by Pastor Doug Kings
This past Monday a group of people pulled down a monument on the plaza in downtown Santa Fe, New Mexico. I’ve walked by it many times. The monument had been erected in the 1800s to commemorate local Union Civil War veterans. A short time later, additional wording was added to commemorate those who fought against the Indian “savages.” The word “savages” was recently chiseled out, but the monument continued to be an irritation to the state’s large Native American population and many others who sympathized with them.
This past year Santa Fe, like many parts of the country, has been struggling with its numerous statues and historical markers. Primarily these remembered the early Spanish conquistadors who took the territory for Spain from the indigenous peoples living there. This monument highlighted the next historical period of conflict and abuse, by American settlers and soldiers.
History is always told from a particular perspective. It isn’t simply “what happened” because in that case it would take as long to tell about an event as the event itself, which would be absurd. Rather, history is made up of stories we tell about the past. Historians picks and choose the people and events that they believe are most significant and then create narratives that give them meaning.
It’s said that history is written by the winners. Yet over time those histories can become inadequate for succeeding generations. They cease to be helpful for contemporary people wanting to find sense and meaning in their past. That is our situation today.
The United States has always had a diverse racial and ethnic population, yet has struggled to embrace that diversity as a constitutive part of its identity. Today, as the world has grown smaller and the movement of peoples has become easier, many countries are also trying to figure out how to incorporate new populations into a common story.
Changing a historical narrative is often difficult, controversial, and emotional. Most of us were taught that “Columbus discovered America.” Yet even the cartoonish pictures in our history textbooks gave the lie to that meme. If he “discovered” it, who were those people waiting on the beach to greet him? Today we know the Americas had a population in the tens of millions when Columbus arrived. We also know the catastrophe Columbus’ arrival ushered in for most of those people.
Columbus discovered a New World from the perspective of Renaissance Europe half a millennium ago. While in theory many of us can trace our lineage there, even with ancestory.com most would struggle to find a real blood connection that far away. And for many their ancestry is also more complicated than that, with other nationalities and ethnicities in their blood. Today this is certainly the case for our country as a whole.
Post-modernism often gets a bad rap, yet it has contributed some valuable ideas. One of these is awareness of the fluidity of our identity. Critics often lift up extreme examples (the white woman trying to live as if she were Black), yet there can be a valuable liberation in the idea when a previously assumed identity becomes a hindrance to a fulfilling life. There are countless stories of people freeing themselves from identities given them as children to discover their new and better selves.
The same can happen for whole populations. For our own wellbeing, for all of us to prosper, we must find an identity that includes everyone among us. William Faulkner famously wrote, “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.” Faulkner, of course, was writing from deep in the Jim Crow South and knew well of what he spoke. He, like many others, recognized what an enormous constraining weight that history and its bigotry had become for all Southerners, black and white.
In one of his recent meditations, Native American elder and retired Episcopal bishop Steven Charleston recognized this challenge now facing us.
[H]ow will we find reconciliation in our national family? After so much anger, so much denial, so much misinformation, how will we find our way back to unity in diversity? How will we re-learn how to live together?… [O]ne day this fight will be finished … and we will be looking at one another not as adversaries, but as fellow citizens. How will we reconcile then? How will we no longer be a house divided? As people of faith it will be up to us to help answer that question with a plan for reconciliation, a plan for accuracy and understanding: accuracy in the facts of our recent history and a clear understanding of what they mean for us all. This process of reconciliation will need to be lived out one day if we are going to heal and become something new.
One of Paul’s most powerful visions was of the transcendent unity Christ brought to the world. To be a sister or brother in Christ was the identity that overcame all divisions, however fundamental they might seem.
For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith….. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
Today our world is changing so much and so fast, that we must all find a new self-understanding that elevates and celebrates our unity over what divides us, not just as Americans but as citizens of the world. Indeed, with a planet in crisis we need to recognize our oneness with the whole creation. But this is no limitation. Rather it is our glory, to be able to appreciate the wonder of the Universe as no other creature can, and to marvel at how God has lovingly woven us and all things together.
Blessings in your life and ministry, Pastor Doug