What We Didn’t Learn in School (Is Coming Back to Bite Us)

I can’t remember when I first learned about Juneteenth but it wasn’t in (my very good) public schools or even in college.  It’s been mentioned in the past years and especially in the past weeks that we who are White need to educate ourselves on everything from microaggressions to the Massacre of Black Wall Street in Tulsa in 1921.

Most White people do not know the history of:

  • Lynchings in our own cities’ history.  (And not just in the Southeastern United States.)
  • The Doctrine of Discovery (You can’t discover what someone’s already discovered and established as their home.)
  • The origins of White Supremacy in the United States. (The first enslaved people landed in Virginia in 1619. An enslaved person was considered 3/5ths of a human being. 40 of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence owned slaves.  10 of the first 12 Presidents owned slaves.
  • The campaign to create a post-Civil War mythology. (Gone With the Wind. Confederate Statues. The lionization of Robert E. Lee.)

We have a lot of reading and listening and watching to do if we care about – not only our own education in U.S. History but also – what the Bible teaches us about loving our neighbor as ourselves and loving God.

And we have a lifetime of confession and repair to make.  Once we know our own history, we cannot act as if we don’t know it.

You might remember that when the television show Finding Your Roots disclosed to Ben Affleck that his ancestors included a slaveholder, Affleck was so embarrassed that he caused the PBS show to be taken off the air – temporarily.  Nobody likes to find embarrassing or shameful history in their past.  We – especially those of us who are White in America – like to believe that our ancestors were noble and our heritage was honorable.  It reflects well on us.

We who believe in the God of grace must face the fact that we need that grace – personally, corporately, historically.

Over the weekend, the 224th General Assembly of my denomination – the Presbyterian Church USA – elected Co-Moderators whose ancestors’ blood is in the soil on which we stand.  Rev. Gregory Bentley is an African American pastor serving a congregation in Alabama.  Elder Elona Street-Stewart is a Mid-Council executive in Minnesota and a descendant of the Native American Delaware Nanticoke Tribe.  For the first time in my denomination’s history, we have elected two Co-Moderators who represent a breadth of history we in the Church have often ignored.  We need to learn what we never learned in school – or even in Sunday School – about who we are and who God is.

Although God has created human beings to be a servant people who love the foreigner, the poor, the orphaned, the cast out, we are currently – and historically – self-serving, cruel, and greedy.  This means we need God’s grace.  We cannot be the people we’ve been created to be without it.

We need to know our history and repent.  The Bible tells me so.

For every school we Christians established, for every hospital we chartered, for every good thing we ever accomplished to the glory of God, there are ugly chapters of our history too.  Many times we have been self-serving, cruel, and greedy, for nobody’s glory but our own.

We can do better.  The blessings of these tumultuous days is that with the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, with the President’s rally in Tulsa, with the attention to violence upon peaceful protesters we have opportunities to learn the backstories and the history that has brought us to this point.

We Presbyterians pride ourselves in valuing education.  We have much to learn.

Image source.


6 responses to “What We Didn’t Learn in School (Is Coming Back to Bite Us)

  1. Sally Herlong

    Thanks, Jan.


  2. DIANNE veenstra

    Yes, our white history is embarrassing when we dig into the truth of what we have done to limit others. We truly need to repent and start anew to love everyone.


  3. When I was a child in the 60s, my Sunday School teacher, the pastor’s daughter, taught our class about sundown laws and told us that our small town had such a law still on the books. I went home and told my parents who said that was true.

    They also told me that the feed and seed store where my dad had an account for all of his farm supplies would not sell to our friend, Mr. Price, a Negro (their descriptor) on credit. My dad had all of Mr. Price’s farm supplies put on his account, but that meant that everything had to be delivered to our farm yard because the store would only deliver to the address on the account. My dad and Mr. Price, who had one arm, reloaded everything from our yard and hauled it a couple of miles down the road to Mr. Price’s farm.

    One day, when taking some friends into the big city to shop, we stopped to see Mr. and Mrs. Price at their home on the westside of the big city, probably to drop off something. My friend’s mother was sitting in the backseat with me and my friend. She leaned over and whispered to me, “your parents know colored people?” Yes. I could see she was not pleased but I couldn’t figure out why.


  4. I wrote a reply early this morning and when I clicked to post it, I was asked to log in. I logged in. But I don’t see my comment. I don’t understand how this works. Does my comment have to be moderated and then accepted or rejected? thanks.


  5. So this morning I said that Ben Affleck must not be much of a Calvinist if he’s so embarrassed that one of his ancestors had slaves. One benefit of the old Total Depravity idea is that we have no illusions about our own righteousness. I wonder how much of a reaction like that comes from an expectation that we can keep our hands clean, that we are tainted by association, that there are good people and bad people, the growing intolerance for mistakes, the perfectionist tendencies growing everywhere, binary thinking. While working for change, we still need to treat others and ourselves with grace.
    My great-great-grandfather had slaves, as did his father and grandfather as far as I know. So I consider that we are bound by our history, that we will not be free of one another until we come to terms with, repent of, make amends for the oppression of the past and the continuing bigotry and bias of the present.
    I was raised in Atlanta in the 50s and 60s and absorbed the racism of my father’s horrible jokes and the paternalistic attitudes of liberal whites. I continue to unlearn, learn, shed my skin, seek understanding, listen through the years.
    Embarrassed? No. Sorrowful, repentant, hopeful for a better way – yes.


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