Journal of Southern Religion

The Southern Rite of Human Sacrifice 
Part II:  Religion as Punishment

Donald G. Mathews

In a society where distinctions and dichotomies were so important, the clergy insisted upon polarity, too. Ultimately, perhaps, the dread polarity between God's Wrath and human sin was the most appropriate way of putting the matter; for "belief in someone's right to punish you," wrote Lillian Smith "is the fate of all children in Judaic-Christian culture." If the polarity were softened into Christian-and-world, or salvation-and-sin, or love-and-hate, binary opposition nonetheless persisted as it did in segregation. The word that reflected one side of the dichotomy has traditionally been "otherworldliness;" but it was an otherworldliness plunged deep into this world. Christian commitment required a rigorous life of self-discipline, self-reproach, and self-denial which was decidedly "this-worldly." Equally so were the many distinctive ways in which communities of faithful people expressed their faith and communal connections all of which were particular (at least to insiders) and each of which was authenticated by appeal to Holy Scripture especially on contested issues. If "otherworldliness" was belied by the enchantment of "this" world in segregation, it was also affirmed by the need to understand and justify pain, moral failure, and death. Otherworldliness seemed to be associated with dogma, "narrowness", biblicism, and irrelevance. This perspective, as one son of Dixie remembered, demanded that preachers speak "of God, of Truth, of Righteousness, of Judgment, the same yesterday, today and forever."58  The perspective was authoritative and certain. The hard and rigorous fundamentalism which Suzanne Marshall found throughout the violent culture of the Black Patch, and the primitive Calvinism which caught Arthur Raper's Methodist-lensed eye among vigilantes, and the punitive wrath which Lillian Smith recalled were all caught up in the Christian tradition that suffused Southern culture. Wilbur J. Cash captured the meaning of this "otherworldly" religion that so affected this world as "primitive frenzy and the blood sacrifice."59

"Blood sacrifice is the connection between the purpose of white supremacists, the purity signified in segregation, the magnificence of God's wrath, and the permission granted the culture through the wrath of 'justified' Christians to sacrifice black men on the cross of white solidarity."

It is correct now of course to distance oneself from Cash for his sexism, whiteness, and capacity for sacrificing accuracy on the altar of meaning. His lack of proper respect for white southerners' intellect, or at least intellectuals, seems to be perfectly captured in the phrase. Citing a "primitive frenzy and the blood sacrifice" conveys the image of a savage South, a "savage ideal" that oversimplifies the region so cruelly that we are bereft of the generous ambiguity of a complexity that includes educated if tedious clergymen, tortured if ineffectual writers, prophetic if isolated dissenters, and quietly heroic women. But the phrase lingers because it is true; if "primitive frenzy" is translated as the result of repressed sexuality, challenged patriarchy, and reasoned violence fused in the act of murder, we may be able to understand it in less emotionally freighted ways. But the frenzy remains. The meaning of "blood sacrifice" is much more complex; and yet it is at the core of southern white fundamental Protestantism. Blood sacrifice is the connection between the purpose of white supremacists, the purity signified in segregation, the magnificence of God's wrath, and the permission granted the culture through the wrath of "justified" Christians to sacrifice black men on the cross of white solidarity.

To write that Christianity permitted lynching within a segregated society is not merely to make a homiletic point. Nor is it on the other hand a preface to linking specific acts of violence with specific people in a specific place who did hideous things because God told them to do so. To be sure, some people did believe they were absolutely justified, which amounts to the same thing; but that is not the point. The point is that because historians know that religious mood, ritual action, and moral outrage at black men were associated with illegal community acts of violence, students may want to go beyond mentioning such things to ask how we might understand this nexus, realizing that the task is not simple and that the connections run through the mentality of white Southerners if not necessarily their consciousness. At issue is neither the integrity of Christianity nor the ignorance and credulity of simple folk who believe myths that "sophisticated" modernists have rejected. At issue is the cultural reality behind what we have known existed but never had the temerity to confront; and the place to begin is with Lillian Smith's understanding of Christianity as punishment, and W. J. Cash's perception of the "blood sacrifice." It is important to ask: "How could Cash's words have come so easily; could he have meant that whites literally sacrificed blacks?" "Where could he possibly have conceived the fantastic metaphor that birthed such a preposterous idea?" The question is not rhetorical; there is a specific answer: "In church."

