Never an honest word
But that was when I ruled the world – “Viva La Vida,” Coldplay
Greatness. Buzzword of the 2016 election, it casts resplendent visions of either America’s industrious past or its progressive future. Republicans and Democrats alike twist in rhetorical gymnastics to grasp the word that could frame their argument for what America should become. Both sides camber our history to supplement their vision, give hands and feet, wood and grit to the past that will pave the future. The histories taught and remembered breach an ever-widening cavity between the peoples of our nation; it’s a question of memory, and more importantly, what we choose to remember.
In my last blog post, I grieved the lack of a common historical narrative in my country, the lack of a unified embrace of the past in both its achievements and its deficiencies. This election reflects that stark division as it becomes more and more evident how differently Americans understand what our country was and what it is today. Acknowledging that history equates to an assemblage of diverse perspectives funneled to provide illumination upon past events, how do we reconcile the differences when the potential for reconciliation as a nation now teeters on a glacial ledge?
We first point to the elephant and donkey in the room: our assumed greatness is overshadowed by our abuses of power.We do not want to see this, decrying it as a “dark” view of America, harsh and unyielding, but to scale upwards, away from the ledge, we must comprehend the scale of our sins:
Our nation birthed out of the exploitation of indigenous peoples, propping up doctrines of discovery to rationalize genocide and innumerable broken treaties. We called them savages and herded them into the penned scant of land they reside today–and we expect them to prosper there.
Our nation thrived off the theft of human bodies branded inferior because of a racial system calculated to justify the superiority of lighter-skinned peoples. Americans with lighter skin became “White” and accumulated financial and social advantages. Those relegated to “Black” accumulated struggle. Both became peoples socially contrived for estrangement.
Our nation expanded by latching onto the lands settlers coveted, leaving burned plains, buffalo carcasses, and the bodies of those whose ancestors once named the mountains and rivers. The trauma of that history endures.
Our nation built itself by engineering ethnic bodies to construct its railroads and develop its technology and cultivate its fields. Then it marched them to the gates when they were no longer convenient labor.
Our nation set its moral plane by declaring its intention to welcome all “the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” yet it barred those labeled undesirable, our anxiety cataloged from anti-Irish policies to the Chinese Exclusion Act to current anti-refugee sentiments, collective inaction, and Islamophobia.
Now our nation holds sway over nations in the Caribbean and Pacific. Those peoples still cannot vote for the President, a person across the sea whose agenda will shape their own lands–much like the rally of colonies that once railed against a distant King during the first crawls of our country.
Now our nation intervenes in hundreds of Third World countries: setting up and deposing dictators in Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East; turning a blind eye to the exploitative business practices of transnational corporations in South America; installing bases for what some suggest amounts to a global network of militarized overseers.
I stop here because one blog post cannot contain the scope of centuries. I offer a cursory overview only, the introductory monologue to the complex American stories absent from our films and speeches and classrooms.
I also use the pronouns “our” and “we” intentionally, stepping back from the reflex to detach myself from these past events because “my ancestors didn’t do it.” As an American citizen, I reap the benefits winnowed from these bales of policies and practices. My harvest is complicated by the fact that I am a Black and Latina woman, a daughter of immigrants, but I align myself with these histories in order to take accountability for the spoiled generational yields of my country.
No nation abides in perfection. I do not diagram my nation’s offenses to condemn it to the grave. The United States encompasses its freedoms and opportunities too, virtues that drew my parents here. However, within the political arena, thrust like a shield by gladiators on the convention floor, the word “greatness” all too often obscures the wrongs committed. Whatever political sides we fall on, we must exercise caution so that in our eagerness to proclaim the triumphs of our country, we do not stumble into the same patterns of our American progenitors, seized by ignorance and misplaced pride.
Our nation’s pedestal of power has always borne a cost. Keeping it “great,” making it greater in the ways advertised this election season may require more of the putty of marginalized bodies to cement the bricks. Reggae artist Ziggy Marley once sang: “Don’t know your past, don’t know your future,” and the lyrics ring true for America. Our historical amnesia prevents us from understanding what acts shaped the contours of our national identity…and who we mutilated in the process.
