In conversations with my Southern friends, our political affections often dissolve into a conversation about our current welfare state. In the United States, taking care of the poor is a problem that has had a slowing effect on our already slowing economic growth. We are not the economic empire we once were, and most people don’t like it, especially so-called conservatives. Our conversations reveal an attitude toward poor people which is unbiblical and therefore traditionally Yankee. Their solution is too often to leave the poor to fend for themselves. Many of my Southern conservative friends believe this is somehow true conservatism and therefore truly Southern. Well, I’m going to call the attitude “root hog or die”, an un-Southern “Conservatism”.
The history of this colloquial
A little historical investigation finds the origin of this cruel euphemism. You might be surprised to find out that it was a colloquial used in the early to mid-nineteenth century. It comes from the idea that when pigs or hogs couldn’t be fed, they’d be turned out into the woods to fend for themselves. They could either root hog or die. But, it was politically popularized by Abraham Lincoln. In a meeting with Alexander Stephens in February 1865, Lincoln was asked what his plans were for the freed slaves. Stephens’ interest in the freedmen, was in how Lincoln planned to provide for their well-being. Lincoln, the great emancipator, replied “Let them root hog or die”.
Let that sink in for just a moment.
First, you may have had the understanding that Lincoln was “the fourth person of the blessed Trinity”. If you went to public school and are under 40, or if you attended school in the North, you are probably fact checking me right now.
Secondly, if you are Southern and you realize the hatefulness communicated by such a statement and its political origin, you ought to be ashamed of both. Good people don’t hate their neighbors and good Southerners are anything but Lincolnists.
But, maybe I assume too much. Maybe you’re unconvinced by my mere Lincoln attribution that this is a bad political philosophy. Let’s look at why it’s unbiblical and un-Southern and therefore fake conservatism.
Root hog or die as unbiblical
The Biblical retort to this attitude is simple. Jesus reiterated God’s command to love our neighbors.
19 Honor your father and mother, and, nYou shall love your neighbor as yourself.” –Matthew 19:19
It begs the question, I know. But, I’m not writing a treatise on how best to love our neighbor through the state. I am only so far condemning the Lincoln-like attitude of “root hog or die”. It is unloving to have an attitude of neighbors who suffer from poverty that allows them to continue to suffer. I am not saying that it is the job of the government to take citizens money and redistribute it. I am saying that our general attitude toward the poor ought to be one of compassion, not apathy, malice, or spite. To let them “root hog or die” is all of those.
Root hog or die is un-Southern
Loving our neighbor is something Southerners have traditionally done well. We are known for such gracefulness. That is because our ancestors practiced manners. Their understanding of manners came from their Biblical worldview. They believed in treating sojourners with dignity and respect thus they were hospitable. They also believed it was their duty to take care of those in need by providing the essentials to people who could not do so on their own. Yes, even slave-owners practiced this principle and most governments required it by law.
You see, there is a modern misunderstanding that the South is a monolithic society, both culturally and politically. Some would even accuse us of being ethnically monolithic if not in numbers, in determination. It is a caricature that many Southerners have been convinced is true. Therefore, they live up to the caricature rather than the reality of their cultural ancestry. I am convinced that if most Southerners knew the diversity of their cultural and political history, the South could teach the rest of the US a great deal about unity in diversity. Our people have traditionally loved their neighbors.
So, what went wrong?
The lie about neighbor
Sometime in the past, there has been a lie told to us about who our neighbors are. For whatever reason, the Church has propagated the Marxist lie that neighbor should be conceptualized from the outside in rather than the other way around. This seems to be an overemphasis on neighbor as an arbitrary category with equivocal connotations. The meaning of neighbor has been altered to be worldwide rather than homogeneous. Churches, seminaries, and preachers have focused on an overgeneralization of what a neighbor is, diluting the its foundational and common understanding. This has resulted in the word neighbor, as well as the Biblical concept of loving one’s neighbor, becoming meaningless to most folks.
To require us to love the men across the ocean as warmly as the fellow-citizens of our own commonwealth is a milder form of the absurdity, which should require us to love the children of all other men as tenderly as our own. –RL Dabney
I’m certain that lots of preachers and teachers mean well when they do this little bait and switch. Sometimes there are contextual concerns when laypeople don’t understand that they ought to love the people of the world. Sometimes a false view of patriotism excludes Christian love from other people from other places. There are issues like racism that pastors must preach to. These things and more might cause people to direct folks to an understanding that we ought to love everyone in a sense. But, unfortunately, this has been overemphasized.
In the recent Presidential election, many evangelical leaders like those in TGC have become acutely aware of an evangelical backlash in America. It seems that people, Christians included, are overwhelmingly interested in themselves and their own people. On the contrary, most of them are opposed to helping people from other nations. That’s who these theologians and pastors have emphasized as being our neighbors. I have read articles, blogs, and Facebook posts by pastors and theologians who are flabbergasted at this sudden awareness of the ethos.
It ought not to come as a surprise that most Christians haven’t bought into the lie about neighbor. Most folks cannot articulate the problem they see with this post-modern deconstruction of neighbor, but they inherently understand that it’s a substitute for the real thing. What they cannot articulate they have done their best to promote by vote. And, the bad connection between the Church and its leaders has resulted in frustration rather than sanctification. The backlash against all of this is a resurgence of racism, a misunderstanding of kith and kin, a coercion of the majority, and even violence. Why? Because the Church has failed to teach people foundational neighbor love but rather unjustly mischaracterized it, condemned it, and substituted a confusing version for it.
