Some years ago, before the word “woke” was so widely used, a student asked me in class “Are you woke?” I had never heard the expression before. Puzzled, I asked “Are you asking whether I’m awake? I try to be.” He said no, that wasn’t what he meant. “Then are you asking whether I’m enlightened?” No, it wasn’t that either.
We had been reading Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address. Apparently my student thought I might be woke because I took Lincoln’s idea of collective responsibility for the sin of slavery seriously. For as I eventually found out, wokists too believe in collective responsibility – but not the way Lincoln did. My student didn’t grasp the difference, and so I was confusing him.
Was responsibility for the sin of slavery shared? According to Lincoln, yes. But Lincoln didn’t say, as wokeists do, that Southerners or white people were collectively responsible, even if they didn’t own slaves. And he was far from saying that another eightscore years later, the descendants of white immigrants would be collectively responsible, even if their ancestors hadn’t been in the country at the time. No, he said that the whole nation was collectively responsible, everyone, because no matter what their divisions might be, Americans composed a single moral community.
That’s why he rejected the view of people like Julia Ward Howe that the terrible swift sword of the Civil War was God’s way of punishing the South. He thought the War was God’s way of punishing both sides for complicity in the sin of slavery, using each side to chastise the other.
Was repentance for the sin of slavery necessary? According to Lincoln, yes. But Lincoln didn’t say, as wokeists do, that some Americans needed to repent. He thought all Americans needed to repent. No group had the right to be self-righteous, to point fingers, or to demand punitive reparations from the others. Instead, repentant former sinners, both North and South, needed to come together to bind up the nation’s wounds.
The calamity of Lincoln’s assassination still burdens us. Had Reconstruction gone his way instead of the way it did, by now the nation might have been healed of racial divisions. Wokism can only tear us apart, but it’s not too late to start thinking about collective responsibility in Lincoln’s way.
It was, by the way, a profoundly Christian way, even though Lincoln’s personal religious views are somewhat obscure. From this point of view, wokism, despite its neopagan connections, might even be viewed as a sort of Christian heresy. In Adam, all humans fell. Just because we are all of one kind, we all share in some fashion in the shame of his sin, and we all stand at the doorway to other sin. But in Christ, all sins are atoned. He took our sins upon Himself. We don’t have to project them onto each other.
Justice must always be done, certainly. Yet also mercy and humility.
This article is republished with permission from The Underground Thomist