Confronting racism and injustice: Why can’t we learn from history?

Confronting racism and injustice: Why can’t we learn from history? September 4, 2020

You may not be aware but the single issue that resulted in the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), which is the largest Protestant denomination in the US, was slavery. The southern churches wanted to be able to elect pro-slavery advocates to denominational posts and the northern churches would not allow it. So, the SBC was formed in 1845.

In 1995, on the 150th anniversary of the denomination, they issued a resolution at their annual meeting repenting of racism and slavery: “We lament and repudiate historic acts of evil such as slavery from which we continue to reap a bitter harvest, and we recognize that the racism which yet plagues our culture today is inextricably tied to the past.”

You may not be aware but the formation of the evangelical movement in the 1970’s was not formed around the issue of abortion, but the issue of segregation. Leaders of what came to be known as the evangelical movement were convinced that the Bible taught the separation of the races.

In 2008, Bob Jones University issued a formal apology for the University’s past racist convictions.

You may not be aware but during starting in the 1960’s the Republican Nation Convention had a racist political strategy that intentionally focused on white voters.

In 2010, Michael Steele, the chairman of the Republican Nation Convention, admitted, “For the last 40 plus years we had a ‘Southern Strategy’ that alienated many minority voters by focusing on the white male vote in the South.”[1]

We could recount episode after episode.

Today we look at the holocaust and are repulsed. Why didn’t we speak up earlier? The Germans have apologized and paid billions in reparations to the Jewish descendants of the holocaust victims.

Most Americans look at slavery and are repulsed. We are repulsed by the lynchings. We are repulsed by white only bathrooms.

We have said we’re sorry and paid reparations to the Japanese we interned during WWII.

We have said we’re sorry and paid reparations to the native Americans.

Paying reparations and saying you are sorry is all fine and dandy. But it doesn’t change the past.[1]

 It doesn’t restore those who were lynched or burned in concentration camps to their families. It didn’t restore native Americans to their lands. It doesn’t make up for the years that were lost. It doesn’t erase the memories that torture the survivors. It does pave a way forward, of course. It does help us begin to right wrongs.

The beauty of the Christian gospel is that Jesus offers us forgiveness. Though that forgiveness comes at the cost of the Cross.

That forgiveness, however, does not allow us to move on without making substantive changes. Merely, asking for forgiveness and paying reparations may be an important step in the healing process, but it does nothing unless change accompanies it.

I would like to ask the question: What if we brought change before it came to all this? What if stopped and learned from history and began to ask ourselves, “What is it that we are doing now that in 40-50 years we will be repulsed by? What we will be asking for forgiveness and paying reparations for?

Why don’t we learn from the past and change the present?!!

Though I am sure there are many more reasons than the two I will list here. I suppose that the answers to this question include: because we don’t want to; and because we don’t want to admit that we are wrong.

We don’t want to: especially when we are the benefactors of the present system

Why should we change the present, when we like things the way they are? Let’s face

It is easy to admit that slavery was wrong back then because the system does not exist today.[2] Because no one is directly benefitting from the system of slavery in America today, most people are able and willing to step back and say, “that was repulsive.”

Because there is no fear of Nazi’s raiding your home for hiding a Jew today, we can look at the holocaust and say that was repulsive.

We don’t want to: if we are forced to admit we are wrong

Because no one is practicing the institution of racial slavery in the US today, no one has to step back and say, “I’m sorry this is wrong.”[3]

Instead, we can all admit it was wrong and there is no sweat off our backs. We didn’t practice slavery. In fact, most of us would probably say, “yeah, I would never have done that!”

Not only do we acknowledge its wrongness, but we distance ourselves from those who practiced it by declaring, “I would never have done that.”

It is easy to say our predecessors or our ancestors were wrong!

Why don’t we look around and evaluate the present by learning from the past?

The problem is that wrongs that are being done today do not fit either of these categories.

If I am benefitting from something, I have the motivation to keep it going. That motivation needs justification. So, I search for justification until I find it.

Today we look at the arguments put forth to justify slavery and we are flabbergasted that anyone would believe such! But, folks, most people in the south believed it! Most preachers advocated for it.

And we do not need to go back 150 years to find preachers using the Bible to justify hate and oppression. Many preachers advocated for segregation in 1960-70’s.

That was not that long ago. Of course, it was long enough ago that most, if not all, of those preachers have passed. So, today we can all say segregation was wrong

But I don’t have to admit that I was wrong, because I never affirmed it.

The point then is we must be willing to open our eyes and see if such injustices are occurring in our world now and then speak up! Even if that means I was wrong! Even if it means that I must surrender may advantages.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that the SBC apologized for its racial history, in 2017 a resolution was drafted by Dwight McKissic a prominent southern pastor titled “Resolution on the Condemnation of the ‘Alt-Right’ Movement and the Roots of White Supremacy.” McKissic figured it was a no-brainer and that it would pass without much difficulty. Yet, the resolution failed!

The SBC said it failed because the language was too highly charged. But they have passed other resolutions with highly charged language. Let’s just hope it didn’t fail because they were afraid.

What does all this mean?

It means that I am imploring us all to take a step back and, as much as is possible, see if there are things we are missing. The problem with issues these days is that people are immersed in their narratives and seldom take the time to see the narratives of others.

Some resources on justices issues that have been very impactful for me recently are:

Unsettling Truths

The Color of Compromise

Netflix “13th

Beyond Hashtag Activism

Just Mercy (the book is way better than the movie)

The Other Side of the Wall


[1] Tisby, Jemar. The Color of Compromise (p. 158). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

[1] though it should be noted that the US has never paid reparations to African American descendants of slavery

[2] I fully agree that though “slavery” does not exist, the system is just as bad or worse for some African Americans. See below. Also, see: Slavery by another name, by Douglas Blackmon.

[3] It cannot go unnoticed that there are more slaves in the world today, than at any point in history. Now, this may be a statistic that is population dependent, but does that really matter. Most of those in slavery today are for the purpose sex trafficking.

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