Nathaniel Russell Ash Wednesday

slave arrival USA

Nathaniel Russell, born in Rhode Island in 1738, had a great knack for organizing commercial shipping. He moved to South Carolina and married into a wealthy family. He built a grand house and entertained graciously. One of his daughters married the Episcopal Bishop. [SPANISH]

Russell’s Charleston home has become an evocative museum that takes you back two hundred years. Visiting the place gives you an intimate feel for how well-respected, prosperous city gentlemen lived. Russell was known as a scrupulously honest businessman, diligent in paying his taxes. He was altogether honorable.

Just one thing: He made a lot of his fortune by buying and selling other human beings as slaves. In 1772 he wrote to a fellow sea-merchant: “There have been a great many Negroes imported here this summer and many more expected. They continue at a very great price.”

Now: Should this properous, honorable South-Carolina gentleman have known better? Should his conscience have accused him for enriching himself by buying and selling people as if they were animals? Is it fair for us to apply our morals to a man who lived three centuries ago? After all, no civil law prohibitted his business. To the contrary, the laws of of South Carolina made it almost impossible to free a slave. The enslavement of Africans had become an established institution.

But a man who lived under Russell’s own roof knew better. The blacksmith, a slave named Tom. Tom Russell participated in the planning of a thwarted slave rebellion, led by the famous Denmark Vesey. Tom was hanged right alongside Vesey by the Charleston City Council in 1822. What motivated the would-be rebels? The idea that Holy Scripture teaches that slavery runs contrary to the laws of God.

Nathaniel RussellYou can’t erase God’s truth, no matter how hard you might try. Something blinded Nathaniel Russell to the obvious. He had built his comfortable house not just on sand, but on sin. The grave, detestable sin of human slavery ran like rainwater through the streets of his town.

But this Charleston gentleman was no rank, malicious villain. He only wanted what we want: material security, a comfortable life for himself and his family, beautiful things around him. His neighbors admired him greatly  and sought his friendship. We can hardly imagine that, when he lay on his deathbed at age 82, in the year 1820, he suffered any pangs of conscience over his business dealings. The evil of slavery had become too familiar.

But at the very moment when the owner drew his last breath in his comfortable bed, down in the back yard, Tom the slave knew the truth–that he was no animal, and that his enslavement at this rich man’s hands was wrong. You can’t erase God’s truth.

Be merciful to us, O Lord! We sinners stumble through life with huge blinders on. For all we know, we oursleves may have graver evils to answer for than all the well-liked Nathaniel Russells of history. Like him, we could know better, if only we took the trouble to look into it–to study Your Holy Word, and make it the absolute rule of our lives.

Help us to purify our hearts and minds. We confess that we can never truly become good without Your help. We know we don’t deserve the grace of compunction and deeper conversion to the truth. But we beg for it anyway!

Morning Run in Charleston

West Fraser paints Charleston and environs with a native son’s love

(from the “On-A-Little-Vacation” file…)

The sun rose high over Colonial Lake through the crisp, semi-tropical-winter air, dappling the reflecting-pool waters. Orange light warmed the bricks and stones of Broad Street. Beyond the austere statue of William Moultrie in the Battery’s White Point Garden, James Island saluted from across the Ashley River.

The Gibbes Museum of Art has a gallery of 18th-century Charleston portraits and furniture. The wall placard refers to “the abhorrent economic system” that built this stylish little peninsular metropolis. On the cobblestones around the 250-year-old Customs House, your blood runs cold imagining manacled men and women bought and sold on this spot.

In the distance, Fort Sumter reigns, like a ghost king, over this whole little watery realm. Yes, the 2005 Ravenel Bridge over the Cooper River asserts the 21st century, jutting a pair of concrete tire-jack colossi into the sky. And on the suburban bank of the river, the USS Yorktown evokes the 20th century.

But, in my mind, Charleston belongs to Mary Chesnut and the 19th century. Here’s a selection from her diary, April 12, 1861:

Anderson will not capitulate…I do not pretend to go to sleep. How can I? If Anderson does not accept terms at four, the orders are, he shall be fired upon. I count four, St. Michael’s bells chime out and I begin to hope. At half-past four the heavy booming of a cannon. I sprang out of bed, and on my knees prostrate I prayed as I never prayed before.

There was a sound of stir all over the house, pattering of feet in the corridors. All seemed hurrying one way. I put on my double-gown and a shawl and went, too. It was to the housetop. The shells were bursting…I knew my husband was rowing about in a boat somewhere in that dark bay, and that the shells were roofing it over, bursting toward the fort. If Anderson was obstinate, Colonel Chesnut was to order the fort on one side to open fire. Certainly fire had begun. The regular roar of the cannon, there it was. And who could tell what each volley accomplished of death and destruction?

The women were wild there on the housetop. Prayers came from the women and imprecations from the men. And then a shell would light up the scene…


Worse 50 Year Later + the Gospel

baptismchristgrecoBirthday of John, son of Zechariah and Elizabeth. Little baby John grew up and baptized repentant sinners with water. Clean, crisp Jordan-River water, flowing south from the Sea of Galilee.

One of the first facts that Pope Francis cites in his encyclical on Mother Earth: Millions of people do not have consistent access to potable water. The poor of the world often find themselves without water to drink.

This constitutes a serious physical problem. But I think we southerners feel also that an existential drought afflicts us as well. Because last week a white boy slaughtered nine innocent black Christians, in a church.

Who can disagree with everyone who has been saying since then: “Look! See! We still have racism in our country!”

Who can disagree? But what about this: “Look! See! This is actually worse. This is worse than any lynching that took place in 1915 in South Carolina, or anywhere else in the South. This is worse than any slave whipping that took place in South Carolina in 1815. This was an execution, in a church. In 1963, a racist planted a bomb in a church in Birmingham, Alabama. Half a century later: a cold-blooded, face-to-face execution.

My generation of white boys and girls grew up going to school with black boys and girls. My white dad worked for a black boss, and my dad loved and respected him. Genuine friendships among people of different races truly have flowered throughout the land during the lifetime of my generation, because our fathers got rid of legal segregation.

But who can deny it? The “situation” is genuinely worse now than it was 50 years ago. We elected a black president, and still it’s worse. Worse, in the sense of less mutual understanding. During the hot summer of 1963, President Jack Kennedy, A. Phillip Randolph, and Martin Luther King, Jr., came to an agreement about having a March on Washington. A long, hot summer, 52 years ago, when black and white believed, together, in a better future.

Kennedy Randolph MLK 1963

So: the existential question for the South—and, I daresay, for the world; the existential question for the human race in the hot summer of 2015: Where will the clean water come from? Where will the water come from, that can wash this place clean? The South, the US, the world? The poor by the millions need water for their bodies, and we all need water for our souls.

Now, we are church people; we spend a fair amount of our time in church. Just like the people killed last week. We are not such racists that we can’t see how much we have in common with them. To the contrary, we feel profoundly close to them. And we turn to God, to Christ, at a time like this.

There is a fountainhead—of love, of communion. A fresh start. John pointed Him out.

Elizabeth gave birth to St. John the Baptist during the brightest week of the year, the year when the day all but swallows up the night. Christ our Light dawns. John knew it; we know it. There is water to wash away all the innocent blood spilled since Abel, and to moisten the parched throats of the poor.

Church people! We have to be willing to lose everything for the sake of Christ. Because the world needs the Good News. The world needs the pure and unadulterated Good News of Jesus Christ like she has never needed anything before.