A Peacemaking Series: Reflections, Confessions, and Confrontations # 6 – “We the People”: Coming to terms with our common history and injustice
“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana
Let’s think a bit about some issues related to history:
The content of history: “Psychology keeps trying to vindicate human nature. History keeps undermining the effort.” Mason Cooley
History is messier than we remember, more complex than we wish, and harder to understand than we care to admit. That’s because it is about the words and actions of fallen human beings, fallen societies and cultures, and is written and later interpreted by fallen historians. From the beginning history has been about the good and the bad, with the bad taking up most of the ink. It is about the intrigues, the conspiracies, the plots, the battles and the wars, the betrayals, and the failures of humans that fascinate us so much. Sure, we celebrate and record the discoveries, the inventions, and the creativity of people; we write about the successes, we record the inspiring words, and we admire the overcomers. We do celebrate the positives of history, but we do so precisely because we know the world is broken, humans are violent, and injustice too often prevails. Those positives inspire because they arise out of our fallen human condition.
One aspect of our fallen human condition is the tendency to create an “us” versus “them” dichotomy. In some ways this is the only way a family, tribe, clan, people, or nation can survive when threatened. It is the only way wars can be fought in order to be won. It also means that history is full of examples of violence, injustice, and oppression of one group by another. Individuals, clans, peoples, races, religious groups, and nations have always looked for and easily found others they considered inferior, subservient, and blameworthy. The resultant exploitation, injustice, and oppression are then justified through the oppressing group’s philosophy, religion, and perceived cultural superiority, or by simple economic necessity, pragmatic considerations, and superior might and strength.
But then history happens: Cultural, philosophical, religious, and political tides change. People rise up in protest. The status quo is questioned and challenged. The structures of power are in new hands. Things begin to change. Hopefully, Biblical principles of peace and justice start to prevail. Perhaps there are fewer instances of racism, injustice, and oppression, but progress is still needed. Even as things change, there is always the challenge of how to deal with the real and perceived record of injustice.
Do we have in the United States a record of injustice? The answer is “yes.” (But see below!).
The interpretation of history:“The very ink with which history is written is merely fluid prejudice.” Mark Twain
Having stated “yes” to our record of injustice, I know some feel the need to object. Let me qualify my answer and make clear what saying “yes” means and doesn’t mean:
It does not mean the entirety of our history is oppressive, unjust, and shameful or that all people actively participated in oppression and injustice. It means there are aspects of our history, and significant periods of our history, that were unjust. These injustices did affect cultural norms, societal structures, and common worldviews.
It does not mean the ideals upon which this country was founded are wrong. The great majority of Americans value our founding ideals of freedom, of equality, of opportunity, and of fair representative government. It is just that it has taken us a couple of centuries to learn how to really practice these . . . and we are still learning. In fact, it is because we were founded on these ideals that we can and should confront our mixed history. It is worth it!
Consequently, it does mean we have to be brutally and painfully honest about our failures. It means we often have to go back and revisit, restudy, and re-evaluate history. Does this involve some “revisionist” history? Certainly, and that is not always bad. Negatively, revisionist history can mean the negation or minimizing of facts and events (there’s one debate). Positively, revisionist history can mean the re-interpretation of facts and events in light of new information (and there is another debate), and we gain new insights and information all the time. The problem is that most of us don’t know enough history to be good interpreters. We hold tenaciously to our preferred version of history regardless of new information and appreciate revisionist history only when it confirms our presuppositions. We are all guilty of this to some degree, because interpretation of history is difficult and a never ending process.
Therefore, saying “yes” also means we have to do the hard work at discovering when and how our history has been one of injustice. This, too, is difficult. It requires a lot of information, listening to others whose experience is quite different from ours, listening to those who have been left out of history, and allowing our preconceived notions about the way things have “always been” to be challenged. This process is controversial, full of disagreements, painful and hard to do without becoming defensive, offensive, and offended. However, once we have identified and agreed to the reality of past injustices, what should be done about it?
The debt of history: “There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.” Harry S Truman
One of the first issues to settle is whether there is a debt owed for past injustices. This is tricky, primarily because there are a couple of extremes to avoid. One extreme is to believe that history doesn’t matter. This view says, “What is past is past. What was done is not my personal responsibility. I didn’t do it, so I shouldn’t have to pay for it.” This viewpoint refuses to acknowledge any debt in history, or at least refuses to accept any responsibility for the debt of history. This attitude, however, contradicts both Biblical principles and common sense. There are ample examples in Scripture of subsequent generations suffering the consequences (both divine and otherwise) for the sinful actions and attitudes of their forefathers. There are also ample examples of those subsequent generations enjoying the benefits of the right actions of their fathers. This is also plain commonsense, otherwise why would we care about our decisions now? Why do we fret over the condition of our nation, our communities, and our marriages and families if we did not believe future generations would be affected positively or negatively? Bottom line, there are in fact those who are victims of our history and the actions (or non-action) of our forefathers.
