor stands as worthy of honor and emulation by those of us who remain.