Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Ignorant of Our Ignorance

I'm re-reading a little book entitled, Four Days in 1865: The Fall of Richmond. It's a collection of letters, diaries, and other firsthand accounts by the people who lived through it. I always find "firsthand" history the most engaging to read. Of course, it's extra interesting to someone like me who actually lives here, because all the places mentioned are familiar; I go there, see those places, all the time.

What really struck me, though, was this truth: How blind we can all be to our own condition!

Here's an excerpt from page 7 of the book. The day is April 2, 1865, a Sunday. Messengers arriving in various downtown churches are bringing the news that General Lee's right flank has given way at Petersburg, and Richmond must be evacuated - today. (Evacuated meant only the government and the military would depart, meaning every able-bodied man. Women and children were left here to face alone whatever fate might befall them.)

At Second Presbyterian Church, the pastor, Dr. Moses D. Hoge, prayed:

With lowly reverence of spirit, and hearts filled with sadness and awe, we come into Thy presence, O God, most high and holy. We come to humble ourselves under Thy mighty hand; to acknowledge that clouds and darkness surround Thee; that we cannot measure the depths of Thy infinite decrees, or fathom the wisdom of Thy inscrutable providences.

Enable us then to feel our helplessness, our ignorance, our frailty. When we cannot explain the reasons of thy dispensations, may we be silent; when we cannot comprehend, may we adore!


In itself, this prayer is unexceptional (except for being so very Presbyterian!) but you have to remember the context. These people had been fighting to preserve slavery. Oh, I know, I promise you, I do know, the whole Cause had been cast in much loftier terms, states' rights and freedom and so forth, but all that meant was a state's "Right to Choose" whether to be a slave-holding state or not. Dress it up in all the high-sounding rhetoric and ideology you please; it still came down to slavery. It was God's opposition to the injustice of slavery these church-goers found so inscrutable.

And that is part of what makes prayers like these so jarring. These people no doubt prayed in utter sincerity, with great devotion and high feeling. They weren't hypocrites, at least not consciously.

And that's what makes it so truly frightening, because you and I could just as easily be in a similar condition right now, never even suspecting it.

Lord, preserve us from this! Kyrie, eleison!