Black, White, and Gray All Over

When I was in elementary school, I vaguely remember studying the US Civil War. Texas and North Carolina went to the Confederacy while Kansas and Kentucky fought for the Yankees. It was a quest for freedom balancing state and national rights and ultimately a fight over the right to own other human beings. Honest Abe Lincoln against the slave-holding rebels.

The story of Newt Knight and his band of rebels from the Free State of Jones, Mississippi places a wrinkle in our popular understanding of how the Civil War unfolded. Part of an interracial community and family life, Knight never supported the Confederacy and actively fought against his surrounding countrymen in the Deep South. As he saw it, the War Between the States was a rich plantation owner’s war fought in the bloody fields of every poor man´s battle. Although he sued the government for compensation regarding his war efforts on the part of the Union three times, he would never see his efforts publically recognized and hence, we more readily remember Mississippi and other Rebel States as unified tapestries joined in armed resistance against the oppressive federal government of the Union.

When people teach about sin to little children in Sunday School classes across America, it is told from a bookkeeper´s perspective- there are good things to do like taking out the trash, helping the little old woman across the street, and hugging your mommy. Jesus likes these kinds of things. Then there are sins like breaking your little sister´s toy, stealing a hotdog from the QuikTrip convenience store, or cheating on your math test.

The Biblical interpretation for sin is not quite as clear cut. The Apostle Paul talks about the matter in terms of a war inside of himself; his left hand does something without the permission of the right to the point where he does not completely understand who he is. It is not he who acts, but rather the sin inside that acts on his being. Sin becomes a condition that obscures the good intentions of humanity, a clear and present curse on a people who are at the same time created in the image of God. We are holy and righteous, and at the same time a sinful and broken people. No wonder so many find it easier to think in terms of the yin yang, a timeless Taoist symbol of coexisting polar opposites. Good and bad live side-by-side inside all of us, and we are neither completely one nor the other.

Humanity has a way of remembering things in black and white no matter the anomalies and gray matter one may find between. Most people would rather compartmentalize their understanding of the way the world works rather than consider the possibilities that color a given situation. I will be the first to point out there is a line where thinking outside of the box becomes a hindrance to clarity, but I am not talking about that. I am talking about men who argue in favor of wars because the end, the freedom, the oil, and the democracy justify the means. I think of people who would blame their government, their family, and the economic crisis for their failures before they would dare to look at themselves and the complicated tangle of events that led to their current state. I refer to couples who would remain together, conveniently ignoring certain sectors of their lover´s life in favor of the established norms of commitment rather than take a hard look at the relationship they are in.

The truth is we often need to see life in black and white. An orderly society implements judicial institutions to make black and white decisions about gray concepts. We want people qualified to define and process matters in clear ways for us, i.e., our preferred politically slanted news group. There is just too much information in our world today to stop and consider every facet of every subject. But still, I implore you, do not be so caught up in following the opinions and established truths of others that you do not take the time to stop and examine the matter at hand for yourself.