Slavery, Oppression, and America’s Prosperity
Pastor John, recently you have been thinking about Andrew Jackson and giving fresh thought to slavery in American history. What would you like to share with us here?
We visited The Hermitage outside Nashville — the estate of Andrew Jackson, the seventh President of the United States. He was president from 1829 to 1837. The reason this is troubling to me, and I wanted to talk about it, is because I was confronted there head on, again, with the bothersome foundations of our country, the troubling ones.
I watched this twenty-minute video of Jackson’s life and presidency, then I read the plaques in the museum, and then I strolled through all the grounds and gardens of the mansion and the slave quarters. The heavy realization came again that our country is built in significant part on the soil of stolen land and the backs of stolen men. That is the phrase I came away with. Land taken from Native Americans and cultivated with African American slaves.
Stolen Soil and Stolen Men
Andrew Jackson was a great war hero in his battles against the Creek Indians in 1814 and the British, especially at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. He was incredibly popular among the southern whites, and he was a wealthy slave owner. The whole slave system of how his estate was profitable is evident from the archaeological work that is preserved there at The Hermitage. You can walk, and they have the outlines of the slave quarters and the buildings where the overseer lived, and one or two places are actually preserved. The little cottages where the slaves lived are preserved, and you can see the way they lived.
Jackson was, in addition, the main force behind the Indian Removal Act of 1830. That meant the forcible removal of the Cherokee, the Chickasaw, the Choctaw, the Creek, and the Seminole Indians from southeastern states like North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama. All of them pressed across the Mississippi over to Oklahoma in what became known as the Trail of Tears.
It is pretty bleak to read about how much disease there was, how much death there was, how much displacement there was of people who didn’t want to leave their homelands but were forced to. And what that did was open the land to be settled by white settlers so they could be prosperous. That is where I grew up. I grew up on the back of that prosperity in South Carolina.
The Sins of the Father
So I have been pondering what effect that should have on me, a 21st century, prosperous, happy, well-to-do, comfortable American. It raises huge questions. It forces me to think about how the sins of the fathers are visited on the later generations and how that relates to the doctrine of original sin.
Deuteronomy 24:16 says, “Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin.” So there is a difference in the biblical mind between the way Adam was the head of the human race so that we fell in Adam — we sinned in Adam; we died in Adam — and the way we relate to the sins of our fathers and our grandfathers.
It seems like God has established in the beginning a kind of union with Adam and all humans, but not in such a way that all sons fall in all fathers. We fell in Adam, but I didn’t fall in Bill Piper in the same way. There was a covenantal, constitutional union God established there.
And when Exodus 20:5 speaks of visiting the sins of the fathers on the sons it says, “visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me.” In other words, the father’s sins are not visited on innocent children but children who share the same rebellion that the fathers had. And therein consists some of the visitation.
Appropriate Attitude and Action
So how should I feel? Those are some of the reflections on how Andrew Jackson’s sins relate to my life today. Here is my conclusion, Tony, and I really feel very much a process in this, trying to discern what the appropriate attitude should be and action should be. So I have got two ways I think we should respond.
A Chastened Gratitude
Number one, I think we should feel a chastened gratitude for our prosperity in America. That is, I was born here. I had nothing to do with being born here. I enjoy hundreds of benefits for being an American just because I was born here in the skin I have, at the time I was born, in the place I was born, to the parents I was born. I had nothing to do with any of that and yet I benefit from it.
So I must feel gratitude. It is a gift. And yet it should be, I think, a chastened gratitude. And what I mean by that is I should realize and be humbled by the fact that I am prospering from the sins of national forefathers. I may not be guilty of their guilt, but I do benefit from the country they built on their guilt. I am sobered and chastened and humbled by that. That is my first response.
My second one is I think we should feel shame. I have been thinking about shame. Why does a person feel shame for somebody else’s behavior? And the answer is, well, we only do if there is some kind of attachment to us, like if they are our kids. If they are our kids who are misbehaving, we feel more shame than if they are your kids who are misbehaving, but there are other kinds of attachments besides family.
"I should realize and be humbled by the fact that I am prospering from the sins of national forefathers."
There are school attachments, like if a high school had a brawl and beat up on some minority at a ball game, I would feel ashamed of my school, right? Or there are religious attachments. Some Christians act ugly towards Muslims or something. We feel ashamed because we are Christians and Christians shouldn’t act like that.
There are racial and all kinds of attachments in which we can feel shame because the people we are like, or the people that we are attached to have behaved a certain way. And so I think that is fitting. I think that is a godly, proper thing to feel some measure of shame, and I think what we do with that shame, then, is we remedy it. We lay it down. We overcome it in an appropriate way by expressing sorrow for the act we are ashamed of: “I am sorry that happened to the Indian people.” Number two, that we renounce it as something we disapprove of. And, thirdly, we resolve to do whatever is appropriate to make right what we can.
So those are my two things, Tony — two efforts to figure out how John Piper’s heart and his behavior should respond in view of my brief visit to The Hermitage in Nashville a few days ago.