"You will know the truth and the truth will set you free." --Jesus (John 8:32)
President Biden was in Tulsa recently to mark the 100-year anniversary of one of the most vicious acts of racial violence in U.S.history. On June 1, 1921, the headlines of the Tulsa World newspaper announced in the aftermath “TWO WHTES DEAD IN RACE RIOT” without mentioning itwas an angry White mob that attacked a thriving Black community known as “BlackWall Street.” A 34-block community of homes, churches and businesses were destroyed and as many as 300 Black citizens were killed. Until recently the Tulsa Race Massacre—as it is now known—was missing from history books and rarely discussed. It was only in 1999, that the city decided it was time to face the truth of its horrific history.
This is just one example among many of how White America has chosen for much of our history to deal with a checkered past—one with many stories of innovation and success, but also one marked with great sorrow and disappointment. We have chosen either amnesia or a revisionist version of history: one that forgets about the horrors of slavery, the genocide of Native Americans, and the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. Unless we face the whole truth by embracing all of our history and current culture; and unless we are willing to learn fromand atone for our sinful and racist past, our future as a nation based on “liberty and justice for all” is in serious question.
Without Truth Telling, Democracy is in Peril
These are dangerous times for democracy in America.
• When the United States Senate is unable to get a majority to support an investigation into the cause of the January 6th insurrection at our nation’s capitol and truth tellers in one political party are threatened and ostracized, we are in trouble.
• When a US congressman suggests that right wing extremists who attacked the capitol building were only acting as tourists, we are in trouble.
• When certain politicians and newscasters continue to promote the “big lie” that Biden is not the legitimately elected president by citing unfounded conspiracy theories about the 2020 election, we are in trouble.
• When fifty percent of the country appears to agree with the tenets of Christian Nationalism based largely on myths about the founding of our nation, we are in trouble.
• When forty percent of state legislatures are attempting to pass laws in order to seriously restrict access to voting—especially among people of color—we are in trouble.
• When the country is debating whether race should even be discussed in schools and thirty state legislatures are attempting to pass laws banning the teaching of Black history that includes slavery, Jim Crow, and systemic racism, we are in trouble.
• When several states including Tennessee and Oklahoma have successfully passed measures forbidding instruction of the real history of our country, we are in trouble.
Terrance McKinley in his article for Sojourners, “Refusing to Erase the Tragedies of U.S. History,” writes: “ Our nation lives with the enduring legacy, the continued racialized and systematized violence against people of color. One of the greatest obstacles we face as a nation is related to the lack of collective knowledge we have concerning our history.” He concludes: “It is time to confront the cycles of generational trauma that have continued because this nation has refused to address its past. As people of faith, we must be truth tellers and pursue healing from our brokenness by first addressing our wounds.”*
Why Can’t We Be More Like Germany?
Today in Germany, children learn through their teachers and textbooks that the Nazi regime was evil and a shameful chapter in their country’s past. Most school children, as well as cadets learning to be police officers, take a field trip to visit a concentration camp. The nation chooses not to forget the atrocities of the past nor gloss over the truth of the Holocaust; instead it remembers in hopes that it will never happen again. In fact, in Germany it is illegal to deny the Holocaust was real; and it is against the law to distribute or display any symbol of the Nazi era.
Like the people of Tulsa, the Germans have come to recognize the importance of facing up to the truth of their past sins and the need to atone for them in order to move forward in healthy ways. Michele Norris of the Washington Post writes: This culture of atonement iscaptured in eight syllables and 26 letters that comprise the German word: Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung. It’s a powerful mouthful that translates loosely to ‘working off the past.’ But its full meaning goes deeper than even that awkward phrase suggests.”
Norris continues: “Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung refers to Germany’s efforts to interrogate the horrors of the Holocaust and the rise of Nazism. It has been a decades-long exorcist, beginning in the 1960’s [during the Auschwitz trials of former Nazi war criminals] to examine, analyze, and ultimately learn to live with an evil chapter through monuments, teachings, art, architecture, protocols and public policy. The country looks at its Nazi past by consistently, almost obsessively, memorializing the victims of that murderous era, so much so that it is now a central feature of the nation’s cultural landscape. The ethos of this campaign is ‘never forget.’”*
Leaving a Legacy of Justice and Freedom
Marking the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II in 1985, Richard von Weizsacker, then President of West Germany said: “Anyone who closes his eyes to the past is blind to the present. Whoever refuses to remember the inhumanity is prone to new risk of infection.” These are words that Americans must take to heart at a time when there is a resurgent wave of White Nationalism that seeks to sweep away the truth of past sins and conjure up a false narrative of bothpast and present actions to justify their quest for power and domination. Fraudulent conspiracy theories have poisoned the minds of many in the current American scene. For example, a majority of Republicans believe the 2020 presidential election was stolen and over 15% of our citizens believe in QAnon theories that fan the flames of fear that the political elite—who supposedly drink the blood of children—will take away their individual freedom to defend themselves or to worship as they desire.
For America to know redemption and heal its divisions, we must come to acknowledge the truth. For as Jesus says in the Gospel of John, only the truth can set us free. We must name our sins and truly atone for the enslaving of Africans, stealing the land and killing of indigenous peoples, and enriching ourselves on the backs of the poor. We must confront the lies in our founding myths and have the courage to tell the true story of our nation’s past. We must fight the efforts of a minority who seek not only to distort the truth, but wish to deny voting rights to a certain class or color of our fellow citizens. We must let our voices be heard in the halls of Congress, in our nation’s churches, and in the streets of our cities.
Not to act is to allow our democracy to die. If the American dream is to survive and flourish, we cannot fail in our quest to ensure liberty and justice for all people. The healing and future of our nation depends on it.
*Michele L. Norris for the Washington Post: "Germany faced its horrible past. Can we do the same?" June 3, 2021