It’s called the ‘Lost Cause’, the creation and dissemination of a 19th Century U.S. Civil War pseudo-history by various writers in this country’s Southern States during and after the post-war Reconstruction era. It was highly revisionist in its character, whitewashing many of the actual truths regarding the birth of the Confederacy. Lost Cause proponents argued (after the fact) that Southern succession was necessitated by the North’s denial of the South’s respective state’s rights. Was demanded in the spirit of preserving a ‘Southern’ way of life. And implemented only as a last resort in defending against direct Northern military aggression against them. The stories amounted to a misguided, if not brazen, attempt to conceal the real, driving reason for the South’s succession from the Union: the preservation and protection of the brutal and inhumane institution of slavery. The Lost Cause dogma wasn’t solely a papered-over justification for slavery, either. It also served as a cover for post-emancipation Jim Crow practices, Ku Klux Klan activities, and the imposition of ‘separate but equal’ ordinances. The ordinances, themselves, were a cruel ruse for the underlying reality of racist segregation and daily physical, economic, social, and psychological violence against local black populations.
The core tenets of the Lost Cause were aggressively promulgated, endorsed, and advanced by some in the South throughout decades of American history. Even greater numbers of persons in both the South and North silently, but willingly, acquiesced in these obvious untruths– allowing misinformation to spread unchallenged. The Lost Cause philosophy was taught in many schools in Southern states. It was portrayed as background context in ‘news’ stories. It was celebrated in any number of ‘patriotic’ holiday parades and speeches. And memorialized in the countless statues and monuments erected in parks, on city streets, and within town squares. Homages to Confederate military leaders and government officials of our past. These monuments were created as part of a larger narrative memorializing and glorifying the figures (and their surrounding society at the time) with an incomplete and distorted mythology around Southern gentility and chivalry. But, in truth, the statutes and monuments were never even remotely about remembering a more noble ‘way of life’. They were always about perpetuating the failed worldview of systematically oppressing people based on race.
Thankfully, Civil War Era Confederate statues and monuments are beginning to come down. Some have been removed by protestors stemming from the recent unjustified killings of African Americans by police. Others have now been dismantled by municipal and state authorities as part of a newly awakened moral compass in historically privileged white centers of influence in our society. Yet, tragically enough, the mythology of the Lost Cause still lives on. It survives in continuing attempts to zealously impede voter registration in predominately poor and minority neighborhoods. It persists in Confederate flags that are flown from trucks, in front yards, on porches, and outside sporting events. It infects through the placement of lynching nooses (and other heinous hate symbols) in the lockers of black workers within American factories. It thrives in white supremacist-driven desecration and burning of predominately black churches. It remains via stubbornly protracted discrimination and segregation in our workplaces, neighborhoods, and even our places of worship. It survives in racist stereotypes that create a culture of irrational fear (and police over-reaction) toward young black men.
In the face of our seemingly never-ending struggles around race in America, I often wonder about God’s ‘location’ in this painful space. As a spiritual professional, I ponder where God is when young black men are shot and killed for simply being black in our country… where God is when African American parents need to have ‘the talk’ with their sons about protecting themselves from possible interactions with police… where God is when poor children of color have to walk to school hoping they’ll have at least one meal today… where God is when black youth are counseled by white educators to more ‘realistically’ manage their expectations (downward) around their future higher education, job success, home ownership, or wealth accumulation prospects in life… and where God is when families of color face a disproportionately higher risk of serious complications or death from diseases like Covid-19 due to their chronically inferior medical access and treatment quality. Is God truly present in these situations? And, if so, how does God react to these inhumanities? How does God respond to these atrocities of our past and our present? For God is a God of Life in its fullest. Poverty, discrimination, racism, imposed human indignity, and justice denied are all forms of continued slavery and death—not of life.
I believe that God is wholly present in these continuing injustices. God is fully there in the places of struggle and protests for human rights, justice, and dignity. God is never responsible for (or complicit in) the indignities that poor and marginalized peoples in this country face each and every day. That would run contrary to God’s innate character of unconditional love. And we shouldn’t make God responsible for fixing this deplorable injustice, either. But God is certainly not immune to the tragic impacts of it. I believe that God suffers with the dispossessed; suffers with the human victims of racial violence and oppression; and suffers with those whom society attempts to leave behind. I believe that God is traumatized, aggrieved, and enormously saddened in the face of these despicable circumstances. How else could a God of Love react to an utter lack of love by some toward others? How else could a God of Life respond to the denial of life as God intended?
Yet, God isn’t simply watching from afar in sadness and bewilderment at the unjust mess that we’ve made of this country. Rather, God is dynamically and relationally interacting with those who are hurt by individual and systemic institutionalized violence. God is active through imparting encouragement, inner strength, courage, fellowship, ideation, vision, and hope in all those who suffer the wrongs thrust upon them. God is involved through imparting an abiding sense that things can and must be better. Through fostering a belief that the voices of love, justice, and life will somehow prevail in a history that is still being written. Through energizing a firm resolve to actualize our greatest potential as human beings, even in the midst of obstacles that others continue to place in the way. Through effecting the ethical persuasion necessary to change people’s minds over time. And through helping to bring new allies into a shared struggle for liberation. Allies from the South and the North. From the East and the West.
In the final analysis, the Lost Cause was and is about human history, however ‘godforsaken’ and fictious it may have been. Nonetheless, we all know that history, even a false and harmful one, is a powerful force in our lives. For our past helps to shape our present for better or for worse. Our present helps to shape our future for better or for worse. But here’s the thing: we’re not bound by our past or our present circumstances in life. Especially when the past is contrary to God’s own longstanding desires for us. Especially when the injustices of the present are unwanted in God’s plan for us. Especially when we’re willing to join with God to create something better. In this regard, a wise church pastor recently said to her congregation, “God is not absent… because we are willing to be present.” She was saying that God is active in each of us via our ongoing struggles to do what is just and right in the world. It’s our sacred calling to become active and involved. If we do so, there’s no such thing as a Lost Cause. The cause is never lost. It’s always just begun. Because the cause is God’s own ever-unfolding vision of loving justice and liberation for all. That’s truly Good News.
To be sure, God is wholly present in this space of continuing, protracted racial injustice. And God calls us to be there, as well. Not to rationalize or act-out some failed, hateful, and false Lost Cause way of thinking. Nor to simply wait in passive hope for the future. But, instead, to wholeheartedly engage in creating a real, lasting, and transformational movement for a different ‘history’ of assured dignity for all. The time is now in this long overdue Moment. The place is here in the very thick of this long overdue Cause. For, in the end, we can never find salvation without first ensuring justice. And can never find peace without first getting Un-Lost.