going global

These days, it’s easy to be a “citizen of the world.” Within a minute, I scan storm updates for the Caribbean on Twitter, get an email alert from one of my French advisees, and dig into a burrito from the joint next door as I sit in a dress made in El Salvador. Without breaking a sweat, I participate in a network of nations I may never physically step into. And if I’m feeling extra-cosmopolitan, I can add a filter to my Facebook profile picture to showcase my support for the most recent country facing disaster. I could even send money to them.

Sarcasm aside, this is not to say we are all laissez-faire in the way we approach global issues, but we should acknowledge we have a low bar to jump when it comes to being interconnected with the rest of the world. We simply are and always have been. And when disaster and controversy strikes, it often shakes us enough to start reevaluating our borders. Then we can decide whether to huddle within them or reach out to the people on the other side–or reform the borders altogether.

Borders perplex me because when you really think about it, they are so antithetical to how human identity and living works. We literally have these lines on a map that some powerful people decided would separate where I belong from all that is Foreign. In one sense I get it: as humans, we block information, people into categories to order our understanding of the world. On the other hand, I keep asking: When we live in a country created by and composed of people from the entire globe, what are America’s borders?

In a childhood bookmarked with Melting Pot coloring pages and Diversity Day fairs, I found myself confused by this question of borders when I asked my white classmates about their background, and they answered: “I’m just American.” I never answered with “American” first when asked the same question (which I was–constantly) because I had become conditioned to respond with my racial and ethnic identities first. People were not looking for or expecting me to say I was American first. I wasn’t white, and so it felt like my peers wanted to figure out the foreignness in me before placing me safely in the “American” category.

Even in elementary school, it was made clear to me that despite our professed love for diversity, Americans are selectively global. Not only that, we only seem to embrace our global identity when it either suits our economic interests or preserves our image as a beautifully inclusive and mixed nation.

The increasing use of rhetoric that champions the cause of “Made in America” and “America First” offers striking evidence of this posture. With each new Executive Order, our national gaze draws further inwards as we anxiously survey our borders, afraid that the threats out there have already infiltrated our land and must be purged.

Why? Because there is the American identity (“the” not “an”), the purest notion of what it means to be an American–and the people we fear don’t fit into it.

No one will say outright that “Being American means you’re white and have lived here for 7 generations,” but our history as a country reinforces this definition of American identity as the norm. Newly-instated policies are preceded by other attempts to reconfigure who deserves to count as American, some of the earliest being the Naturalization Act of 1790 (citizenship limited to white persons) and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (which lasted a decade and gave way to other stigmas).

Suggestions to accept more Norwegians over African immigrants provoke deja vu when you remember that white-passing Cuban elites were airlifted to America first during Fidel Castro’s regime while poor brown and black Cubans were over-represented among the “Marielitos” fleeing on homemade boats. (La Lucha for Cuba: Religion and Politics on the Streets of Miami by Miguel de LaToree sheds light on this dynamic). Our country has made it pretty clear in the past what immigrants are undesirable.

Our hyphenated labels also index what we value, separating the “regular” Americans from those who are conspicuous: African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Arab-Americans, etc. The Unhyphenated become the standard, and their legitimacy as citizens, residents is rarely questioned. Whiteness buys you this buffer: your lack of hyphen projects that you have deep roots in this country, worked hard to earn your place here, and followed the law like an upright model of the American Dream (unless you have a noticeable accent that isn’t posh or sexy–there you’re edging a little too close to being “ethnic”).

Awareness of this standard grows when you examine its inverse: the Hyphenated.  In contrast to American residents deemed White, those classified with hyphenated identities are reflexively set at a distance. They aren’t in our murals of Americana, ploughing fields, building skyscrapers, and dancing under red, white, and blue. Their belonging is not secure, and our well-chronicled efforts to get rid of our undesirables prove it.

We prove it when we criminalize those of Latin American descent even as wring profit from them. We prove it when we reduce Asian immigrants to accents and stereotypes, casting them as foreigners when many have roots here for the same 7 generations as many White Americans. We prove it when we insinuate that Black Americans-some immigrants who moved here and others descended from peoples forcibly brought here-still need to prove themselves worthy and polite enough for their lives to be equally valued and defended. We prove it when we say nothing as our president diminishes the humanity of immigrants and signs order after order shoving out peoples who traveled here as long as decades ago to seek asylum, prosperity, and, ultimately, another home.