We live in an Empire, a land stoking the fires of conflict because of our very birth. Our rise to power is steeped in the blood of indigenous peoples, black peoples. It is creased into the callouses of Latinx and Asian immigrants. It is sunk in the scarred wallows of the lands we conquered.
In reading the Bible, the rise and fall of empires emerges as a constant theme. We see Egypt, then Babylon, then Rome. Similar descriptors accompany the role of empires in Scripture; they are portrayed as realms where injustice, depravity, and persecution abound. With each ascent of empire comes the portents of their imminent collapse, ridden with crumbling towers and lands laid waste as God rectifies injustice. Liberation theologians touch on this theme, pointing out God’s consistency in overturning oppressive systems and once-lofty kingdoms. The greatness posed by these empires was doomed from the outset because the willful ignorance and inaction of their citizens sustained their decay. If America has forged itself into the new Empire, where then are we headed?
I do not desire to see my country collapse into ruin, its buildings made dust. I live here, my friends and family live here, and I want it to be a place where all peoples have the opportunity and resources to flourish. But as an insider on the other side of empire, I acknowledge how my nation has grieved God in the way it has treated the least of these: the immigrant, the poor, the widowed, the hungry. We have not listened to them when they speak out about their oppression (the sheer number of protests against immigration reform and #BlackLivesMatters points to this failing). We have not mourned their bodies. That inaction has molded our present situation: We are being judged by those we have wronged, and how those wounds throb.
Donald Trump prods the rankled fears of an empire confronted by its own past. The great issues now shaping American discourse spring from the narrative of our particular empire. Every problem is sown from our sordid history, whether it be the dissension centered on issues of racial inequality, the charged discussions around undocumented immigration, the anxieties fixed on ISIS terrorist acts, the weariness over our economic recession. There are reasons why so many white Americans are disillusioned, discouraged, and angry, why they seek leadership that will dispel the hurt and make our nation “great” again.
Through the eyes of many conservative, particularly white Americans, our country is a noble land threatened by outsiders leeching resources and religious extremists demanding American blood. Some of them have seen their own towns and cities emptied of economic promise, have seen headlines of police officers shot and then the juxtaposed images of black people rioting. Moving to reclaim a past vision of American splendor makes sense in this light. People’s anxieties mount when the story behind our nation’s problems feels hidden–or worse, incomplete. Scapegoating the people (usually minorities) that appear to complain and create more problems provides a quick solution to displace the fear. Once the obstacles are removed, America can be restored to a moral and prosperous land.
But the problem of our nation’s current course is not isolated to conservative Republicans. Many Democrats also capitalize on the yearning for American greatness, contextualized within calls for social reform and economic overhaul. Reform is no evil. Changes in unjust policies should be encouraged to address the needs of disenfranchised peoples; however, I question our national impulse to seek “greatness” when the pursuit of this brand of medication exacerbates our illness. My diagnosis: our Empire, conceived in corrupt policies and sustained by an inoculating stream of romanticized histories, has been sick for a very long time. Now that America is thrashing on the operating table, we are divided in understanding the origins of its disease.
Our nation, mired in racism, xenophobia, and economic disparity, threatened by the ire of countries across the sea, is now being judged by the least of these, the survivors of our empire–and we have been found wanting. How do we respond to the brokenness we have generated? Too many Americans clutch their opinions to their chests, afraid that one word from those hurting will unravel everything they thought true about our country. They are afraid of what knowing the truth will cost them. I empathize with those of us on that journey of waking up to those histories; the process goes beyond disorientation–it is exhausting.
The route to resuscitation, awakening to the raw realities of our nation, can lead to despair. I have agonized over the sheer breadth of my country’s sins, haunted by those still experiencing the impact of those violations–including my own ethnic communities. In those moments, I feel helpless; the shadow of America looms large.
There is another way of waking to a tarnished inheritance: repentance. It is the antidote to moral paralysis, the path of conviction rather than guilt. Repenting as a community for national wrongs committed rips the veil between convenient ideals and harrowing truths and calls us to change, by increments, between conversations, page by page of learning, and in great leaps so we can contribute to others’ welfare. As beneficiaries (and also victims) of this empire, we are in the position to ignite transformation.
