Owning our history – All of it

Published 10:51 am Saturday, June 25, 2016

by Andrew Book

I am an American. I am happy to call myself an American. As someone who has lived abroad in a country where government corruption and violence are a part of everyday life, I can truly say it is a privilege and a blessing to be a citizen of this country. As someone who has relied on our government’s help when detained in a country that lacks religious freedom, I can truly say we are blessed to live in a place where we can worship freely. As someone who has traveled to South Korea and received the thanks of many people who still remember our role in protecting South Korea during the Korean War, I can truly say that we have impacted the world for good. I am an American.

As Americans, we like to remember the achievements of our country as “OURS.” We celebrate the ways that we were able to oppose the Nazis and their allies during World War II, and how we opposed Soviet communism, how we stand against tyranny and oppression. We have lots of things to celebrate— and we do celebrate them!

On the other hand, we also have some dark spots. As quickly as we claim the good as “our” story, we also reject the bad as “their” mistakes because we don’t want to have anything to do with them!

“We” opposed the Nazis, but “they” (some unknown government official) created American internment camps for innocent Japanese-Americans. “We” opposed communism, but it was Joseph McCarthy who is to blame for the “Red Scare,” which had Americans spying on each other and being jailed for being “un-American.” “We” stand against oppression, but it was President Andrew Jackson who evicted Native Americans from their lands and led them on the trail of tears where many died. We don’t want to be associated with these tragedies, but they are as much a part of our history as the successes we are quick to claim. The reality is that “we” have just as much role in the good as the bad. If we are Americans, then we need to own our history. All of it.

As a United Methodist pastor, I can claim a lot of good. United Methodist have done great work in calling people to faith, building communities who serve God, fighting malaria in Africa, building untold numbers of schools, colleges and universities, working in many aspects of healthcare and more. I could go on about the “good” because that is what we celebrate and that is what I want to claim, but the reality is that there is bad too.

I recently learned about a horrible part of our shared Methodist and American history: the Sand Creek Massacre. The massacre was a slaughter of Native American women, children and the elderly from the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes by Union Army in 1864. It was led by a Methodist who was on leave from serving as a pastor in a territory governed by a Methodist at a time when the Methodist Church supported anything that furthered the westward expansion of the United States. As I heard the story, I wanted to say “they” were horrible, cruel, barbaric and even evil. However, in the same way that I want to claim Methodist hospitals, schools and lives transformed, I also need to own this massacre. I need to say, “WE.” I need to repent and apologize and recognize that massacre is a part of my history.

More than once I have apologized for the Methodist Church, because it is my church and its failures are my failures. I have apologized for Methodist pastors who have turned people from God, painful words that have come from Methodist pulpits, and ways that the Methodist church has failed to lead people to God. It’s only fair for me to own the failures because I love celebrating the lives which Methodists have changed.

You have the same kind of history: some of it is beautiful, some is ugly, but it is all yours. Own your history, both the good and the bad. Work to heal what has been broken even as you celebrate the beauty in your story. Glossing over the pains of the past to celebrate the good keeps us from healing the wounds and divisions of the past. We live in a word desperately in need of healing, and the only way to heal is to acknowledge where the wrong has been done. We all have parts of that wrong in our history. May we claim it, confess it, repent of it, and move into the future with wounds that can heal because we are no longer pretending those wounds are only “theirs.”

ANDREW BOOK is the pastor of Courtland United Methodist Church. He can be contacted at 653-2240 or andrew@courtlandumcva.org.