Before Black History Month ends, I want to say a few words, within the context of religious history, about the value of history itself in understanding not just where we came from but where we are today.
To do that, I will draw on this Atlantic piece and on some words from author Isabel Wilkerson (Caste; The Warmth of Other Suns) I heard when she spoke to a large virtual group brought together recently by the Kansas City, Kansas, Public Library.
Both Vann R. Newkirk II, of The Atlantic, and Wilkerson make the historical point that the U.S. was not truly a democracy until passage of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) in 1965, one year before I was old enough to vote (you had to be 21 then).
"Democracy," Newkirk writes, "is central to America’s idea of itself, but that idea had never been a reality until the VRA."
Newkirk's piece is formed as a letter to his late mother, and in it he talks about Barack Obama's 2008 election as president, saying to her, "You were 44, born dispossessed and disenfranchised in a county where only 250 Black adults out of more than 13,000 were registered to vote (in 1964 in Greenwood, Miss.)"
It's a reminder that the end of slavery in 1865 did not magically make things equal between Blacks and whites. Nor did the Reconstruction, which ended up failing miserably. After which we entered the period of Jim Crow laws, then the "separate-but-equal" time and, eventually, in response to all of this racial failure, the Civil Rights Movement.
In an analogous way, Christians should understand that their faith tradition, almost from its beginning, preached a virulent, pernicious anti-Judaism, which eventually nurtured modern antisemitism. My essay about all of that is here. It's been only since the mid-1960s that the Catholic Church, for instance, officially announced, in a Vatican II document called Nostra Aetate, that Jews should not be blamed for the death of Christ.
Christians who deny that the Holocaust, the Ku Klux Klan and other wretched chapters are part of their own faith tradition's history bury the truth -- just as Muslims who deny that al-Qaida, ISIS and other terrorist groups came out of a distortion of traditional Islam aren't being historically accurate or responsible.
If Christians and Muslims don't get that history, they don't get who they have been and who they are.
Which is a point Wilkerson made in reference to American society and its racial history.
"We need to know our country's history," she said. "There needs to be an airing out of exactly what has happened to this country to get us to where we are." She noted that in recent years she's heard people say "something along the lines of 'I don't recognize my country' or 'This is not the country I know' or 'This is not what America stands for.'
"And what that says is that not enough of us know our country's history."
If you don't know history, she said, "you won't be able to fix what's wrong." And that, she said, "is why I'm calling for a true, deep, meaningful truth and reconciliation commission" similar to the one that operated in South Africa after the end of the racial segregation policy known there as apartheid. The idea, she said, is to repair and rebuild what's been broken.
But if, for instance, Americans don't know -- or deny -- that we didn't have a full democracy until 1965, they won't grasp what to do now that racial issues have come back to the surface amid all kinds of efforts at voter suppression.
The world's great religions teach the importance of truth-telling. But that's clearly a hard-to-learn lesson in a nation that was rooted in the sick idea of white supremacy, an ideology that seems unwilling to die, as evidenced by, among many other things, the 1/6 terrorist attack on the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. Still, voices of faith must continue to proclaim the high value of truth -- and of reconciliation once truth is acknowledged and there's a willingness to repent and make repairs.
By the way, the last chapter of my new book, Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety, is devoted to what we can do to stand against extremism, whether its source is racial, religious or something else. I commend it to you.
(P.S.: It's not that there aren't good-faith arguments and legitimate disagreements to be had about American history and how to interpret it, but Sen. Josh Hawley [R-Mo.], one of my senators, I regret to say, has taken absolutely the wrong approach to all of this, as evidenced by his CPAC speech this weekend.)
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WHY THE UNITED METHODISTS STILL ARE UNITED
The United Methodist Church, which has been on the edge of schism for several years, is finding that breaking up is hard to do. Originally the church's international governing body was to meet last May to decide on how to divide the denomination, but the Covid pandemic caused that meeting to be moved to this August. However, that's now been bumped back a year to 2022. The core of the internal disagreement has to do with how to read scripture that talks about LGBTQ+ folks. There is almost no such scripture, but what there is has been regularly misread to keep gays and lesbians second-class citizens, meaning they can't be ordained to ministry. What does the Bible really say about all of this? My essay on that subject can be found here. Many UMC churches in the U.S. are simply moving in the direction they'll take once schism is final, but there still are details to be worked out. It's a frustrating time in the denomination. Hug a Methodist today.