Come, Holy Spirit
by Francis MacNutt
Although I served in the Army as a medic during World War II, the war that fascinates me most is the Civil War. My great-grandfather was a quartermaster in the Union Army, but I have been most interested in the Confederates because of the extraordinary qualities of their leaders – men like Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jeb Stuart – and the courage of their outnumbered and often barefooted soldiers.
For a Christian, it’s a painful mystery to see believers on both sides who were so dedicated to their ideals that they were willing to kill or be killed – some 600,000 soldiers died in that war. How could dedicated Christians, such as Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson, disagree so radically with Christians in the North that they were willing to die for their cause?
Although slavery was not the only issue fueling the Civil War (Robert E. Lee had even freed his slaves), it is especially baffling to realize that slavery, which hardly any Christian would defend today, was upheld by so many Christian just 140 years ago. Amazingly, two outstanding Confederate generals were Episcopal bishops. One, Bishop Leonidas Polk, a general of the highest rank, was killed by a shell during the Confederate retreat from Chattanooga in 1864. And the Roman Catholic bishop of Columbia, S.C., was so outspoken in defense of the South that Union troops, when they torched Columbia, set fire to the convent where his sister had been Superior. How could so many Christians defend slavery with such confidence?
I think the tragedy of the Civil War has a special message to us today: not only do we need to guidance of Scripture and tradition, but we also need the ongoing guidance of the Holy Spirit. Jesus promised this guidance at the Last Supper: “I still have many things to say to you, but they would be too much for you now. But when the Spirit of truth comes, he will head you to the complete truth…” (John 16:12-13).
What are these “many things” that even the twelve apostles and the early church did not yet know? One thing that was “too much” for the apostles to accept was that the Gentiles were to be welcomed into the community. Not only were Gentiles to be accepted, but they did not have to be circumcised. Yet, circumcision was clearly a Scriptural requirement for joining the chosen people. How could those early believers disregard the Scriptural command that required every male to be circumcised?
That great conflict nearly tore the early church apart and was settled only through the guidance of the Holy Spirit: “It has been decided by the Holy Spirit and by ourselves not to saddle you with any burden beyond these essentials…” (Acts 15:28-29a). This was the decision made by the First Church Council of Jerusalem (c. 60 A.D.). Surprisingly, three of these four “essentials: were dropped very soon afterwards, including the prohibition not to eat meat sacrificed to idols. About 10 years after the Council called the prohibition “essential,” Paul wrote, “Do not hesitate to eat anything that is sold in butchers’ shops” (I Cor. 10:25). Where did Paul get such freedom?
So many, like the Pharisees of old, believe they understand Scripture but are trapped in laws and are not able to live in the true freedom of the Gospel. The Civil War is just one dramatic example of how people are bound in cultural tradition and fail to understand the implications of the Gospel. The institution of slavery was upheld not just by Southern Confederacy but by Christian leaders for nearly 2,000 years – only gradually was it seen as contrary to Jesus’ message. Another example is the Spanish conquistadors who, in the 1500s, justified enslavement of the American Indians. Only a few friars spoke against slavery and eventually won in the courts of Spain – rulings largely disregarded in the New World where native Americans died as slaves in gold and silver mines.
Although the “liberal” churches today are identified with social justice issues, before the Civil War it was the evangelicals who saw that the teachings of Jesus went contrary to slavery. Charles Finney in the U.S. and Williams Wiberforce in England were the most ardent in the cry to abolish slavery during the early 1800s. Leaders of mainline churches wanted society to remain as it was and did not want their boat rocked. For example, the Roman Catholic bishops of New York City were not abolitionists because the Catholic Church was persecuted enough already and the poor, struggling immigrant Irish did not want to compete for jobs with freed black slaves.
What is also instructive for us today is to see that both sides were able to quote Scripture and claim that God was on their side. Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, was a very religious man, and his addresses to the Southern Congress read like sermons. President Abe Lincoln had an amazing ability to see the larger picture, as both sides claimed that God was on their side, but both could not be right.
