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Remembering our history: The Bible, injustice, and race#17; Justice#41

Remembering our history: The Bible, injustice, and race#17; Justice#41 November 23, 2021

Spanish philosopher George Santayana famously said, “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Every country has a history that needs to be remembered lest it be repeated.

Rwanda demands that its people never forget the massacre led by Hutu extremists.

Germany is committed to remembering the evils of the Holocaust.

Systemic Racism?

This is my 17th post on racism (I’ll finish this series next week). Though there is always more that can be said, I hope by now that I have made the case: systemic racism is alive and well in our country. And even if we were to eradicate it in all manner of ways, the effects of our racist past may well last decades and even into the next century.

Sure, we may disagree on the degree to which it is present. But we cannot, we must not deny the reality of it.

If we fail to acknowledge it, to remember it, we may not only be doomed to repeat it, but we eliminate our opportunity to repent and find forgiveness and the hope of setting a new course.

Remembering our racist past

Unfortunately, the US has a deeply racist past.

I noted in an earlier post that the second act of the newly formed US Congress in 1790 declared that “all men are created equal” applied only to “all White men”—not even White women.

Racism, unfortunately, was built into the system from the beginning.

And we enslaved millions.

Then, after we emancipated them, we imposed new systems of “slavery” upon them: peonage and convict leasing (see my earlier post).

Then we enacted a series of Jim Crow laws. We lynched them. We burned down their prospering cities. We shamed them with “colored only” facilities and “whites only” theme parks. We barred them from gas stations, hotels, and restaurants (see earlier post and this earlier post).

When the housing boom began and the means of acquiring capital through buying one’s own home became prevalent, we redlined their communities and denied them access to federal funding (see my earlier post) and better schools (see my earlier post)

When the civil rights legislation began to open opportunities for advancement, we declared a “war on drugs” and began to incarcerate people of color at rates far exceeding that of Whites. (see my earlier post)

What happened?

We forgot. We forgot that we had done this before.

America and the Indigenous People

Let us be reminded of our treatment of the indigenous peoples of this land.[1] (And this is to say nothing of the Japanese internment camps; or the Chinese labor that we imported to build the railroads; or our treatment of immigrants throughout our history; e.g., the Irish).

Not only did we decimate most of the Indigenous tribes over the early years, we then forced those who did survive onto less-than-ideal lands (“reservations”): after all, the ideal lands were for the new White settlers.

We signed treaties with the Indigenous tribes and agreed to “grant” them these less-than-ideal lands. Then, when we learned that said lands were richer in energy resources than our government realized, we reneged on those treaties and confiscated their lands and granted them even more less-than-ideal lands.

One of the more famous examples is how we broke the Treaty of Ft Laramie:

“In 1868, the United States entered into the treaty with a collective of Native American bands historically known as the Sioux (Dakota, Lakota and Nakota) and Arapaho. The treaty established the Great Sioux Reservation, a large swath of lands west of the Missouri River. It also designated the Black Hills as “unceded Indian Territory” for the exclusive use of native peoples. But when gold was found in the Black Hills, the United States reneged on the agreement, redrawing the boundaries of the treaty, and confining the Sioux people—traditionally nomadic hunters—to a farming lifestyle on the reservation.”[2]

Remembering leads to repentance. Repentance can then lead to forgiveness. Forgiveness can lead to healing.

Why beat this drum in one more post? Because the Christian gospel begins with repentance. And repentance demands that we remember our history so that we may turn from our sins. Only then may we seek forgiveness. And forgiveness can bring healing.

Then, perhaps, we can begin to pave a way forward in which all persons really are equal.

Haddon Willmer, in “The Politics of Forgiveness,” notes,

White Americans . . . [must] claim the history of slavery as their history, rather than simply an unfortunate event that can now be forgotten. In effect we are trying to say to the American black community that now that blacks have allegedly the same opportunities as whites, slavery can be forgotten, for after all what is a little slavery between friends. In the face of what cannot be changed, we often think the only thing we can do is forget, but when we forget we lose our own history. What is required is forgiveness, but for forgiveness to work politically we must be the kind of people capable of making another people’s history our own.”[3]

NB: When one seeks forgiveness, one empowers the victim who may then extend forgiveness and bring healing and restoration.

Right to life?

The evangelical world has become all too well known for its vigorous defense for the “right to life.”[4]

But what about those already born? Do they not have a right to a life of hope and equity like those around them?

If we are advocates for the right to life, should we not also advocate for a quality of life that all persons should have as a basic right?

What about the child that has little hope for a bright future because their educational opportunities are significantly limited?

What about the kids growing up in abject poverty?

Do we suddenly cease to care once the unborn becomes the born?

A Charge to Evangelicals

I wish to issue a call—a charge if you may—to my evangelical kin: Let us open our hearts to the reality of our country’s racist history and its lasting effects that we may repent, seek forgiveness, and find healing and restoration.

We must not end there either. We must also become advocates for change.

What sort of changes? (This is well beyond my pay grade) It seems to me that a good place to start would be to rectify the inequality in our school systems.

Before we can change the system we need to change our hearts

I do not intend to suggest that societal transformation will ensue simply because we become advocates for change. As Stanley Hauerwas states,

For the church to adopt social strategies in the name of securing justice in such a social order is only to compound the problem. Rather the church must recognize that her first social task in any society is to be herself.”[5]

The solution is not merely to change the system.

We must also seek to change our hearts. We can only do this when the Church becomes the church again.

It is this topic that I will turn to in my next series of posts.

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[1] For more information see:   https://www.cmich.edu/library/clarke/ResearchResources/Native_American_Material/Treaty_Rights/Pages/New-Section—The-Land.aspx#removal

[2] https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/1868-two-nations-made-treaty-us-broke-it-and-plains-indian-tribes-are-still-seeking-justice-180970741/.

[3] Haddon Willmer, “The Politics of Forgiveness—A New Dynamic,” The Furrow, 30/4 (April 19, 1979), pp. 207–218. Cited in Hauerwas, Stanley. A Community of Character (p. 381). University of Notre Dame Press. Kindle Edition.

[4] I intend to write on this in the upcoming months. I am not convinced that we are approaching this issue in the right manner either.

[5] Hauerwas, Stanley. A Community of Character (p. 136). University of Notre Dame Press. Kindle Edition.


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