“I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living. Wait for the LORD, be strong and let your heart take courage. Yes, wait for the LORD” (Psalms 27.13, 14 NASB).
I loathed history classes when I was a kid. I mean, I absolutely HATED it! I am not sure if it had to do with all of the definitions and time periods that we were required to remember or if it was something else entirely. All I know is that I couldn’t stand it. To this date, I remember very little of what was taught over all of those years and as a result, my grasp of world events is pitiful if not downright shameful.
As an adult, with a strong passion for justice and reconciliation, I find myself playing serious catch-up. In the last few years, I have spent countless hours pouring over books, watching documentaries, reading articles and doing so much more to make up for lost ground. Fortunately for me, this time around I am actually interested especially since I see so much alignment between the things that happened in the past and the things that are happening today. Unfortunately, however, many people do not see how these dots connect.
As the current events in our nation reminds us of the sins of our past, many people cannot see the connections between what is happening in Ferguson and the perpetual, systematic dehumanization of black lives. This dehumanization started with slavery, of course, but expanded to the institutionalization of the police force, the convict leasing system, Jim Crow, segregation, systematic exclusion from opportunity, the war on poverty, the war on drugs, mass incarceration and present day police brutality – all of which revolved around generating local municipalities, states and the country itself, a large profit. But when you present some people, mostly white, with these very relevant facts, they respond by either denying that this history ever happened or blame black people for our own oppression suggesting that if we were absolute angels, these things wouldn’t happen.
This outright denial of our past exists because the truth contradicts the story that America tells about itself – a story that it so desperately wants to believe is true. America wants to believe that it is a Judeo-Christian nation. America wants to believe that its success has come as a result of hard work, persistence and blessings from above. America wants to believe that it is a moral beacon around the world. But when you look at all that has transpired on this soil, you start to understand that none of this is remotely true. For people who have spent their entire lives creating, rehearsing and projecting this narrative of American exceptionalism, a crisis of identity ensues.
In truth, America in this moment IS experiencing a significant identity crisis because it has never come to grips with its deep, dark past. There have been no reparations or redistribution of ill-gotten wealth to atone for the sins of theft, conquest and war. There has been no truth and reconciliation commission to give those who have done the stealing, conquesting, and warring an opportunity to confess their sins and be restored to the human family. Indeed, on the rare occasion that these things get meaningfully discussed is when Ferguson happens. And by then, it is often too late.
The only way we can stop the hemorrhaging is by telling ourselves the truth about ourselves. We have to be upfront and honest about our history, something that I have reiterated here, here, here, and here. We have to be explicit and name the way in which that history continues to impact our present and will inevitably affect our future unless we do something about it.
Not only do we have to tell the truth about the persistent and present injustice, we have to tell the truth about what is possible. It is possible for us not to live in a country, in a world even, where the current dynamics are not our reality. Like the psalmist referenced at the beginning of this post, we have to imagine the good that we can see in the land of the living. For me, goodness means that human relationships are restored. Relationships that have been fractured as a result of fear, mistrust, and competition for resources are made whole again. It also means that all people can breathe and no one is denied that God-given right simply because of the color of their skin. Goodness tastes like justice, meaning that there is restitution to those who been exploited and it smells like forgiveness so that those who have been wronged offer it to others.
As we truthfully remember our history, let us creatively and prophetically think about the future that we want to live in. Let us think big and stretch our imaginations wide and not limit our thinking to what we believe is reality. We must remember that the reality we face right now was at one time only an imagination – someone imagined that they could create an economic system based on the labor and land of others – and that imagination became a reality because it was first a vision. Let us do the same with racial justice – let us imagine a future where racism is not the default way of being in this country. Let us dream of a future, where police brutality is not a problem because the police do not exist. Let us envision a tomorrow where black men are no longer perceived as threats, and where black girls are not being suspended and arrested in schools for doing NOTHING wrong. With our mouths, let us boldly proclaim a reality where we are no longer driven by the bottom line but by humankind. With that vision ahead of and leading us, by the grace of God, we will get there.