The 47th Since Armistice 
"Not Kultur, but Americans Passed This Way" --George H. Ben Johnson, Richmond Planet, November 22, 1919

If Cash sloughed off loyalty to his Baptist past with the help of Baptist professors at a Baptist college, he could never escape the homiletic images of his youth, especially the most dramatic ones. And "blood sacrifice" is dramatic; it was an essential part of Southern culture before the Second World war because it was central to the Christian narrative of salvation. That narrative was preached throughout the South for over two hundred years, and its most vivid images, plots, and symbols lay in "Jesus Christ and Him Crucified." That phrase was the substance of preaching throughout the region although themes varied: they covered the range of Christian doctrines that began with salvation from sin. Theoretically at least, salvation lay not in abstinence from certain specific sins or in repression of the sinful self although abstinence and repression were among the means of revealing one to be a "child of God". Instead, salvation lay in Christ's work on the cross; it lay in being justified by faith, certainly, but also in reliance upon His saving act through which a "price" had been paid and satisfaction made; it lay in sanctifying a life of obedience in anticipation either of a struggle for perfection or faithful perseverance. The Bible which contained the story of salvation was to be read in the same way as sermons were to be heard–from the perspective of the cross; for if the Bible contained the Word it was the Word made flesh who dwelt "among us" and Who was crucified to set the universe aright. This was what the Apostle Paul had called the scandal of "the Cross." And a few agreed that the idea was indeed scandalous. When Thomas Jefferson edited the Bible into the "Life of Jesus" so as to focus on what really mattered in Christianity, every Christian who had been washed in the blood of the Lamb knew that Jefferson had ripped salvation out of the Bible and left only an impossible ethic and a remarkable man; that was all, and that was not enough.60

If churches and ministers could agree with Jefferson that the Christian life required strict morality, they dissented from the view that morality was sufficient for salvation as Socinians [Unitarians] and Deists were said to believe. If Christians who responded to evangelical preaching expected to be made forcefully aware of salvation through an inner conviction, the focus was not on sentiment alone, or the moment of illumination or on the physical manifestations of sentiment and illumination, but a "saving knowledge" that Christ had "died for me". The words, "saving knowledge," meant that "religious experience" went far beyond a mere inner feeling of being "saved". "Saving knowledge," meant knowing that one had been made just–justified–before God, but not justified through the experience itself. That experience had content: an inner knowledge that the crucifixion was "for me" and that it had conferred pardon through an objective act by a specific man[-God]: "Jesus Christ and Him Crucified." Every doctrine of Christianity that represented the supernatural action of salvation always returned the believer to the mystery of the Cross.

It would be naive indeed to assume that every Christian in the South could have successfully passed an examination in systematic theology on the meanings of the cross. But no matter how imperfectly understood or internalized and no matter how much the slippage between private doubt and public profession, images and feelings of salvation were expressed throughout the music, songs, and hymns that were the theological tracts of folk who sang of

. . . my Savior and God!
O he died on Calvary,
To atone for you and me
And to purchase our pardon with blood.61

Familiar references to Christ as "Savior", "blessed Savior", "the Lamb," the "dying, risen Jesus," the "redeeming Lord"62 all referred to a supernatural, vicarious and sacrificial act upon the cross:

Christ, the Lamb of God was slain
He tasted death for me.63

He did so "Appeasing the wrath of God" and shedding "forth his blood as the cost" of doing so. The mystery of this would be made clear in the end-time when Christians should at last

. . . see the Savior
With shining ranks of angels come,
To execute his vengeance,
take his ransom'd people home.64

References were not to a teacher: but to Lord and Savior. Southern Protestant Christians shared with the ancient Church and the Roman Catholic Church the western inheritance of Jesus of Nazareth transfigured and revealed as Christ and Savior: He was the Word through Whom creation came in the beginning and through Whom after the Fall it was restored through Crucifixion. No one had to understand it precisely ("we see through a glass darkly") for no one could, but everyone who claimed to be a Christian had to profess that salvation came through a saving act of God: and that act was referred to in the words of "price", "cost", "ransom" "penalty," "pardon," "satisfaction" and above all: "atonement."

