The Spiritual Challenge of Our Past

21 Feb

The United States faces deep spiritual challenges in acknowledging and coming to terms with its past, specifically with evils that are embedded in its history, and with understanding how the past affects our present. These challenges go to the very heart of it means to be American. Since the churches are called to be communities of God’s Spirit, they have a role in the spiritual life of the societies in which they live and as such can point to what ails or heals the spirit of our common life. While much commentary on society proceeds from political, sociological, and economic perspectives, I want to focus on these spiritual concerns.

Coming to terms with past history: one might think that history just happens, fades into the past, and that’s that. “The past is never dead. It’s not even past”, as William Faulkner wrote in his 1951 novel, Requiem for a Nun. Much of world literature, across cultures, is preoccupied with the passage of generations. The psychology that is exemplified by the towering work of Sigmund Freud, has attempted to transform this passage into both science and therapy. We understand a great deal about how individuals must come to terms with their past, since that past never goes away, but lives on, possibly to the detriment of our lives. Pastors are accustomed to helping people navigate their personal spiritual journeys.

We understand much less about the ways the past plays a role in society’s life. Sometimes we hold societies accountable–some would say when we defeat them in war: Germany twice in the twentieth century, at Versailles and Nuremberg, Japan under Douglas MacArthur. But notions like “corporate sin” and “corporate guilt” are hotly disputed. I am concerned with this corporate or societal struggle with the past.

Many nations have great evils in their past that continue into their present: Japan in its treatment of South Koreans and Taiwanese during the Second World War, Germany in its anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, Turkey in its genocidal acts against the Armenians, beginning in 1915. Of these nations, only Germany has willingly acknowledged its historical evils and tried to come to terms with them. Turkey and Japan will not even allow factual accounts to appear in their schoolbooks. Germany continues to be plagued by neo-Nazi groups

In the United States, we also suffer from historical amnesia and denial–not driven by governmental policy, as in Japan and Turkey, but bottom-up from the grassroots, planted in the ethos of white people and in the cultural systems they have put in place. I call attention here to the particular evils attending the treatment of African-Americans, Native American Indians, and Japanese-Americans during World War II, because we confront in our history a disturbing recurring trait, not just a series of painful missteps.

I start with an anecdote from my own city. In 2013, the mayor and the school board in Chicago closed fifty public schools. Most of these schools were in African-American neighborhoods, thirty-seven of them in a relative narrow strip on the the South Side. The prevailing interpretation is that these were underperforming schools closed in the interest of improving educational standards. Any suggestion that racism was involved is met with denial and even anger. A friend said to me, “Nothing makes me madder than hearing that these closings involve racism.”

I cite this anecdote to make the point that we tend to be blind about the ways in which the past shapes and deforms our lives today. I will generalize this anecdote to say that it represents a basic American denial of the evil in our past.

Let me explain: for a century, Chicago has ghettoized African-Americans, manipulated this segment of the population and discriminated against them in terms of employment and housing. In the 1950s, Chicago built a string of public housing high-rises in a strip that was only a few blocks wide, but nearly ten miles long from north to south. The notorious Robert Taylor and Cabrini-Green Homes–thirty buildings, each housing approximately 1,000 residents–were located in this strip. African-Americans comprised the overwhelming proportion of residents. Politically, this was a shrewd move, because it confined the African-Americans to a small number of wards, thus reducing drastically their voting power in the city council and in the state legislature. Through astute manipulation, the democratic political machine maneuvered the election of aldermen who cooperated fully with these machinations.

Not coincidentally, the area of the school closures in 2013 conforms remarkably to the footprint of this strip of public housing–which has, in the last ten years, been demolished. These neighborhoods were underserved in every respect; it goes without saying that they were saddled with poverty and poor schools; residents who could afford to live outside the area encountered housing discrimination–they could not leave the politically structured south side reservation. How could one not see that racism is powerfully involved in the low educational standards in the contemporary schools? Only someone who is either ignorant of this Chicago history or in denial. Past and present racism created those schools to be substandard. Such Chicagoans are merely the local representatives of those millions of white Americans who say, “I don’t owe blacks anything, I never owned slaves, I’m not racist.” Even the Supreme Court seems to believe “color-blind” racial policies can be instituted today with no regard that for 350 years, the racist policies of the United States have marked our society indelibly. The fallacy is the assumption that we can live our societal life with a fresh slate–we cannot. The trauma of the school closures in Chicago proves that.

The two centuries of slavery may seem to be far in the past, along with the struggles and failures of Reconstruction following the Civil War, but their consequences are very real today. Some of our most distinguished universities, for example, are just now owning up to the fact that the wealth that made them great (and enabled them to give superior education to generations of whites) was obtained from the back-breaking labor of black slaves. Early presidents and leaders of Harvard, for example owned slaves, while Emory was actually built by slave laborers. (See It is also becoming clear that the conflict between police and African-Americans in late 2014 has its roots in a history of racism, exemplified by the role of police in the fight against the civil rights movement in the south in the 1960s and by the fact that black communities are policed by largely white officers. The Great Migration (1910-1970), in which six million African-Americans left the south for northern cities was an attempt to escape racism, but now it is clear that the north is as tainted as the Old Confederacy, albeit in different forms. Isabel Wilkerson writes that the migrants fled lynching and Jim Crow laws in the south, only to end up in the “hypersegregation” of northern cities. In 2000, for example, Detroit was eighty percent black, with all its urban problems, while Dearborn next door was affluent and ninety-nine percent white. (See Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, 2010).