We are at odds and on the brink of civil unrest because of that deconstruction.
Who is our neighbor?
It’s convenient that we have a record of Jesus’ definition of the word neighbor when it comes to the question of loving them. In Luke 10 Jesus was in conversation with an attorney who specialized in defining the Law of God, especially as it pertained to the Jews. He asked Jesus, as a kind of logical trap, what he could do to inherit eternal life. Jesus’ reply was what Greg Koukl would call the Colombo tactic. He asked him what the Law said. The lawyer quoted Deuteronomy 6:5 to love the Lord your God with all of yourself and your neighbor as yourself. Jesus told him that his answer was correct and told him to do those things and he would live.
Here’s the thing. The lawyer was smart enough to realize that he didn’t do those things perfectly. So, he asked Jesus to define neighbor so that he could find his loophole.
Jesus definition of neighbor
Jesus did so with the story of the good Samaritan. How? Jesus used geography to build, not tear down the common understanding of neighbor. He included racial or ethnic differences to build a proper understanding of homogeneity and tear down views of ethnic moral inequality. And, Jesus described true neighbor in a context rather than deconstructing it as a meaningless spiritual notion of world-wide love. Jesus rebuilt the man’s concept of neighbor to include immediate geography and cultural similarity while deconstructing his dogmatic and legalistic understanding. He also tore down the man’s probable ethnic subversion of who the term neighbor includes.
Some highlighted facts about what Jesus said and didn’t say
Now, this passage is used as a proof text for loving all of mankind. But, that’s not what Jesus said. People who use this text that way read into the text their own meaning. A rule of interpretation is to never make the text say something that it doesn’t say.
So, what does the text say about neighbor?
- The man who was robbed was likely from Jericho or Jerusalem (geography)
- The two apathetic men were described by their vocation (non-cultural and meaningless distinction)
- The Samaritan was also in the same geographic area (geographic unity)
- The travelers were probably ethnically different (truly disregards ethnicity)
- The true neighbor was the Samaritan (love parallels true neighbor)
What doesn’t the text say?
- The Samaritan was from another nation
- The Samaritan had no shared geographic context with the victim
- Geography and/or homogeneity are false categories when it comes to neighbor
- True understanding of neighbor must begin with heterogeneous “colluvies gentium” (swarms of people)
What has been the Southern view of this?
Southerners have understood this concept imperfectly for a few centuries. Yes, we have gotten some things wrong. But, the true Southern concept of neighbor has been closest to Jesus’ teaching than other sects of the United States. Historical Southern political determinations to Federalize or decentralize have been struggles at being better neighbors. That’s not how they have been caricatured. Often the Southern problem of slavery is used as a defeater to silence those who promote self-determination. But, Southerners have understood that to truly love your neighbor, you can’t neglect your true neighbor. If you hate the person closest to you, you are going to have a hard time truly loving someone across the planet. Southerners have the potential of teaching the rest of the US what a true neighbor is.
A historically diverse South
Southerners have also historically included ethnic and political diversity in their concept of neighbor. Even though Southerners saw the New England politics of abolition as an effort to subvert Southern states to New England rule, it doesn’t follow that Southerners weren’t concerned with loving their African neighbors. It also doesn’t follow that because the South was politically unified as its own nation for four years that the South is or has ever been politically monolithic. There is a great tradition in the South of a wealth of divergent political thought. Although there are political ideas that most Southerners consider essential to their liberty, room has always been given to disagreement.
Homogeny in the South
In fact even today most white Southerners consider African Americans who live in the South as true Southerners, despite what the status quo would have us believe. Southern African Americans often consider themselves part of Southern culture as well. Blacks and whites in the South share a great deal of patriotism and love for their Southern home. Their cultures share similarities, both religious and otherwise. Although, as I said earlier, some Southerners have bought into the caricature and began to live it out, many still live as their parents and grandparents have instructed. The South, and its various regional groups, is not a monolithic or a hate filled society. It is a diverse region with a generally similar culture, religion, and basic political principle of Federalism.
According to many pundits, Southern culture is nothing more than sweet tea, Bbq, and SEC football. That’s a shallow understanding of our people that originates in a moral superiority complex that still exists in the ideology of New England. Southern homogeny is complex and diverse but it is unified in its basic cultural principles like religion and mannerisms. A basic fiber of that cultural unity is the Cavalier attitude of Southerners as opposed to the ideology of many other sects in the US. The food and football is merely our gift to the rest of the country.
The imaginary divide
Political factions understand that any divide that exists must be exploited. They exploit the sin of the past and generate hate for the present. Their means is to supplant hate where there has been a true but imperfect sense of neighbor. They do that for the purpose of division. It’s profitable to do so and it keeps them in power. Southerners ought not listen to them.
So, as you consider politics, as you emanate your traditional views, discard the Lincolnian idea of “root hog or die”. Don’t live up to the caricature that the media and the political powers that be propagate. Be a true Southern. Live as a consistent Christian. Truly love your real neighbor. That’s one of the most Southern things you can do.
Were obedience to this insolent demand possible, the ulterior result would be to replace the impulses of the true, just and generous patriotism by the bonds of brute force and sordid self-interest, which feebly connect the parts of some huge, heterogeneous “colluvies gentium,” which is one only in name and in power of oppression. -RL Dabney on the global neighbor concept