I don’t remember the first time I was taught that the Civil War was not fought because of slavery. I am a white Texan, so this idea was simply in the ether, as were myths about “good slave owners” and the “Lost Cause.” I knew that America had a racist history, but when I was a child, the details of what that meant were blurry and vague.
This experience is common. There is objective truth to our nation’s history, based in research and primary sources. But as Clint Smith describes in his book “How the Word Is Passed,” in America we too often tell a slanted version of our history to protect the feelings of white people. Smith highlights how an intentional disinformation campaign, which began shortly after the end of the Civil War, has altered the way much of America narrates our racial past. He looks at the convenient lies that white people often rely on to belittle the horrors of the past, the way we exclude stories that might trouble or challenge us.
In an interview, Smith discussed how a statement of fact such as, “The Confederacy was a treasonous army predicated on maintaining and expanding the institution of slavery” is recast as a biased ideological statement. “Part of what racism tries to do is turn empirical evidence,” Smith said, into statements that “are ostensibly reflective of someone’s opinion and reflective of a political sensibility or disposition, rather than one that is honest about this country’s history.”
We’re struggling now as a society with how to tell the truth about how white supremacy has shaped our history and institutions. Several states have recently passed laws against teaching “critical race theory.” The imprecise language of these laws provides “cover for those who are not comfortable hearing or telling the truth about the history and state of race relations in the United States,” as Rashawn Ray and Alexandra Gibbons point out in a Brookings Institution paper.
These laws, for instance, have been used by advocacy groups to try to prohibit the teaching of Ruby Bridges’s autobiography for children. Other efforts seek to investigate or ban books in schools that would, in the words of one Texas lawmaker, “make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex.” But the actual historical facts of slavery, lynching, Jim Crow and racial inequality are likely to make white Americans with even a hint of compassion feel uncomfortable.
The question before us as a nation is simple: Are we willing to tell the truth about our history or not?
My convictions about this question are deeply shaped by my Christian faith. White Christians do not appear to be any better than the culture at large at truthfully telling the story of America. But the Christian doctrines of sin and grace require truthfulness, even if those truths make certain people feel guilt, shame or discomfort.
The gospel presented in scripture demands that we “walk in the light,” that we not try to hide or minimize the truth of what’s wrong with us or our history. Christian doctrine also understands sin and evil not only as individualistic, voluntary decisions to do evil but also as a communal, atmospheric reality. We are born into communities with sinful assumptions and narratives about the world that drive oppressive and destructive behavior. However unintentionally, we give our assent to these ways of understanding and acting in the world.
Repentance for sin is not simply to feel sorry about something but to actively address and repair wrong that’s been done. To repent, said Catholic theologian Remi Hoeckman, is “to rethink everything from the ground up.” It’s a transformation of how we think and how we live. Repentance requires truth-telling, and we cannot repent for the sin of racism in the present if we are not willing to admit to white-supremacist roots in American culture and institutions, including in the American church.
Telling the truth about our history means that as a Christian, I have to wade into the emotional complexity that honesty requires. It does not mean that white people must hate everything about our ancestors or curse those who made our lives possible. It means that we cannot deny, minimize, or excuse their behavior. We have to be willing to confront the truth in ways that might make us feel conflicted and distressed, and to teach our children to do the same.
The Bible also lends us the tremendously helpful concept of idolatry to help understand racial evil. John Calvin wrote that the human mind is “a perpetual forge of idols.” Our loves are disordered. Our idols, which are often unknown to us, are not usually bad things in themselves, but instead are things that we have loved and exalted too much. There is, of course, nothing wrong with being white. God designed the specific amount of melanin in my skin. But America has — and has always had — an idolatry of white culture and power. Our history makes that clear.
The Christian tradition, with its understanding of human depravity, original sin, institutional and societal evil and oppressive powers, supports the concept of entrenched, systemic evil and cultural idolatries. Drawing from our own tradition, then, Christians should be the first to admit and explore the evil in America’s past. How can we claim to follow the God of truth and then support laws that are used to whitewash history?
Yet the white American church has sometimes conflated a sanitized story of America with Christianity to embrace loyalty to “God and country.” We often choose a white, American narrative over the understanding of truth, repentance and grace given to us by Christian doctrine. We reject any tension between following Jesus truthfully and denying the truth about our ancestors. We want to pretend that the story of America and the demands of biblical justice are not in conflict.
We as a church and a nation have a choice: Do we twist the truths of history or do we let the truth set us free?
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