In America, we internalize suspicion towards people in the hyphen, people who are visibly non-White. Even if they play by our rules, their loyalty is constantly questioned, their every action representative of a whole population still being assessed as worthy. A Muslim woman wearing a hijab must prove what she isn’t (a terrorist) before proving what she is (an American). And even then, the security of that identity is never assured. If one person in her community missteps, the whole group suffers the fallout. White Americans get to be individuals; everyone else needs to maintain the goodwill towards their people group lest the tides change again.

The kindly image of the Melting Pot is replaced by the series of hurdles to jump over before you can even enter the pot. Then you will be allowed to keep your color, maybe a few trinkets of your culture (because in America we love to collect the exotic things of others), and then make the highly recommended and profitable choice to melt away into AMERICA. Whiteness determines how many ties to the countries outside of American borders you will be allowed to hold onto. Too much and the purity of the pot’s mixture gets diluted.

“But that’s not what America is!” you tell me, and after all, I live in New York City and see the evidence of a very different country teeming with people from all over the world with all their garb, practices, and languages. So if we have these proud beacons of multiculturalism right in the U.S.A., why this concern about policing each others’ American-ness?

Our anxiety remains because America is positioned as a White nation, not a global one.

We are caught in a disturbing paradox when we can declare we care for the poor in Africa, the trafficked in India, the homeless in the Caribbean and Mexico hit by storm after storm and remain conveniently silent when our national leaders tell us our neighbors from those “shithole” places are dangerous. Rather than wrestling with the multiplicity of our national identity, we build walls, deport even once-legal residents, and shun refugees. We are reactive instead of curious about how people come here and deeply ignorant of how America’s historic actions often contribute to migration because of the harm we have caused other nations (the book Harvest of Empire by Juan Gonzalez speaks to the stories connecting Latin America and the US).

This is how we counteract the narrative that America is a pure nation whose heritage must be enshrined in glass: we reject the call to prioritize American self-interests when “just American” is only a synonym for White. White Americans must examine the sense of entitlement that results in the racialized picking and choosing of who can come to our national table. True equity-building will require the humility of those who are racially and/or economically privileged to accept the invitation to the tables of marginalized peoples and collaborate with them.

When this happens, our political actions, even our conversations with friends, begin to rise above the charged rhetoric that splits our country into “conservatives” and “liberals.” We linger in the tension of tougher questions: how to exercise compassion and mercy towards people different from me, how to be faithful in stewarding our country’s resources, how to take ownership of wrongs committed against other nations.

And this question above all: what borders of the heart determine the ones of the soil? If my heart has already decided to shut certain people out, I will not permit them into my house. I will not call them American. I will not call them my sister or brother.

The borders our nation has laid out, however you feel about them, are eclipsed by the borderless love of Christ. This does not negate the need for national security nor the pressing interest for economic stability; instead, Christ’s love positions all other concerns in hierarchy under the commandment to love and delight in our neighbors without preexisting conditions. We begin here, and our vision of our diverse country clarifies and gains durability. We begin here, and our steps forward will dignify each other rather than divide us from each other.

Americans’ selective globality renders us incapable of envisioning a country where cooking jollof rice and arroz con pollo and curry chicken and hot dogs are all deeply and equally American. Not ethnic, not niche–American.  As Moana’s father tells her in the movie: “Our people are not out there–they are right here.”

The world isn’t just out there in the places where people send aid and missionaries. It’s not limited to the places that resource our coffee and bananas and cell phone parts. The world is right here in America, spilling over our borders and reminding us that if we say we are “global citizens,” we must also choose to be accountable to the people our lives touch everyday and share this land with us. 

don’t catch fire as you rise

Wax dripped onto my fingers as I gripped a candle in the midst of hundreds. I stood in Washington Square two nights ago, catching snatches of the speakers’ declarations, a litany of “Stand up, fight back”s and “This is what America looks like”s and “No ban, no wall”s. The memory of the press of people at my shoulders bolsters me now as I consider the past few days of controversial Executive Orders and the resulting protests.

It is a complicated day to be an American. It gets even more labyrinthine when you are a woman of color and a Christian. I find myself caught between multiple communities, affirming some words, hesitating with others, all the while trying to be consistent in where I stand. I must contend with the condemnations of the Women’s March that I walked in as well as the constant charges from other Christians to “give Trump a chance” and “wait and see.” I understand their reluctance to judge Trump’s actions–it can be perceived as an exercise of grace for a new leader.

Yet Trump has had more than a year-decades in fact-to demonstrate what kind of man he is and what he values. Words reflect the orientation of the heart, and I take his words seriously, as well as those from the constituents he surrounds himself with, many of whom at the worst have ties with nativist, neo-Nazi, and other discriminatory organizations and at the least offensive are unqualified for their positions of influence.

