MEMORIALS, EUGENICS AND GRACE
By Dr. Riley B. Case
In the summer before each of our nine grandchildren entered the fourth grade, Ruth and I took them on a several day’s history tour of Indiana (they would study Indiana history in the fourth grade). One place we sometimes visited was the graves of the Reno brothers in Seymour, IN. Why (I am now wondering)? The Reno brothers were notorious criminals (1860s and 70s) who gained fame (if that is what it can be called) for pulling off the world’s first train robbery. Beyond that their story is one of violence, murder, lawlessness and (in response) vigilantes and lynchings (in this case of white men).
I would not do that again if I had to do it over. Why make heroes out of bad people?
I thought of this as I am reading about statues, monuments, memorials, symbols, and historical figures that are being torn down, demolished, deconstructed and discarded because of past sins. We are presently being reminded that our nation’s history includes slavery and white privilege and brutality and sins against indigenous peoples and corporate greed and political scandal. Criticism is not just of the confederate flag but Robert E. Lee and generals of the confederacy that some say need purging. All kinds of memorials and symbols to all sorts of people are being declared morally reprehensible. Persons we thought of as great statesmen are being “canceled” for having been slaveholders or associated with the Ku Klux Klan or segregationists or having supported police departments or
political parties. So, the likes of Christopher Columbus and presidents like Teddy Roosevelt and George Washington (eight or ten of our early presidents were slaveholders) are being declared by some as unworthy of our accolades or a place of honor in the history of our country because their sins outweigh all the good they may have accomplished. There is talk even of blowing up Mount Rushmore. Oh yes, there is also St. Junipero Serra, Catholic missionary (and saint) in California, whose crime evidently was in wanting to win native Americans to Christ. To take things farther we also are now renaming streets and buildings in our universities and cities named after flawed individuals. And finally, there is criticism of any statues or paintings of Jesus that portray a white face.
Evangelical Christians would do well to hear the cries of pain. But we must ask while we listen: is there no end? The answer is, evidently not, at least for some, until we have purged all evil in order to settle old scores of injustice and immorality, Actually the language is taking on a religious cast: there is a need to “alleviate white guilt.” Unfortunately, because of sin and other dark parts of our lives, in the end it is possible that no one will be left standing.
Time for some push-back. If we are supposed to be alleviating white guilt let’s make sure that we recognize how far the guilt extends. We mention this because it seems that for many the major criticism of racism and white supremacy is aimed at evangelicals and traditionalists.
Traditionalists have sometimes been critical of our
United Methodist Book of Resolutions
because it reflects progressive bias in many areas. There is one resolution that provides some balance to this bias. Resolution 3183 (2016
Book of Resolution,
pp 232-236) entitled “Repentance for Support of Eugenics,” is a formal apology by the UM General Conference for the church’s involvement in the advocacy of eugenics, the practice or advocacy of controlled selective breeding of human population (such as sterilization) to improve the population’s genetic composition. Eugenics flourished from the time of Darwin through Hitler and World War II. It was entirely, at least in the United States, identified with a progressive agenda. It was opposed by religious fundamentalists.
Fundamentalist and traditional Christians pushed hard against Charles Darwin, his
Origin of the
and his views on evolution. Darwin wanted not only to explain how the species got to be what they are, he also was interested in why some races of humankind seemed superior to other races. He and his followers then reasoned that if humankind evolved to what it is today, with scientific planning it could evolve faster to an even better future. The key was in selective breeding. This was the beginning of eugenics.
Darwin’s cousin, Sir Francis Galton of England, took eugenics to the next step. Galton was more specific about the races he wished to improve - the white European peoples. Africans and Native Americans were inferior. The strategy: encourage more valued persons to marry and have families; discourage the less fit from having children. Survival of the fittest was incorporated into social planning which then led, in order to help the process along, to forced sterilization and marriage laws limiting marriage between white and nonwhites. A number of states passed laws supporting sterilization and prohibiting racial intermarrying. Eventually 60,000 “less desirable” Americans would be sterilized. When these theories were picked up and expanded by the Nazis in Germany, extermination was added to sterilization. Eventually 350,000 individuals were sterilized by the Nazis and millions actually exterminated. In the meantime, some supporters of eugenics were arguing (mostly against conservatives) that charity thwarted the process for better breeding. Churches which fed and cared for the poor and the weak were slowing down the eugenics cause by helping the less fit to survive, reproduce and thus perpetuate inferior genetic strains.
Eventually the horrors associated with the Nazis and their strategies to develop a super race did in the eugenics movement.
The UM resolution of 2016 is badly wrong at one important point. It implies that traditionalists and evangelicals, along with the modernist Methodists, also supported eugenics. This is simply not true. Within Methodism there were no major fundamentalists or evangelicals or holiness persons in the church who supported eugenics.
The eugenics movement fit well into the progressive religious agenda which was, in the early 20th century, to build the Kingdom of God on earth. This so dominated some segments of the church that even the hymnal was affected. In the 1935 Methodist hymnal the church was introduced to hymns such as this:
shall be: a loftier face, Than e’er the world hath known shall rise
…” (# 512). American progressive church leaders flocked to the cause and supported eugenicists like Margaret Sanger (founder of Planned Parenthood). Sanger has a number of choice quotes. One of them: “The government should give certain dysgenic groups in our population their choice of segregation or sterilization.” One strong eugenics advocate was Rev. Harry F. Ward, founder of the Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA) who said that Christianity and eugenics were compatible because both pursed the “challenge of removing the causes that produce the weak” (See Resolutions, 2016, p. 234). A number of progressive bishops supported the cause including Bishop Francis McConnell, who chaired MFSA for a number of years. Evangelicals of all denominations who objected to this agenda were considered obscurantists. This is a point made by Christiane Rosen in her excellent study
Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and
the American Eugenics Movement
(Oxford University Press, 2004).
Enough of the harsh words. Time for a countering thought. Could we who are Christians interject into the discussion the word
Almost all of the talk on these matters is centered on
We want fairness and equality and equal opportunity and laws and police and court systems and state and federal governments that show no favoritism or respect no special race or group or tribe or nation.
But whose justice? Does justice demand reparations and continual acts of repentance and quota systems and affirmative action and the denouncement of our own history? In the hands of angry people justice can quickly turn into “getting even” and wanting the other to suffer as they have suffered. Justice, in our western world, has served us well. But there are times when it is not enough.
Christ brings another way. The Bible speaks of a New Covenant, not of law and justice but of grace. Christians hold that Christ died for our sins that we might be forgiven, and in being forgiven that we might forgive. In the New Covenant God does not even remember our sins. They are “covered by the blood.” And so, we seek to temper justice with grace. On the one hand we are aware of past and present injustices. And we cry out. When the sin is especially egregious, we might demonstrate and write articles and advocate for new laws. On the other hand, we realize we all have sinned and through Christ there is forgiveness and grace. And because that is offered to us, we ought to offer it to others. Policemen are made in the image of God, as are rioters and looters, as are advocates of eugenics and as are (even) politicians.
Time to turn aside the anger. Time to listen and not react out of frustration. Time to recognize that persons are flawed. We, unfortunately, will not eradicated racism. We are not going to make this a better world by scientifically breeding a super race or by tearing down offensive monuments. We will make the world a better place by respecting the stories of others, by granting some grace when those stories involve sin. If we can’t cure the world’s ills, we can at least offer hope and reconciliation and a better way.
Our mission: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.