In the late 1990’s my dad was given 6 months to live. He ultimately lived 6 more years. In our frequent trips up there early in that period, I came to know someone different than the father I held on a very high pedestal. Granted, some of it was an outcome of pain, drugs, and growing senility. However, I also came to appreciate that some of it was inherent to his character, an aspect of which was hidden from me growing up. He was a product of his generation and of his history that meant he was less than the ideal man I worked to model myself after. As harsh as this is to admit, at first I lost much of my respect for him. Then over time I came to appreciate, and love in a deeper way, him as a human, glorious and flawed both at the same time. And in doing, I came to better appreciate myself as a product of that wonderful, broken man.
Owning the truth has meant that I could see in new ways that I AM modeling myself after him, including in ways that I find reprehensible. And it has meant I could begin a process of change so that I can accentuate the positive and work to reform the negative. Sometimes this may even mean working to make restoration or reparation to those my dad hurt, directly or by proxy, even as I also strive to continue to help those my dad helped, directly or by proxy.
Not owning the truth and keeping my dad on a pedestal would mean having the sins of the father visited on his children and his children’s children. For even when those sins were hidden from sight to me as I grew up in his household, I have embedded some of those awful things into my own practices, and risk embedding them into my sons’ practices.
A couple of days ago we celebrated our nation’s declaration of independence. Listening to NPR read the declaration last Monday, it caught my attention like no time before that Jefferson used the term savages instead of Indians in the document. Just a few minutes later, still before getting out of bed, I read this article by Mark Charles, a Native American, in Red Letter Christians, calling to account a more realistic rendering of our founding by in part noting the use of that word, savages. A friend forwarded me another article considering the historical context of the declaration and reflecting on how the inciting of not only “savages” but also a “domestic insurrection” — translation, slave revolts — as the final and perhaps most urgent of accusations against King George.
Owning the truth of the United States of America’s history is to work to unveil not only the good, but the evil, that is part of this glorious, flawed human endeavor. Doing so is not an indication of appreciating the bountiful strengths of this country any less. Rather, it is to recognize that the sins of the “forefathers” will be revisited on generation after generation if we do not own that truth — and if we do not use that new knowledge to begin to reform our systems, structures, and practices, and to make restoration and reparation.
Our nation was founded by white men in ways that ultimate privileged white men over others. If we do not own that truth, #alllivesmatter equals #whitemalelivesmattermore, and really just some white male lives at that.
For me, this is an integral part of my faith walk (I appreciate Stephen Mattson’s piece in Sojourners on this, and I also laid out some of my thoughts on this in a recent sermon I gave). It is an essential part of bringing about shalom justice, of working to be part of God’s work which we pray for, that “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” But I also stand side-by-side with people from all faiths and non-faiths, as this is something that transcends any one creed.
Our nation has done better at times, and indeed perhaps even in the horror of yet another shooting of a black man, Alton Sterling, by police officers last night, we can believe Martin Luther King, Jr., that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” But today it is hard to see to the glorious parts of our nation as we watch an entrenchment of the income inequality that has risen in every state in our union since the 1970’s. When our drones have killed some 2400 civilians in the past five years. When a congressional candidate is putting up billboards with the campaign slogan “Make America White Again”. When business and government get rich through educational funding in which students have racked up $1.3 trillion in debt. When a new Jim Crow uses the prison system to disenfranchise more African American men than in 1870 when the 15th amendment was ratified prohibiting laws explicitly using race as a reason to keep people from voting. This list goes on.
Owning the truth is hard. Entering into the work of reformation and restoration is even harder. There isn’t a single piece of technology that can make this process easy. It is a social work that requires a willingness to sacrifice some of our time, and ultimately our privilege. But not entering into this work whatever the sacrifice means we are each culpable in every act of death and dehumanization as the sins of our fathers continue to carry forward.