One hand grips this understanding. Then there is this:

Do I believe in a God big enough to transform Donald Trump’s heart, lead him in paths of wisdom and mercy? Yes. The answer will always be yes, as much as it was for Paul, as much as it was for me. When I align with Michelle Obama’s stance that “When they go low, we go high,” I choose to believe in God’s boundless ability to cultivate love in any person and use their life for good purpose–I refuse to doom them to eternal depravity, and it’s not my role anyway. Out of this, I choose to refrain from attacking Trump’s family, from engaging in aggressive actions against those who voted for him. Even if he doesn’t change, I still choose this. Going high means we don’t get to satisfy our desire to hurt others who have hurt us, no matter how justified it may be, and only God can enable that kind of grace.

I want to do the hard thing: acknowledge the imago dei in others AND hold them accountable for their actions–especially when those actions carry so much weight for communities already facing intense marginalization. There is a way to do both, and that path leads to the Cross. “We have the privilege of loving our enemies,” a friend told me yesterday. “And God’s like ‘You weren’t able to do this before. Not without me.'”

I had never thought about it in that way before. I get the privilege of loving my enemies. Before Christ, there was NO reason to do this–it makes no sense, it feels wrong even. Unfair. That is the Gospel though: the unfairness of Jesus’ sacrifice for us because how dare He choose to love the unlovable. How can I stand before God and reject the humanity of another person He created when I have been reborn through this Gospel?

I think it becomes harder to receive this message when others have co-opted it to silence you and soften the edges of horrific realities. I have witnessed too many white Christians appropriating the grace of the Gospel to dispel the pain of their sisters and brothers of color. I went to a Christian college and felt the sting when me and other black students were criticized for “creating more division” and “being too angry” when we talked about the racial problems on our campus. By the time a blatant incident of racism happened and no one at school could ignore it, the chimes of forgive forgive forgive forgive from our white classmates pricked at calluses built over years of dismissal and apathy.

Looking back on that experience, I’ve realized that the barriers became so thick because I felt like we were being asked to extend a hand, extend trust, extend grace, with no assurance that the other students even acknowledged our pain or would take steps to stand by us in the future. Some of us had been burnt too many times to risk it.

I’m sharing this now because I want to emphasize how hard Jesus’ teaching is when he tells us to love our enemies–and it may not even be our enemies! It could be loving our friends and neighbors and co-workers-and even family-who have committed microaggressions against us, who have offended us with their words spoken out of ignorance, who have perpetuated a passive acceptance of the world as it is because they haven’t seen it for the specific challenges we experience–or have been unwilling to. Where we locate the resistant tension in our hearts when we think of these people in our lives, that is where all the implications of “do good to those who hurt you” becomes a serrated truth, cutting deep.

I get the privilege of loving others when it feels impossible to do so. That is what Christ enables us to live out in our everyday interactions with others, whether that be on Facebook, in the work room, or at the dinner table. But what does this love look like? Does it look like holding hands and smiling at each other, pretending that our houses aren’t burning behind us? Does it mean we wave off Trump and get over it?


There is grave injustice at work in our country, and there are forces actively spurring the flames of disunity and fear. We shouldn’t diminish the wrongness of that. I am furious, and every time I see another Executive Order, I feel like screaming to the sky “Come, Jesus come!” Our church is in a fractious state, our conversations with neighbors brittle with unspoken grievances. We must stand where are and look around; this is where we are starting. Loving each other within this space of tension and uncertainty and breaches of understanding means that we choose to wrestle with the pain, with the current division and still face the Cross together as we do this.

We call out evil when we see it. We humbly challenge each other to consider experiences we aren’t familiar with (I’ve been learning a lot about the experiences of my low-income white sisters and brothers lately). We mourn the pain of others even as we invite them to enter our own. We speak out when we’ve been sinned against and repent when we sin against others, individually and as a community. We say NO to any laws and actions that harm our neighbors. We resist racism and sexism and xenophobia and persecution of any kind that grieves God’s heart. We acknowledge unbalanced power dynamics in our relationships, in our systems, and we dismantle them, guided by those who have been disempowered. That is love that rises to survey the mess and embraces the incisive truth-telling and white-knuckled dialogues that form the foundations for bridges.