At the heart of salvation were the metaphors of retributive justice; at the center was a symbol of torture and death. The word for Christ's saving action was "atonement." However differently various communities of faith may have interpreted the implications, influences and results of atonement, there was nonetheless significant agreement among white Southern Christians before 1930 on the signal importance of Christ's sacrificial death. That agreement reflected a pervasive moral sensibility that emphasized divine wrath with, cosmic penalty for, and condign punishment of sin. To be sure, the religion also emphasized vicarious payment of the penalty for sin by the Son of God through whose action salvation was made available; but according to tradition that action was a sacrifice–an act of violence. To be clear: the Christianity of the white South was a religion of sin, punishment, and sacrifice. It was a religion of violence. "Death is the penalty of sin," wrote the definitive Southern Baptist theologian of the late nineteenth century;65 it was imposed, wrote a future bishop, by the "wrath of Almighty God"66 Whose nature, warned a fellow Methodist, was to "punish the guilty."67 As a Presbyterian divine insisted, "Vindicatory Justice [is] Essential to God."68 This insistence on punitive justice reflected the absolute righteousness of God as opposed to the total depravity of humanity which had fallen through the disobedient agency of Adam-and-Eve whose guilt was imputed to all those who came afterwards. If imputation was a point of contention between Calvinists and Wesleyans69 it did not preclude agreement until possibly the turn of the twentieth century that human beings deserved death as the moral penalty for the sin that thoroughly corrupted them. If they deserved death, however, how could they be saved from such a penalty? Their mere repentance, which was after all, their own act, could achieve nothing; the offense was too great, the resulting stain–some would say total depravity–was ineradicable.70 Only an infinite act of Infinite Being could bridge the infinite distance between Divine Righteousness and human corruption.

"The feelings that sustained the credibility of the incredible doctrine of penal satisfaction had afflicted generations of white Southerners by the twentieth century."

Justice was associated with blood sacrifice. Because the Old Testament background of sacrifice revealed that "the orisons of faith and penitence must be accompanied with the streaming blood of a victim and the venging fire of the altar,"71 the words associated with sacrifice–propitiation and expiation–were assigned to the Work of Christ. "God set forth Christ," wrote E. Y. Mullins, "as a propitiation for our sins;" he reminded people who already knew it that "Death is the penalty of sin." Christ bore "the penal consequences of the sin of the race because of his complete identification with it." He "endured the wrath of God . . . in the sense that he permitted the sin-death principle to operate in him."72 Christ died, Thomas Ralston reminded his own readers, in propitiation for human sins, and referred them, as would any knowledgeable Methodist preacher, to Paul's Epistle to the Romans [3:25]: "Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forebearance of God. [KJV]]" Propitiation for both the Baptist and the Methodist as well as their Presbyterian and Episcopal colleagues meant that the punitive justice of Ultimate Reality had been meted out, the penalty for sin paid.73 Moreover, because in the Old Testament the sacrifice of a victim was expiation, that is, it removed the sins of the people, both concepts applied to Christ's sacrifice.74 That He acted for humans by becoming one of them while remaining "very God of very God" meant a vicarious75 sacrifice because finite human power could not pay the infinite price: He acted in humanity's stead, atoned, that is "paid the price" demanded by God's justice, and "washed" humans in His blood.

Ministers knew that not all of their laity thoroughly understood or believed the complex connections that biblical scholarship provided; but there were other means to make the essential point. For people seeking to interpret their salvation and discipleship in a dialectic relationship between faith and hope, consciousness and orthodoxy could be conflicted. When it was time publicly to repeat the Creed or renew the Covenant or affirm the reception of "amazing grace," the sound of ones own voice uniting with others in song, prayer or public recitation confirmed the mystery represented by orthodoxy at least for the moment. Such people heard countless familiar and ritualistic sermons, whether read, exposited or chanted, that described the blood flowing from Redeemer's head, hands, side, and feet; they felt the terrible jolt against His searing wounds when the cross was plunged into the earth. They could not fail to have been impressed, as was the young Wilbur Cash, with the "primitive" feelings that would later allow him to understand the "blood sacrifice" as essential to the Mind of the South. The message of sin, guilt and punishment associated with the elemental and universal symbol of blood was conveyed further by exhortations, prayers, hymns, recitations, scowls, maternal tears, and patriarchal condemnation. All worked to cry "guilt", to teach guilt, to instill guilt: to make the offending soul shudder at the enormity of his/her guilt. The feelings that sustained the credibility of the incredible doctrine of penal satisfaction had afflicted generations of white Southerners by the twentieth century. Even tepid or rebellious believers learned that religion was punishment: they endured or remembered or heard about the connection in church trials; they heard and felt the depth of divine wrath from angry preachers; they learned, too, from admonishing looks, raised eyebrows, whispered confidences and the anguish of awakening sexuality the pervasiveness of sin and the necessity of retribution. All these things when contrasted with the righteousness of God taught children of conventional Christians that Someone had a Right–as Lillian Smith recalled–to punish you; it was also an Obligation. The mood focused on a mysterious, cosmic and violent transaction at the crux of Christian consciousness.76

