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.