Exposing the pain, exhaling it, tangling and untangling it with another person willing to work through it with you, as equals, is one of the most terrifying and healing choices you can make. I had one of these conversations with a friend, a white woman I love dearly, and I’ll never forget what she told me, or the validating balm it was for my grief and outrage:

I’m sorry that in the great gamble of history, for some reason, people who look like me, people with my color skin, came out on top. I don’t know why that is when it could’ve have easily been the other way around. I’m sorry for the ways me and my people have hurt your community. I’m sorry for the ways I’ve oppressed you or silenced you and your community–especially unintentionally…The greatest injustice is that you were made to feel guilty for doing the things to survive, to feel safe…I don’t have a right to your trust. I have to earn it…Will you forgive me?

I did. And she forgave me for all the times I’ve painted her with a broad-brush, dismissed her as another white person I struggled to trust, failed to empathize with the suffering she has seen and experienced in the South. We’ve had a lot more of these conversations in the past year–and it’s hard. It’s confusing and tense and cathartic and vulnerable. We have found communion within burning wreckage and discovered ways to build a friendship that allows us both to rise without blistering.

In some ways it’s easier and harder to do this with a friend–what about with a stranger? Someone on the Internet? That person at church whose politics make you grit your teeth?The politician who makes himself an dart-board for mockery? Can we pursue this type of radical, counter-cultural, Gospel-seeded love with them too? I am asking myself this question now as I struggle between the reflex to pile insult and indignation and the awareness of how my actions testify to Christ whom I claim dwells in me. There is a difference between the righteous outrage that illuminates wrong and the bitter rancor that can warp our vision. We cannot shame and demean another person and face the Cross at the same time. Neither can we go high and still grip stones to throw.

hidden fences and tripped syllables

Awards season is here–whether you foam at the mouth at the mention of “Oscar” or start to yawn instead. Regardless, now is the time when critics and audiences sum up the highlights of the cinematic year. We start hearing more and more about “Oscar bait,” a reference to the period films and historical biopics and somber dramas that usually garner the acclaim of the Academy. This is when we reap the so-called best of the harvest–the films that enter the pantheon of essential films introduced to later generations. For Americans, these films are meant to reflect the peaks of our cultural and creative endeavor.

So I was irked when a reporter interviewed Pharrell Williams at the Golden Globes for his work on “Hidden Fences.” The ire flared again when Michael Keaton later announced Octavia Spencer (a notable black actress) for her nomination in…again “Hidden Fences.” There is no “Hidden Fences.” There is the movie Hidden Figures and the movie Fences, both of which:

a) came out recently

b) contain predominantly black casts

c) have received much praise from audiences and critics alike

But it’s a simple flub right? Shouldn’t I let it go and simply move on–after all, people make mistakes when on-air all the time. However, to simply dismiss it would be to forget #OscarsSoWhite. Last year’s awards season controversy centered on the startling dearth of people of color featured in film and critical attention…at least startling to many white Americans. When the gap finally become too wide to miss, suddenly you saw this outpouring of indignant articles and tweets confronting the Academy.

Black Twitter and other spaces where POC congregate have been tackling this subject for years.

I find myself less trusting of mainstream awards shows when it comes to representation of minority groups–and for good reason. When an actor or actress of color becomes a media darling, the result can be a double-edged sword: while their performance or film receives deserved recognition, the awareness of their race also heightens with it, and it can lead to some painful “flubs.” I still remember how people cooed over child actress Quvenzhané Wallis a few years ago for her performance in Beasts of the Southern Wild, and yet few took the time to pronounce her name correctly. Her otherness took form in the syllables of her name, which became unwieldy steps tripped over by white announcers and reporters and late-night hosts.

She was not the only person of color to have her non-whiteness pointed at by Hollywood, and she was not the last. White Americans do not have a great track record when it comes to celebrating people of color in cinema. The African-American blog MadameNoire has a great tongue-in-cheek article that highlights just how many black celebrities have been mistaken for each other over the years. The gaffes turn into a joke on SNL and then the public moves on–but we haven’t moved forward. That two major films like Hidden Figures and Fences can be confused for each other when this doesn’t happen to the La La Lands and Allieds underlines the need for more media spaces opened to people of color. It also underlines just how desperately America needs re-education on how white privilege functions both on the screen and off.

If two black films getting popular is such an anomaly that they can be treated as interchangeable, even though they focus on different subject matter, how indistinguishable are black people in everyday life?

I’m not talking about friends and neighbors–I’m talking about what happens when the rich diversity of darker-skinned peoples becomes subsumed into Black (for more on the history of racial labeling, check out The History of White People). There is so much awkwardness and tension surrounding the use of the labels “White” or “white people,” and weirdly enough, a nonwhite person could be written off as a “reverse racist” for using them. No one bats an eye when you start talking about black people. The facile use of “Black” implies that those connected to that category as normalized as part of a collective while “White” is associated with the individual. Black can be collectivized, blended and stereotyped on that level while White has the option of remaining safely unique and independent (no, those jokes about “white people can’t dance” are not equivalent in this conversation). White people don’t actually have to be white or a people, but black people will still ping on the radar in relation to their racial group first.