The source of this penal theory of atonement was presumably the Bible; everyone who accepted it certainly believed as much; but it was not. As the great Swedish theologian Gustaf Aulen pointed out long ago, a thousand years had actually lapsed between the crucifixion and the first mature statement of the theory. During that time various understandings had circulated within the Church, and some of these played upon the motif that Aulen thought best expressed atonement in the phrase, Christus Victor. Conceding elements of sacrifice but pointing out that these neither emphasized punishment nor employed legal metaphors, Aulen argued that the message of Paul, the early Church, and Patriarchs was of a Christ Who broke human bondage to the Law, and the forces of evil as the victorious and Incarnate Lord.77 References to sacrifice came out of Old Testament texts from a cultus that maintained the holiness of community through spilling blood (the "containing life force") of slain animals that substituted for the offenses of the people. Evil was channeled into an animal whose expiatory death became a "saving event."78 The vicariousness of such rites is clear for the Day of Atonement [Leviticus 16]: in one ritual a goat is sacrificed for the sins of the people. In another, a goat [scapegoat] is laden with the sins of the people through prayer and driven into the wilderness thus banishing violence and guilt.

Against such references, however, may be cited others that subvert the importance of sacrifice. In I Samuel [15:22], Amos [5:22ff] and Micah [6:7-8], for example, sacrifice is repudiated in favor of humbly walking with God. Such contradictions in a complexity of books, laws, and ritual acts suggest why it is tendentious to write of a "biblical theology of sacrifice."79 Yet Jewish discourse when Saul of Tarsus was a student included the redemptive qualities of suffering and a sacrificial death. Indeed, some thinkers fused the scapegoat mechanism and expiatory sacrifice. When he became Paul the Apostle, Saul labored to explain to a hostile Jewish community how an executed criminal broken on an engine of Roman torture could be the Messiah. His was not an easy task. He presented Christ Jesus as a "sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith," [Romans 3:25] which might have appealed to some Jews then engaged in thinking about sacrificial death, but his major emphasis was on participation in Christ. Paul was absolutely clear in his critique of the Jewish law and insisted that by dying under it, Christ had placed human life above it. This act was to bring Jews and Gentiles together into a new community in which all were reconciled to each other and to God by themselves becoming living sacrifices.80 Because the Biblical texts were ambiguous, however, no single theory dominated interpretation of the Cross for a thousand years.

Then came Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) who introduced a new metaphor to explain the work of Christ: satisfaction. He did so within the context of a society that was highly stratified and in which legal metaphors ruled. An elaborate code of "honor" sustained social solidarity. Offences against those of high rank demanded punishment or, in its place, satisfaction relative to the nature of the insult and the rank of the one offended lest the social order be unbalanced. The same could be said of the relation between sinful humans and God, observed the Archbishop of Canterbury in answering the question: Cur Deus Homo? Since we already owe God everything it is impossible for us to pay satisfaction for our sins. Worse, because dishonoring God is the dishonoring of Infinite Being, only an infinite satisfaction is appropriate. Therefore, Deus Homo (God-man) must pay satisfaction in humanity's place. Anselm came to this conclusion within the context of a church system of penance and of a society in which crime denied the "bonds of mutual trust and concern on which the community depends for its existence."81 In such a culture, retribution in the payment of a debt "restores that fair balance of benefits and burdens" disturbed by crime, writes a student of punishment. The same was true of sin and Divine Retribution. Whereas the work of Christ was once conceived as victory over the power of evil [Satan], now it was conceived as payment to God to satisfy the debt owed by mankind for its sin. Once the devil had held mankind ransom, but now it was God; the God Who Paul believed had liberated Christians from bondage to the Law had become Law Itself.82

Over the next few hundred years, this theme shaped the medieval mentality which became "saturated with the concepts of Christ and the cross." Satisfaction, punishment, and suffering became the dominant themes of salvation. The focus on law and satisfaction lay not merely in religious sensibility and theological formulation, but also in the rise of the state with its mechanisms for bringing order out of chaos and law out of custom through the power to punish.83 With the Reformation, Jean Calvin adapted Anselm's theory and improved upon it within the continuing context of political and judicial development. But whereas Anselm developed his theory within the church's system of penance, and thought of satisfaction as the payment of debt, Calvin relied on the metaphors and analogies of criminal law; for Anselm, Christ "pays our debts; in Calvin he bears our punishment."84 Even Wesleyans who were not enamored of all Calvinist theology spoke the language of satisfaction and punishment, as we have seen. Thomas Ralston's abridgement of Richard Watson's Institutes labored to distinguish Methodism from Calvinism, but if he disagreed with Calvinists on the constituency of atonement, he agreed with the Genevan on its punitive model. For Southerners, who, like medieval knights, lived in a culture of honor, the clearest statement of the theory was made by Robert Lewis Dabney whose desire to distinguish clearly between faith and faithlessness made him an ideal spokesman for the religious of the region. He basked in the language of punishment. All of life's calamities, he wrote, are "penal," they have "moral significance" as "God's displeasure with men's sins."85 He wrote easily of "God in his punitive providence," of a justice that demanded punishment, and of a Christ who "suffered legally and righteously for the guilt of sin imputed to him."86 Furious with soft hearted "dreamers" who did not understand that the "guilt of sin must be avenged by the just penalty," he condemned the self-indulgent who ignored the axiom that "punishment of every sin is inevitable." The cosmic reality within which the Christian life was to be lived, according to Dabney, was the punishment which Christ had taken upon himself and which "satisfied the divine perfection outraged by our sins."87

