When America Went To Hell

Amerfican Art Exhibit  Civil War Church_Our_Banner_In_The_Skyaa
When America Went To Hell
Brian Zahnd

“How I wish that you of all people would understand the things that make for peace.”
—Jesus (Luke 19:42)

Whether or not slavery was the direct cause for the first shots fired upon Fort Sumter in April of 1861 is a matter of scholarly debate. What is undeniable is that two and half centuries of slavery was the fuel that caused the American Civil War to ignite into a conflagration that resulted in 623,000 deaths. From its Jamestown beginnings the American colonies and later the United States practiced one of the most brutal forms of slavery the world has ever known. The preservation of an institution that systematically dehumanized millions of people for the sake of economic gain was not a thing that made for peace. Inevitably that kind of cruel exploitation would overflow its cup and unleash death and hell, bringing everything that is the opposite of peace. During the horror of the American Civil War, the “land of the free” became a burning Gehenna. Thirty percent of Southern men of fighting age were slain on battlefields that saw the birth of modern warfare. From now on, war would be totalized and mechanized. The four horseman of the Apocalypse galloped across America leaving a wake of war, disease, famine, and death.

But in tragic irony a spiritual revival had swept through America during the decade before the Civil War. Americans flocked to churches and evangelistic meetings. This was especially true in the more religious South where Christianity was embraced with greater fervency than in the less zealous North. Across the country revival was on, churches grew, conversions multiplied. People got saved, praised Jesus, and talked about heaven. Then they went to hell. Or at least the same kind of hell Jesus had warned Jerusalem about during his final days. Despite a great “revival,” a nation of Christians was thrust into a hell of cannonballs, Gatling guns, field hospitals, and amputation saws. Great cities were set aflame and fields were littered with thousands of rotting corpses. The fires were not quenched and the maggots did not die. What had gone wrong? Millions had “accepted Jesus” and shouted hosanna, but they did not know the things that make for peace. They prayed a sinner’s prayer, “got right with God,” and kept their slaves. They had a faith that would justify the sinner while bringing no justice to the slave. They had faith that gave them a ticket to heaven…and a highway to hell. The religious fervor in the conservative churches of the South only served to convince them that they were blessed by heaven. They were quite certain God smiled upon their deep devotion to their southern-fried Jesus. If they had to go to war to preserve their freedom, so be it — God was on their side. They were sure of it. But there would be hell to pay.

To help you comprehend how wrong the conservative churches of the Antebellum South were, despite flaunting their faith in Jesus and clutching their well-worn Bibles, I’m going to enlist the help of someone who was there and saw it all: fellow Missourian Mark Twain. In the chapter entitled “You Can’t Pray a Lie” in Twain’s beloved novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck Finn has helped hide Miss Watson’s runaway slave, Jim. But Huck thinks he is committing a sin in helping a runaway slave. Huck had learned in Sunday School “that people that acts as I’d been acting goes to everlasting fire.” So in an act of “repentance” in order to save his soul Huck writes a note to Miss Watson and tells her where she can find her runaway slave. Now Huck is ready to pray his “sinner’s prayer” and “get saved”—

I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I know’d I could pray now. But I didn’t do it straight off but laid the paper down and set there thinking — thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all the time: in the day and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, ‘stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey and pet me and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had smallpox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world and the only he’s got now; and then I happened to look around and see the paper. It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I know’d it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: “All right, then, I’ll go to hell” — and tore it up. It was awful thoughts and awful words but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. —The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Huck Finn had been shaped by the Christianity he had found in his Missouri Sunday School — a Christianity focused on heaven in the afterlife while preserving the status quo of the here and now. Huck thought that helping Jim escape from slavery was a sin, because that’s what he had been taught. Huck knew he couldn’t ask God to forgive him until he was ready to “repent” and betray Jim. Huck doesn’t want to go to hell. Huck wants to be saved. But Huck loves his friend more. So Huck is willing to go to hell in order to save his friend from slavery. Twain is doing a masterful job of showing us how wrongheaded Christians can be about what constitutes salvation. For Huck to act according to justice he has to think he is committing a great sin. For Huck to act Christlike he has to think he is forsaking Christianity. For Huck to love his neighbor as himself he has to think he is condemning his soul to hell. Think about that awhile!

Mark Twain used his skillful pen to skewer the conservative Christianity of the American South. If Mark Twain wasn’t a believing Christian (and he wasn’t) — he was a prophet to the prevailing Christianity of his day. This was a compromised Christianity in desperate need of a prophetic voice. In seeking to preserve an economy dependent upon slave labor, the southern churches had embraced a fatally distorted faith. Probably without even knowing what they were doing these Christians had quite effectively used Jesus and the Bible to validate their racist assumptions and protect their vested interests. They went to church on Sunday. They got saved. They loved Jesus. They waved their palms and shouted hosanna on Palm Sunday. But like the crowd in Jerusalem eighteen centuries earlier they didn’t know the things that make for peace. And Jesus wept over an America headed to hell. The churches were full and slavery continued…until the Civil War. Then 623,000 people died for the sins of America.

This is more than a recitation of history; there’s a lesson to learn here. When we don’t know the things that make for peace we can barrel down the highway to hell, all the while singing about how much we love Jesus and how wonderful it is to be saved. This should disturb us. How can it be that generations of religiously observant people can say all the right things about Jesus and still be on the wrong road? How can we know the things that make for a good church service but not know the things that make for peace? Jesus says that something has hidden the peaceful way from our eyes…and more often than not it’s a flag. If patriotism simply means the pride of place that inspires civic responsibility, so be it. But if patriotism means “my country right or wrong,” it’s a kind of groupthink blindness that hides the things that make for peace from our eyes. Unfurled flags of nationalism have a long history of hiding the things of Christ that make for peace. Whether they are Roman, Byzantine, Spanish, French, English, German, Russian, or American flags, when they hide the things that make for peace they are no longer the innocent banners of a benign patriotism. So what are the things that make for peace? What is it we need to perceive if we are to avoid the bloody boomerang of a self-inflicted hell? Jesus told us when he said—

In everything do unto others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets. Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it. -Matthew 7:12–14

The things that make for peace are the two great commandments: Love of God and love of neighbor…but especially the second command. (Love of God is only validated by a co-suffering love of neighbor.) The “golden rule” of evaluating our actions through the eyes of our neighbor is the narrow and difficult road that leads to life and peace. The golden rule is the narrow gate. The narrow gate is not a sinner’s prayer, the narrow gate is the practice of the Jesus way. The narrow gate is fulfilling the law and the prophets by empathetic love of neighbor in imitation of Jesus. When we hate and vilify others for ideological reasons, when we demonize and dehumanize others for nationalistic reasons, when we use and exploit others for economic reasons, we are on the highway to hell — we have chosen the well-worn road that leads to war and destruction. The deeply disconcerting thing is that it is entirely possible to cruise down the broad road of impending doom while singing songs of praise to Jesus. It happened on the first Palm Sunday. It happened a hundred and fifty years ago in America. It continues to happen today. If we think Jesus shares and endorses our disdain and enmity for our enemies, we don’t know the things that make for peace and we are headed for an inevitable destruction…even if it takes a generation or two to arrive at our horrible destination. If we console ourselves with the promise of heaven in the afterlife while creating hell in this present life, we have embraced the tawdry religion of the crusader and forsaken the true faith of our Savior.