One of our first stops on this cross-country adventure was Monticello, the homestead of Thomas Jefferson. This was on a “Must See” on our list because I’m a HUGE history buff, especially early American History. Monticello was a pilgrimage of sorts. So much of our country’s history is wrapped up in both the man and the home of our 3rd President. But, I was also aware of the scandalous hypocrisy from the man who penned the first draft of the Declaration of Independence.
The same man who wrote about the equality of ALL men and their unalienable rights of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” was a slave owner who impregnated one of the slaves he owned. These are facts I knew going in. But, they never really bothered me before that day. I’m not sure why. Maybe because they were glossed over in my public school education. Maybe because Jefferson’s treatment of slaves, contrasted against many others in the antebellum South, seemed grotesquely acceptable… you know, given the time. Whatever the reason, it simply didn’t bother me. But that would soon change.
From the very beginning of the tour, it became an issue… because the tour guide kept bringing it up. She talked about the controversy surrounding Jefferson’s views of slavery, especially in light of the words he wrote in the Declaration of Independence. She told us it was completely understandable if we had questions and that she was there to help us wrestle through it. (I thought it was weird the first time she said it, but it grew more odd each time she brought it up. Six total. I counted.) And to my knowledge, no one took her up on the offer.
As we entered Jefferson’s private bedroom, the guide told us more about Sally Hemings. It’s believed Jefferson’s relationship with Hemings lasted for several decades, beginning when she was a teenager; the property of Jefferson. I remember questioning whether Hemings, who birthed six of Jefferson’s children, was even capable of giving or withholding consent. As the tour guide continued in her explanation, you could feel the tension in the room. I could see the disgust on my kids’ faces. (And the whole time, all I could think about was how they would berate me after the tour. One of my favorite Presidents was a sexual predator. That… and how The American Adventure at Epcot would forever be ruined in my mind. Probably for my kids as well.)
Switching subjects, the tour guide began talking about the constant petitions from abolitionists, like William Wilberforce, calling for Jefferson to speak out against the atrocities of slavery. But, the distinguished man who penned the phrase “all men are created equal” would refuse those requests. The guide told us that in matters before the public Jefferson simply said the fight to end slavery was for the subsequent generation. Behind closed doors, he voiced his beliefs that Africans were not equal to white men in the area of intellect. Of all the things I learned about Thomas Jefferson over the years, this was never brought up. Not once. Even with homeschooling my children, this was never mentioned in textbooks. At the same exact moment I felt ridiculously ignorant, naive, and irate.
As the tour ended and everyone from the group began to disperse, Sydney was eager to dive into a conversation. I was eager to eat ice cream. I don’t remember her exact words, but the sentiment I will never forget: Our country was birthed into, founded upon, institutional racism. I remember Brayden questioning how Jefferson, as a Christian, could own slaves. It is true, Jefferson created a version of his own Bible, consisting of translations of the gospels in Latin, Greek, French, and English. But, it was merely a cherry-picking of scripture, separating what Jefferson considered the “true” teachings of Jesus… from those he didn’t consider true?
Does anyone else see the irony? (Both about Jefferson and the fact that my kids sharpen me better than anyone else. For. Real.)
Questioning the authenticity of someone’s faith isn’t new. Someone once told me only TRUE believers read the KJV. I’ve also had someone tell me the only “true” church is the Catholic Church. Believe it or not, I’ve even heard these topics mentioned in sermons over the years. But, here’s something I’ve NEVER heard a sermon on: Philemon. Why is that? In fact, the only time I’ve ever heard anyone, in any position of authority, talk about Philemon was in seminary. And even then, it seemed to be more about bragging rights than anything else. People would always say, “We teach ALL 66 books of the Bible, even Philemon.”
Why is it said like Philemon is a footnote or something? It’s not even the shortest book in the Bible. (It’s the third shortest for those tempted to Google it.)
Now, I have no doubt there are many sermons out there on Philemon. But, I haven’t heard any. And the few people I asked couldn’t remember ever hearing one. Is it because of the difficultly in discussing racial issues, especially today? I mean, I’m sure it would make most pastors a little nervous. It was also a hard topic during the civil rights movement, arguably much harder. Maybe that’s why few pastors took up the mantle then as well. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” was a jarring indictment against white evangelical leaders of the time… those who seemed to loose their ability to speak out regarding the injustices against humanity. To stand up for their fellow brothers and sister.
Decades after the Declaration was written, another well-known President by the name of Abraham Lincoln said these words in response to the question of equality as presented in the Declaration of Independence:
They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit. They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.
I find Lincoln’s assessment troubling. At best, it makes unfounded assumptions about the intent of our Founding Fathers. I mean, we can HOPE their motive was to strive for the perfection of equality. But, Jefferson was the man responsible for drafting the Declaration of Independence. He, above all others, given his position and power, had the capability of both setting the standard of equality and living it out. So, why didn’t he? It’s an interesting question to ponder. For someone like Jefferson, freeing his slaves would have cost him everything. It would have meant the end of Monticello. The life of privilege he was accustomed to, one created and tended to by the work of slaves, would no longer exist. He had the power to set change in motion, but maybe the cost was too much for him to bear. Instead, he decided to punt the ball. A profound opportunity lost.
It made me wonder: How many opportunities have I lost? When could I have used my voice to stand up against injustice? Drawn attention to the need for racial reconciliation? How many times had I remained quiet while my white brothers and sisters mocked the Black Lives Matter movement? Did I unintentionally make their ignorance more acceptable by remaining quiet?
A couple of weeks ago, the KKK took to the streets in North Carolina, actively recruiting for membership in their local chapter. Their campaign slogan, placed smack dab in the middle of the banner: Help Make America Great Again. In light of our recent trip to Monticello, I can’t help but wonder what they consider to be America’s Age of Greatness. Have you ever sat down with a member of the KKK? I’ve sat down with several of them. I grew up around them. They went to my church. Let me repeat that: They. Went. To. My. Church. The espoused religion of the KKK, classified as a hate group by the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center, is Christianity.
Racism is very much alive in our country. Institutional racism exists. If you don’t believe me, I suggest reading one of my favorite books, Just Mercy. Racism is also very much alive in our church (please, see the above paragraph for the espoused religion of the KKK) and ignoring it doesn’t make it go away. So, what’s the answer? I’m not sure. But, I know having conversations is where we start. Especially with those whose skin color differs from our own.
Approximately 86 percent of churches in American lack definitive racial diversity.* Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” This has been our experience on the road as well. But, as we travel across the country, my favorite churches have been the ones where our family is the minority. They also happen to be the places where we feel the most welcomed and loved.
The Lord opened our eyes that day at Monticello. What we choose to do now is up to us… and what we choose NOT to do will be on us.