"In this fashion, punishment was sacralized by the dominant religion of the American South. "

Such theology could not remain in "otherworldly" abstractions, but effected the Christian's view of self and world. Dabney had defended his punitive theory of atonement by appealing to the horror felt by the virtuous such as he when criminals were not punished, and he reminded Christians of the oft expressed desire of Biblical writers for "proper retribution at the hand of God." The Christian, he insisted, should find pleasure in others' "suffering for sin"; Christians know, Dabney thundered, that criminals must suffer "penal retibution"–it was rational, just, and sacred. The Christian should realize that having participated "in the judicial triumphs of the Redeemer" through grace s/he was free to participate in righteous vengeance. To be sure, Dabney warned full retribution would come only at the Final Judgment, but allowing saints to anticipate participating in that act granted permission to enjoy vengeance in the interim. Belief that "righteous retribution is one of the glories of the divine character" could easily become belief that people benefiting from Cosmic retribution were righteous in their own determination to punish. If the "godly man" had in pursuing justice remitted final "penal settlement to a perfect God" and arrested "his own forcible agency as soon as the purposes of mere self-defence are secured," he was nonetheless justified in defending himself with godly "vengeance." Believing this, and believing that all of his own life after 1865 was a defense against the ungodly–Yankees, Socinians, Africans, it is not surprising that Dabney should have devoted himself to perfecting a theology of vengeance.88 He knew that he would be dismissed as one of those "stupid old fogies besotted in their bigotry;"89 he knew, too, that his view was condemned as a "brutal theology of ancient barbarians"; but he scorned such prissy "babbling".90  Truth was hard; justice was hard; the Cross was hard. His personality, which demanded order, aloofness, hierarchy, absolute certainty and honor, found its justification in a Calvinism driven not by a confession of ones own sin but the draconian punishment of others.91

In this fashion, punishment was sacralized by the dominant religion of the American South. To be sure, as Dabney knew, there were Christians who contested this view. Centuries before, Anselm and Calvin had not prevented alternative views from Peter Abelard or Martin Luther; and by the end of the nineteenth century, a few Wesleyans were beginning to emphasize that the way of the cross was more revealing of Love than Justice.92 African Americans' views of Christ's work, too, were dramatically different; they had perceived that the one broken on the cross suffered with and not for them. They believed that He had come not to justify punishment but to break its power, not to encourage humans to participate in God's vengeance but to show that God was not enraged with them.93 One can imagine Robert Dabney's infuriated contempt. He would not have been alone; indeed, as a few white Southerners began to shrink back from the punitiveness of a God Who ruled in terroristic rage, one of their savants objected to such cowering. Poet John Crowe Ransom's god was the "stern and inscrutable God of Israel" rather than the "amiable and understandable God" Whom liberals were then fabricating from the New Testament, modern science, and sentimental optimism.94 Written in response to such namby-pamby idolatry and the anti-Southern fall-out from the Scopes trial,95 Ransom's book, God Without Thunder, was precisely what the subtitle said it was, An Unorthodox Defense of Orthodoxy. The son of a Methodist missionary-minister and the brother of a woman who wrote Sunday school lessons, Ransom attacked the new religiosity for embracing the myths of science and naturalism rather than those of the Oriental God Who delighted in burnt offerings and arbitrarily crushed Job into the dust.96 The rage of such a god was magnificent. If Ransom eventually left both Church and South, he had indeed captured the religious ambience of his region in pleading with believers to "restore to God the thunder;" that is, the wrath and the penalty.

The Southern Rite of Human Sacrifice, Part III

© 1998-2000 by The Journal of Southern Religion. All rights reserved. ISSN 1094-5234

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