the america I never knew: a meditation

I mourn the America I never knew.

I thought I knew her in the ways you know a kindly grandmother whose lap you settle on and hear stories, my head tucked into the crook of her shoulder. My stories were of the God-loving Founding Fathers with funny wigs who wrote our Constitution, feather quills dancing on the scroll that unfurled our freedom. I thumbed through cartooned depictions of the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria as Columbus discovered America, pictures of Pilgrims and Native Americans breaking bread blissfully together on Thanksgiving. I joined the humming odes to our expansionism, the wide stretch of “sea to shining sea” vivid in my mind as I learned about how we blazed frontiers and became great and powerful.

I pledged allegiance to the flag hoisted proudly in the corner of my elementary school classroom.

There were less benevolent things too, I learned later. Less beautiful. The land I thought we shared on that harmonious Thanksgiving Day was later stolen, but didn’t we honor Native Americans for how they taught us to love it?! Slavery and then Jim Crow happened…but so did the Civil Rights Movement, and we progressed!

Even as my parents took us to civil rights museums and landmarks, and I read books about the less savory aspects of American history, the myth of America remained digestible for a long time. When bad things happened, it wasn’t “who we are.” It wasn’t what being American truly is. Being American meant we loved freedom and choices and our “melting pot.” I knew an America that people wanted to flock to because we were better. We had things other countries wanted. I mean, my own parents’ families immigrated here so weren’t we better?

But like a lot of us with our family histories, the peeling back of previously bandaged stories exposes the wounds that were always present. Some of us had the buffers of privilege that prevented us from seeing these wounds clearly. The scars were shielded from us…or we knew where to look and didn’t want to. Some of us are still afraid to.

Some of us are educated into this reality far sooner. The news headlines become our classroom. Our mothers’ murmured stories about our next-door neighbor whose name is now a hashtag become the new hum on our consciousness.

I tumbled off my grandmother’s knee as I later absorbed the weight of other stories. I heard from other voices with experiences very different from my own. The image of the noble but flawed America I thought I knew crumbled away in the face of her sins: abuse, hypocrisy, terror, blood. So much blood. There were things I could not be proud of. There were things I could not look away from.

And so what now? I stand on this stolen land where stolen bodies stood and toiled and dreams are stolen from those this land won’t embrace, and I look at her face and ask: Who are you now America to me?

I grieve first. I mourn the America I was encouraged to love but not challenge, idolize but not question. I mourn the elementary school girl-me-who once believed in her innocence and then felt betrayed when she failed to live up to the Dream she espoused.

I mourn the lost innocence of children who pay the price of our permissible ignorance, of our passive failure to reckon with the roots of our country’s sickness. I mourn with those who have lost parents, sisters, brothers, friends to racism that for too long has gone unchecked and unnamed, even as the line of names of people it has taken grows ever longer.

I love now an America that was always broken and never meant to be worshipped. We are not the promised land. We did not even honor the promises we offered on our first Declaration, even as we made none of the same promises to the people enslaved here or driven from the lands they inhabited.

Our allegiance should not be to this America. We are not called to make her great. She is not exceptional.

What kingdom is it that shoots tear gas at those advocating for murdered and undignified black lives and yet opens Capitol gates for those dismissing their cries and allows them to enter with crosses on their flags?

What kingdom demands the right to life and yet drowns out the voices of those struggling to make a life here because our system is not set up to meet their basic needs?

What kingdom hides from the speaking of uncomfortable truths and speaks over the unassimilated peoples on its margins?

What kingdom builds itself on the prayers of the privileged rather than the pursuit of the poor and their flourishing?

The America of that kingdom is no kingdom at all but an empire that bullies others into submission rather than seeking to listen and uplift the oppressed, the hurting, the immigrant, and those lost in all possible meanings of the word.

We are called to make her a place that cares for ALL the people who dwell with us on this land together. We are to seek to reflect God’s kingdom on this earth in limbo, this earth in the throes between Easter and the final Resurrection.

I realize then that I don’t need to mourn the America I never knew…but I mourn that others still believe she ever existed.

The America I know now has always been wounded, scarred and scarring, and requires her people’s courage to reach into her foundations, repent, and invite God’s remaking and restoration. I look now to not only what we are, but the America we could be.

If you are grieving today, you are not alone. God sees you and weeps with you. You are also not alone in your weariness as you dream and fight for a better world than what we inherited. I feel so helpless sometimes and wonder if I’m ever doing enough, but even in this tension, I find hope in God’s vision for what human community is meant to be. We are invited, not to make it all happen or fix all our world’s problems, to participate in the work Jesus made possible of realizing this vision.

Our country is not some disconnected entity or object to condemn but a complicated constellation of people and their stories over the score of years. That is where “we the people” takes on new hue and meaning. Who is this “we,” who does it exclude now, and how can that change? I have no easy answers to this question, but I will not stop asking it, and I hope you will join me in seeking God in the unknowns we wrestle within now.

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