We must also face up to historical amnesia concerning the outrageous treatment of Native American Indians. Public myth views the first European settlers as a chosen people inhabiting the Promised Land, patterned after the biblical account of the Israelites possessing Canaan. Scripture seldom acknowledges the rights of the various Canaanite peoples who were conquered in the process–the label “pagans and idolaters” suffices. A few psalms (Psalms 111, 135, 136 for example) even praise God for dispossessing those nations. So, too, the original peoples who inhabited North America remain largely overlooked, except when they are depicted as savages in film or viewed by romantics as a paradigm for environmentalism. Our violations of treaties and our actions dispossessing native Americans go unmentioned. The ideology of “manifest destiny,” like those psalms, held that the destiny of the Europeans was to be master of the land, while the destiny of the Indians was to submit. This history with native Americans lives on today in their miserable existence–poverty, unemployment, and poor health care and education–visibly on the reservations and invisibly in the cities. This history tells a sordid story, a type of oppressive colonialism, which results, as well, in a huge loss of human resources for the body politic.

Recent articles have drawn attention to the lynching of Mexicans in our Southwest. As with the native American Indians, we took the land away from the Mexicans and then lynched them when they remained in their home territory.

During World War II, we stripped Japanese-American citizens of their civil liberties and imprisoned them on the basis of their ethnicity alone. We separated families—separating fathers, in certain camps, from mothers and children in others. They lost their place, their home, their ties, and in some cases memories of children growing up.

There is deep, evil flaw of character revealed here. This past lives on in our societal life in ways sometimes overt, sometimes subliminal–always complex, interwoven with economic and other demographic factors. This is authentic America, “as American as cherry pie”–to recall the words of H. Rap Brown in 1967–even though in our ignorance and denial, we don’t want to admit it. “The Greatest Generation” is also the generation in which the foundations of hypersegregation were laid in cities like Chicago, Detroit, and St. Louis. It is very painful for white Americans, descendants of the European settlers, to hear this about themselves. We insist on our leaders trumpeting with regularity the mantra of “America is the greatest nation in the history of the world.” Until we acknowledge this other side of America, we do not know ourselves–and that is a miserable state–a state of spiritual misery. As long as we define ourselves primarily as a “band of brothers”–so long will we carry in our hearts the unacknowledged shame of racism and tyranny that lie in our collective past. Our future is stymied, even a false hope, if it cannot embrace our true past.

Can the churches, as spiritual communities, contribute to the nation as it deals with its spiritual challenges? Can the churches acknowledge their own participation in the problem? Our churches might contribute most by undergoing their own process of repentance and seeking absolution. We do have examples to follow: The ELCA action towards the Jews in 1994, with the statement, “Declaration of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to the Jewish Community” and the educational measures that support it. The Japanese Christians who traveled throughout the Far East, offering apology for the atrocities committed by the Japanese army during World War II. The Presbyterian Church of Canada carries out an ongoing program of “Healing and Reconciliation” toward the Aboriginal peoples of Canada. In 1995, the Southern Baptist Convention apologized for its history of condoning racism. The Presbyterian Church USA did the same in 2001. The Vatican provides several examples: in 1994, Apology for inaction during the Holocaust; Pope John Paul II sought forgiveness in 2000 for sins committed against Jews, heretics, women, Gypsies, and native peoples; he also apologized for the Inquisition in 2004. To this date, congress has not passed any resolutions of apology for slavery and racism.

In February of this year, the presidents and deans of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America seminaries issued a resolution promising prophetic measures ( on issues of race. This is a promising step, but it does not articulate the spiritual misery that is my concern here, nor does it specify outreach activities that respond to that misery in our churches and in our nation. I am not unappreciative of this statement, but prophetic speech and apologies, though necessary are just a first step–as shown in the ELCA response  on anti-Semitism and the Canadian project. Follow-up educational activities and programs of forgiveness and reconciliation are also required. Apologies come after self-examination, and they aim at renewal and changing hearts. As the prophet Ezekiel reminds us, God wishes for our hearts of stone to be replaced by hearts of love–not only within the church but in the body politic, for the commonweal of our nation. This is a matter of spirituality, over and beyond ethics. The churches must work to help our society as a whole come to repentance and renewal. Since we are not talking about a distant and abstract challenge, the calling to re-form our nation’s spiritual situation is every bit as relevant to congregations and synods as it is to the church wide representations of the denominations. The commonweal is as close as our neighborhoods, our local schools, our local police departments, and our local governments.

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