Four generations ago, the white church in the Deep South launched the Confederacy with prayer and fasting. Faithful Christians cried out to God, certain their cause was righteous; their war, holy. As the Civil War progressed, Southerners were bombarded with distressing political news, distressing economic news and tragic news from the battlefields. They prayed and fasted with increasing frequency and fervency. Prostrate before God, they confessed the sins of the Yankeesand such things in their own lives as drinking, swearing and card-playing.
In the end, with the South in ruins and the death toll on both sides numbering well into the hundreds of thousands, the church collectively still did not see or uproot the tangle of strongholds that held them. Desolate, they cried,
"Why have we fasted ... and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves and you have not noticed?" (Isa. 58:3).
Today, US Christians in record numbers are crying out to God on behalf of our nation. Bombarded with distressing news, we're praying with increasing frequency and fervency. We've even fasted! Indeed, every time we turn around, someone is calling us to fast and pray. Already, we too have begun to ask the Lord:
"Why have we fasted ... and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves and you have not noticed?"
In Isaiah 58, God answered those questions. He said he had not responded because his people had not entered the fast he had chosen.
Today, our Lord who loves us deeply is giving the same answer. Collectively, we've often fasted over their sinsconfessing the wrongs of the "ungodly" with whom we do not identify or associate. Repeatedly, we've tried to address the corporate sins of the nation without first addressing the corporate sins of the church.
Further, we've prayed to "take back our culture." We're quite sure that if Christians who think like us can get into places of influence in all realms of our society, everything will change for good.
For a century after the Civil War, Christians in the South held places of influence in pretty much every area of culture. Many went to church. Many openly acknowledged Jesus as their Savior. More than a few sought to live truly godly lives. But corporately, did the church in the South in 1890 and 1920 and 1960 look like Jesus? Did its influence produce ... widespread awakening? A region characterized by justice, mercy and genuine godliness? Communities known for selfless love?
When we try to "take the land" without first dealing with our corporate sins, we instead transpose our sins into new settings. If we would cooperate with God in changing cultures and nations, we must first cooperate with him in removing the oppressive yokes from around our own necks.
Revelation from the past
In the early 1800s, as pioneers thronged across the Appalachian Mountains to settle lands that would become the Southern states, awakening swept like wildfire through those lands. During this Second Great Awakening, the three major denominationsMethodist, Baptist and Presbyterianparticipated together in lively revival meetings filled with visible manifestations of the Holy Spirit and producing radically changed lives.
So what ultimately snuffed that Awakeningand has aborted or sabotaged every revival in the US since?
Part of the church moved away from the bedrock truths of the faith and began to embrace an "anything goes" message. Part of the church held fast to Jesus and to salvation through his blood alone.
Counting themselves proud leaders of this latter group, my forebears of the awakened white Southern church culture said a resounding "yes, yes" to Christ on matters of personal salvation. But from the 1830s onward, they collectively said "no, no" to Christ on other issues. Trying to follow Christ and their culture, the church rejected the Spirit's voice regarding the treatment of whole groups of people, especially Native Americans, women, and black Americans.
Collectively, we in the evangelical church see the tragic implications of abandoning the essentials of the faith. We have not seen the tragic implications of wedding our cultural biases to the bedrock beliefs of the faith. We boast of our faithfulness to Jesus. We have not acknowledged where we've missed him.
A different kind of fasting
In Isaiah 58, those who fasted abstained from food, but continued to treat one another terribly. God rejected that kind of fasting then, and he rejects it now. He asks, "Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?" (Isa. 58:6).
When we enter the fast God has chosen, we will treat others the way the Spirit says to treat them, regardless the cost. Then we'll call, and the Lord will answer. We'll cry for help, and he'll say, "Here I am."
Adapted from “We Confess! The Civil War, the South, and the Church,” by Deborah Brunt, (c) 2011 Deborah P. Brunt. All rights reserved.