An entire issue (#33) of the magazine Christian History centers on the slavery question and lists 17 reasons why Christians believed they should support slavery! The South perhaps had more Scriptural texts to back their cause than the abolitionists did. For example: Abraham, our “father in faith,” and all the patriarchs held slaves without God’s disapproval (Gen. 21:9-10); and the Ten Commandments mention slavery twice, showing God’s implicit acceptance of the practice (Exodus 20:10, 17).
Nor was slavery only an Old Testament practice, changed by Jesus’ New Covenant of freedom: slavery was widespread in the Roman world, and yet Jesus never spoke directly against it; the apostle Paul commanded slaves to obey their masters (Eph. 6:5-8) and Paul returned the runaway slave, Philemon, to his master (Phil.12).
No wonder, with such strong Scriptural arguments, many Southerners agreed with one Baptist minister who stated that slavery “stands as an institution of God.” Other Christians believed, as some still do, that the church should concentrate on spiritual issues, “not political ones.” (This sounds familiar, doesn’t it?) In addition, Christians are taught to obey civil authorities, and these authorities protected the rights of slave owners (e.g. The Dred Scott decision).
Isn’t this extraordinary, that a belief so widespread among Christians such a short time ago was not seen as reprehensible? The only way we can understand our change of attitude is that Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to instruct us in areas of God’s perfect will in which we are blind: “I still have many things to say to you, but they would be too much for you now,” Jesus told his disciples the night before he died (John 16:12). This need to have our eyes opened is so deep, our humanity so flawed, that the removal of our blindness, “the renewal of our minds,” in regard to slavery did not happen immediately but has taken hundreds of years. Apparently, we see where we have been blind only later. In my own life, I now see some areas where, when I was younger, I was spiritually wrong but didn’t have a clue, even though I was well-meaning and striving to lead a committed Christian life.
I admire the great men of the Confederacy, the fine Christian such as Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and General Leonidas Polk, more than most of the Union generals. It makes me a little more understanding, a little more compassionate, to see that even the greatest of men can be misguided. How flawed our human nature is! As John Newton, who was dramatically converted during a storm while he was captain of a slave ship, wrote in his poignant hymn Amazing Grace, “I once was blind, but now I see.”
What does all this have to do with healing? A great deal. The Civil War has so much to teach us about our own need for healing. At the very least, we learn to respect other people and see them as principled Christians, even when we disagree with the way they view Christian teaching. Reading about the Civil War helps me to be forgiving and gain a larger sense of the tragedy of human life, where Christian leaders can disagree so fundamentally that they go to war.
It also has helped me see how blind we are, even when we try to live our lives according to the Gospel. Without the continual guidance of the Holy Spirit and the healing light of Jesus, some aspects of our lives are certain to go off course; we are liable to sin without even knowing it. As Paul says, “Though the will to do what is good is in me, the performance is not, with the result that instead of doing the good things I want to do, I carry out the sinful things I do not want” (Romans 7”19). The deepest healing we need is the renewal of our minds, not just physical healing of broken bodies.
The area where we perhaps need the most healing is in our spiritual blindness and pride. The Pharisees were blind and, as Jesus observed, did not even know it. In some ways, I can see the attitudes of the Pharisees in my own past. As an individual Christian, I need the Holy Spirit – and the Church, too, needs the Spirit – to help discern between living tradition and dead tradition – to be willing to change directions when necessary. All this is very humbling. As Jamie Buckingham said near the end of his life, “I know less than I used to, but I believe more.”
But in a positive, future-looking way, is it possible that we have more to learn about what Jesus’ kingdom is all about? It is clear that we do – and in some major areas where our understanding is just being opened.
For all of these, we greatly need the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit. I need the Spirit; we need the Spirit; the Church needs the Spirit. “Come, Holy Spirit.”
Reprinted with permission. ©2005 Christian Healing Ministries, Inc., Jacksonville , FL. All rights reserved.