The other extreme some take is that history is all that matters. This is a deterministic view which considers human beings as only or at least primarily the product of the past, whether it is personal or corporate history. This is the view Jesus contradicted in John 9:2 when he told the disciples that the blind man was not born that way because of his or his parents’ sins. Similarly, that the Corinthians were not prisoners of their past is what Paul was emphasizing in 1 Cor. 6:11 to those who had been freed from the chains of their history. Bottom line, there are those who are, to a significant degree, products of circumstances and history; they are in fact victims of the sins of others, but they do not have to ultimately despair and get trapped by the lie of hopeless victimization.
So how do we address the debt of unjust history? More specifically, how do I, who am for the most part one of the beneficiaries of American history (privileged?) be a peacemaker? How do I deal with the consequences of a mixed history? It would take multiple volumes to address all the particulars, but some principles to consider:
1. The first step in peacemaking is to listen and learn. This sounds trite and clichéd, but it is so true in peacemaking efforts. I must read history, including different viewpoints of history. I must listen to the personal history of others. To add to the clichés, I must “walk a mile” in their shoes, try get into their skin and see the world through their eyes. I must be willing to be challenged, be uncomfortable, and have all my presuppositions questioned. I must be comfortable with controversial history, because “history is debate, history is discussion, history is a conversation . . . ‘history that is not controversial is dead history’.
2. The second step in peacemaking is old fashioned confession and possible restitution, with the first being a whole lot easier than the second. Once more, some object to confessing to or apologizing for the deeds of our predecessors, but yet again, there are Biblical examples and commonsense reasons to do so. Let’s admit it, get it out in the open, and start the conversation. Moreover, let’s make sure we are talking about the same things! Too often we are talking to each other and not with each other. There has to be acknowledgement of sin, and it may be on many sides, if there is going to be progress toward justice and peacemaking. Restitution is much harder. How can and should restitution be made and how long should it go on? Is forty acres and a mule enough? Is affirmative action enough or not enough? Has it gone on too long or not long enough? How far can any legislation go in overturning centuries of special privilege, cultural advantages, and ingrained attitudes? More challenging is the fact that in our fallen world when one injustice is addressed and corrected it often results in another injustice for someone else. Consequently, am I willing to suffer a minor injustice if it will help resolve a greater one? Am I willing to surrender some of my rights and privileges if it will contribute to peacemaking?
3. The third step in peacemaking involves us all. Forgiveness must be asked for and given. On one level this will be done vicariously: one group confessing and asking for forgiveness on behalf of their ancestors and another group granting forgiveness on behalf of theirs. Much harder is the asking for and granting forgiveness for current and ongoing/continuing injustice, prejudice, and unfairness. I have to ask the hard question, “How am I and the institutions, organizations, and groups I am part of contributing to the continuation of prejudice and injustice?” Those affected by my contribution to injustice have to lovingly and firmly confront me about it, allow me the opportunity to confess and ask forgiveness, and then grant forgiveness.
4. That leads to the final step in peacemaking – we need a whole lot of grace, patience, and servant actions. The consequences of centuries of racism, prejudice, bias, injustice, and oppression will not be erased in even a few decades. Actually, it is something we will be dealing with until the end of time! Understand, there are no innocent bystanders in history. Some have been the perpetrators of injustice. Some have been the victims of injustice. Some have stood by and seen it all happen. But all of us have the responsibility to respond with grace, patience, and servant actions for that is the way of peacemaking.
There is so much more that can be said about history, injustice, racism, culture, and the need for peacemaking. I have only scratched the surface in these six posts. I am sure I don’t have it all figured out, I don’t understand it all, and I certainly don’t have that many answers. What I am sure of is that I have to continually go back to Scripture to examine and evaluate my own heart, the events of history, and possible steps for moving forward. Some may accuse me of being an idealist, but I try to be a Biblical realist. That is, I am convinced that only the Bible presents reality as it truly is, reality as it will be, and the ultimate solutions to the fallen reality we live in. And since it is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I might as well borrow from Martin Luther and say, “hier stehe ich ich kann nicht anders.”
A Peacemaking Series: Reflections, Confessions, and Confrontations
Terry Coy -- husband, father, grandfather. Trying to figure it out while on the journey with Jesus.