This isn’t even a phenomenon exclusive to black people–I’ve observed many times when a Korean and Chinese person are confused for one another, when blanket statements about “those Hispanics” pop up in conversation, when a Indian friend is asked if their “English name” can be used instead because their actual name twists the tongue. It stings. Not only are people of color defined first by a group status, reducing our singularities, our identity is implied as “forever foreign” (as Mia Tuan points out in her book Forever Foreigners or Honorary Whites?: The Asian Ethnic Experience Todayor, simply, alternative to the norm–not white. When you are not the implicit norm, less time and space is allocated by the mainstream to examine those nuances that craft the complexity of your personhood.

Lack of exposure to diversity and a lack of effort to make those differences matter in personal practice cultivates this kind of latent indifference that slips into daily interactions. It may not be intentional, but it casts people of color in the role of the perpetual Other, and the reality is reinforced when our varied cultural ways of being, even down to the way we worship, can be construed as a deviation from standard–or worse, superfluous enough that it’s optional to learn our histories. That is why I took African-American Literature only as an elective in college–because we didn’t read black stories in the required core English classes. That is what it looks like to be on the margins: even your stories aren’t easily accessible.

In his speech on racial separatism, Malcolm X critiqued some contingents within the Civil Rights movement for over-emphasizing assimilation into American society as the ultimate goal of the movement. He stressed that the push for integration had not benefited black people–it just gave a new shape to their marginalization. He pointed to the white flight that occurred after neighborhoods were integrated, the economic disparities black people faced even as the color line by law appeared to dissolve. His words challenged listeners to think critically about whether assimilation signified true equality or a buttressing of whiteness as the ultimate aspiration for all Americans. I wonder if he feared what would be lost if black people were assimilated but not embraced on their own terms.

While I disagree with his conclusion that racial separation is the answer, I resonate with his frustration. Sometimes it feels like for all the self-congratulating speeches our nation gives itself on our progress, the otherness of our communities has been sharpened in the process. For instance, Black and Asian and Latinx persons shouldn’t be treated as exceptional only when they represent the exception for “their people,” framed in a triumphalist narrative that is palatable enough to be celebrated. When that happens, they are still being defined by their otherness and how well they negotiate it in white-dominated spheres of influence like Hollywood.

We shouldn’t need to be reframed or renamed to be welcomed as equals. We are allowed to be individuals, God-created persons who embody a mosaic of taste and talent and experience. And yet we should also avoid diluting our ethnic differences away to replace them with an antiseptic type of colorblindness that misses the richness of our individual and collective histories and cultures. There is a way to honor that variety without crystallizing it as atypical. Unity emerges from differences valued rather than tolerated.

We celebrate MLK’s birthday today, and it’s vital that we don’t romanticize the man and the injustices he noticed and challenged during his lifetime. MLK was a controversial figure who didn’t just speak of dreams–he spoke about the alienation of black people in a society not designed for our flourishing. He was the man who preached:

“History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”

MLK framed inequality as not only the result of these silences, but also as a reflection of our estrangement as a greater American community. We are still not one people when some members are accepted as American without a second thought while others clamber over the -dash.

When even the names of people of color cannot be pronounced correctly, the American story contracts a little more, and the walls press against the backs of those who rarely enter the center of the action. We (people of color) are here. Our stories already indent this land. So maybe it is not the belonging associated with assimilation that we seek. I don’t want to be melted away into a pot of progress, my blackness, my Latinxness ceasing to matter. Neither do I want that diversity casually stumbled over, glanced at, treated as alternative and alien instead of beautiful and right and utterly normal.

Maybe we simply want the freedom of visibility, to be acknowledged, not as beacons of racial progress to indulge or emblems of the exotic and unpronounceable to tease, but as equals. What is hidden and held back can be hurt; when those hidden step into the light, they are human, bodied, and lovable. MLK was one such person who mirrored Christ in the way his actions clothed once-invisible bodies so they would no longer be ignored or diminished. He helped dignify marginalized peoples and champion the worth already inherent in their creation. So now when our names are spoken, when our stories are shared, when we join with our brothers and sisters of all colors and take up more space in the fabric of America, we honor that legacy and carry it forward.

“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made straight and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.” – Martin Luther King Jr. 

on the other side of empire 

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.