One extremely painful aspect of last week (though nothing compared to the pain of separated families) is that many of us realized that people we thought we knew are not the people we thought we knew. When you discover that people you thought you knew are okay with separating children from their parents and putting them in cages, it is not like you can just say “okay, I can bracket that off and still be their friends.” When people you thought you knew accept brown babies and brown children in detention camps, it changes everything. How do you have high school reunions with people who accept ripping children away from their parents and putting them in detention camps? How do you sit in the pews with persons who are glad that our president is “fulfilling his promises and finally doing what needs to be done”? How can you share Thanksgiving meals with persons who seem to be thankful that children are being separated from their parents and who are thankful for a president who lies relentlessly about immigrants and refugees and who refers to immigrants as “animals” who are “infesting” our country? We thought we knew you, but we didn’t really know you. Now we know you, and it changes everything.
We cannot pretend, however, that the evil of the past few weeks has arisen in a vacuum. It is part of a long history of cruelty, oppression, and racism in our country. The separation of families and detention of children are perhaps causing many people to be more fully aware of a reality that has long been known by persons of color and women: America can never be “great again” because we have never been great.
Those who are enthralled with the mantra of “Make America Great Again” have taken us far down the path of making America openly and sadistically cruel again for the sake of clinging to the very white supremacy and racism that has kept us from ever being great in the first place. America has an enduring myth of greatness, but true greatness can never be built with the materials of conquest, slavery, domination, suffering, and exploitation of people and the planet that is constructed on a foundation of gross and violent injustice.
After the European conquest, America was never great for the indigenous people who were killed by the millions through genocide, displaced from their lands, separated from their families, and whose culture and people were systematically exterminated in America’s search for greatness built on violent injustice. America will never be “great again” for our indigenous sisters and brothers unless we are speaking of a greatness experienced before European contact before America was even known by that name.
America was never great for the people of African descent who were shipped here in chains, many dying on the journey, sold into slavery, separated from their families, raped by their evil slaveholders, and tortured and killed if they resisted or sought their freedom. Even after America fought a civil war and ended the institution of slavery, the law of the land still enabled the systematic oppression of African Americans through economic exploitation, incarceration, widespread and frequent lynching, and state sponsored and enforced inequality. America can never be “great again” for our African American sisters and brothers because for them it was never great.
America was never great for women who were basically treated as the property of men for much of American history, who could not even vote until 1921, who even today get paid less than men for the same work, who are exploited by men in positions of power, and who endure sexual harassment and assault and having their genitalia grabbed by a man who still becomes President of the United States even after being publicly exposed for bragging about it. America can never be “great again” for women, especially women of color, because for them it was never great.
Today persons who are LGBTQ+ are just beginning to share equal rights under the law that those who want to make America “great again” would like to see stripped away. For most of American history, persons who are LGBTQ+ have been discriminated against, bullied, shunned, mocked, and often attacked violently. America can never be “great again” for our siblings who are LGBTQ+ because for them America has never been great.
For most of American history, those who were white Protestant Christians have experienced a favored status within our society. Up until recently, Roman Catholics were often openly discriminated against by the Protestant majority. Other racial and religious minorities have been more or less tolerated depending on time and place, but we are a country that turned away ships of Jewish refugees during WWII, that put Japanese Americans in internment camps, that exploits the cheap labor of immigrants, and that elected a president who called for a ban on all Muslims and ignores violent actions of non-Muslims while beating the drum of Islamophobia by highlighting any violent act committed by a person who is Muslim. America will never be “great again” for persons who are from racial or religious minority groups or for persons who have no religion at all because for them it was never great.
In the context of American history, the evil that we have seen in the past few weeks is not an isolated incident, but rather another strand of violent injustice woven into the cruel tapestry of what America has been and continues to be. Yes, we have had some great moments in our history – we ended slavery, women gained the vote and other significant rights, civil rights legislation was passed, marriage equality was made the law of the land, and we even helped the world defeat fascism, which is ironic given that our current president and his followers are supporting the 21st Century offspring of 20th Century fascism across Europe and the United States. We have had some great moments, but we have never truly been great. For the most part we haven’t even been good.
In a time when we once again are actively building our society on a foundation of violent injustice based in hate and fear, when we are horrified by friends and neighbors supporting holding children in detention centers at our borders; it may be helpful to remember that other countries have made it through periods of intense injustice and found ways to survive and work for reconciliation, and we will likely need to learn from their experiences. It will not be easy, and it will take collective reflection and repentance. Our friends in South Africa will have something to teach us in relation to coming to terms with our truth in order to move towards some type of reconciliation.
I hope will get to a point where that will be possible some day, but it will never be possible as long as our current president is in office, and it will not happen by simply forgetting that millions of Americans support a regime that dehumanizes entire groups of people and uses the instruments of hate and fear to gain, maintain, and expand its power. Reconciliation will only be possible if we can face the truth of what we have become and the truth of what we are doing, and our president has no concern with the truth. His presidency is the Big Lie. Hopefully there will come a day of reconciliation for our country, but when millions of people are willing to support a president who separates children of all ages from their parents and puts them in cages, the focus now must be on resistance.
America can never be “great again,” but if we do not resist the current evil in our land, we may very well become openly cruel, unjust, and even genocidal again. We can never be “great again,” but if all good and decent persons work together, perhaps someday we can hope to finally be good.