When a community commits to the process of repentance, they choose to recognize the tragedy of their past and present acts and look into the faces of those wronged. We acknowledge how our actions-and those of our ancestors-established an abusive cycle of interaction between our peoples, and in humility we pursue justice with them. Part of this process necessitates submitting to the authority of our non-Western neighbors, the colonized and exploited. Other countries have already engaged in Truth and Reconciliation commissions to address national sins and establish new relationships between estranged peoples. Our nation has not–yet.
We must galvanize our local and national leaders to prioritize this movement towards repentance and true reconciliation. The work begins in our own lives, eddying to our churches and neighborhoods. We can re-learn our histories, widen ourselves to accommodate changing paradigms, and then allow them to alter our daily routines and political actions. We can ask better questions and seek truth. Instead of fearing a diversified and browner America, we can open up the spaces of seated power in our country to include non-majority people (people of color, women, those of low socioeconomic status, immigrants) in Congress, in Christian leadership conferences, in films and television without denouncement or self-conscious remarks about it being “PC” or a “liberal agenda.” It is an agenda, but not one that white Americans should fear, nor one staked by liberals. This is a plan for prosperity, a biblical blueprint for restoration so that all lives touched by our country thrive…and it requires our participation.
Counter to what early colonists testified, America is no Promised Land. We are not the great Christian nation struggling to get its bearings–we are broken. However, we can embody a land promising integrity and love in our future actions. Repentance is the trail of tears we must tread, surrendering to the God who will redeem a history of strife so we can radiate the best of our identity: the kaleidoscope of immigrants from every corner of the world and resilient cultures sown from our own soil. Since our nation is great in influence, wealth, and reach, we are in a position to model to the world what it looks like to be great from a position of deference, not to threats or collectives with evil intent, but to our own illusions of superiority.
Just think: what would it look like for our nation to seek forgiveness for rash militarized interventions in the Middle East? What would it look like for America to give reparations for the Black livelihoods forever altered by slavery? What would it look like for our country to acknowledge its broken treaties and restore land to the First Nations? What would it look like for Americans to petition for liberation and political rights for our neighbors living in the conquered territories? What would it look like for us to welcome refugees and immigrants and open our homes to them? If this seems radical to you, maybe your imagination needs renovation.
Won’t laying down power make America weak? If we are this anxious about losing our status as global superpower, maybe we never deserved the power in the first place. Instead of seeking the peaks, we should move towards the valleys where the marginalized peoples crowd. We have much to learn from those we have wronged, and their voices in our histories will inform our future domestic and foreign policies. It does not make us weak to lay down this power of being the loudest and largest in the room; it makes us wise. This does not entail dismissing external threats like ISIS; neither does it diminish the complexity of our economic problems. In contrast, when we cultivate an awareness of where our nation is positioned and why, we can use that knowledge to chart a just course with eyes fully opened.
Progress does not always equal expansion; instead, it can signify letting go of long-fortified privileges to create space for the people who need it most to flourish. Like energy, nothing is lost or destroyed. They gain, and we all become greater for it.
In his convicting work Prophetic Lament, Soong-Chan Rah explains that the book of Lamentations challenges us to “…accept historical reality and to embrace God’s sovereignty over history.” Taking it a step further, he exposes the systems of oppression that the church has participated in and suggests that now is the time for American Christians to “relinquish a historical dominance and embrace a greater mutuality, equality and reciprocity in twenty-first-century world Christianity.” I echo his call that now is the time for Americans to take ownership of our past and reach deeply into it to find the stepping stones to justice and unity. Rather than remaining captive to leaders who blurt quick and antagonistic answers to placate Americans’ fears, we must be willing to take the aching and arduous journey of lament.
Our national debt runs deep, and I encourage each of us to take the time to mourn the events that brought us here. Lament moves into repentance once we see clearly where we’ve gone wrong. Then with open hands we lay our nation before God and seek ways to restore the broken shalom with the nations, with our own peoples, whom we have injured. Our country still grips the power to shape the destinies of other countries; we must learn to steward that power better, lay it down if God wills it. This is how an empire kneels. This is how we become a land of the free.