Witnessing the horrors our nation is currently inflicting on people arriving at our southern border who are fleeing calamities and seeking refuge, Americans occasionally express the thought that “this is not who we are.” Or, “America is better than this.”
I can understand the sentiment and its underlying impulse. We want to believe that we are not capable of such atrocities.
But this is a denial of the realities of our national history, and it prevents us from the necessary self-reflection that would allow us to identify the selfishness and the various idolatries that drive us to inflict such horrors, or to tolerate them.
Our national history reveals that this is precisely who we are.
Jill Lepore’s new history of the United States, These Truths, is an unflinching account of how our founding fathers regarded British rule as “slavery,” and pursued independence. Our national founding documents speak of “self-evident” truths that “all men are created equal,” with inalienable rights. But our nation has never treated all people equally.
The men who regarded British rule as “slavery,” also enslaved African people, broke up black families and committed many other unspeakable atrocities. Our nation stole lands from native people, reneged on treaties with them, massacred them and drove them west, cruelly forcing them from their homes, with many people dying of exposure and hunger.
Our nation prevented women from voting and shamed them for speaking publicly.
Our nation stole land from Mexico.
Our national story is one of the horrifying mistreatment of black and brown people by white people. For the founders and for generations after them, “all men were created equal” applied to certain white men, since they regarded women, black and brown people as less than fully human.
All of this was driven by the idolatry of imagining that the Christian God had a special relationship with our nation (i.e., white Europeans) that allowed us to enslave people and take land from others (“savages”). Our nation has always been motivated by a selfish desire for wealth and property.
Most profoundly troubling to me, and an ongoing personal crisis, is that my inherited Christian tradition is complicit in all of this.
Though it troubled their consciences, white European Christians enslaved Africans and brought them to this land for the purpose of enriching and expanding European and British empires. After the nation’s founding, white Christians maintained slavery in order to sustain a strong national economy.
White Christians evangelized the black people they enslaved. When black people pointed out from Scripture that enslaving them was a sin against the God of the Bible, white slave-owners interpreted Scripture to endorse slavery and then made it illegal to teach black people to read.
When black people pointed to the founding national documents (“all men are created equal”) to demonstrate that slavery was hypocritical, white people wrote into the Constitution that black people were less than human.
Our current treatment of people arriving at our southern border as less than human is motivated by the idolatries to which our nation has always chosen to be blind. It is driven by nothing else but the selfish desire to protect accumulated wealth and property for ourselves.
When we behold the horrors we are inflicting on people on our southern border, we ought to realize that this is precisely who we are and who we have always been.
But this is not who we must be.
Christian Scripture speaks of the hope of renewal and restoration through repentance. And we can only repent from idolatry and selfishness when we recognize the hold that these have on us. Repentance involves identifying and confessing sin, speaking frankly about our shared national past and the ongoing injustices in which we all participate. Owning these realities is a necessary beginning.