Truth and Reconciliation in the United States

True reconciliation in the present and justice for all in the future require the acceptance of truth about the past. This is not something we should avoid out of a fear that it will make us uncomfortable, and it is a reality that we should be discussing in our churches and in our schools, and it is not something we should avoid talking about with our children and young people in thoughtful and constructive ways. Children and youth are made much more uncomfortable and much more traumatized when they learn they have been lied to about our past than when they actually learn about the injustices of our history.

In the Psalms of the Hebrew Bible, the beautiful imagery is used of a connection between love and truth meeting and righteousness and peace kissing (Psalm 85), but experience has also shown us that when hate, lies, and propaganda meet; the kiss of injustice and violence will follow. If we cannot persuade people to our cause without lying and without vilifying others, there is something wrong with both us and our cause, and if we cannot persuade people without lying or without turning them against other persons, then we should not be attempting to persuade people at all.

In the United States we seem to be struggling with telling the truth about ourselves, recognizing the mistakes of our past, and finding creative ways to improve as a society. So many cling to the myth of American Exceptionalism and the myth of innate American Goodness that comes with it.

We in this country are not the only society to be guilty of the delusion of exceptionalism. It is a sin that one finds in empire after empire in the course of human history, and this makes a certain kind of sense. How could you justify taking over other countries or other persons’ land and freedom unless you thought you were pretty special or better than the people you were subjugating? Many European nations thought they were exceptional when they colonized the lands of people in Asia, the Pacific, Africa, the Americas, and Australia and when they enslaved persons to build their empires. The Romans, the Greeks, and the Persians thought they were exceptional when they built their empires as well, as did many other societies around the world who thought so highly of themselves that they justified the subjugation of others.

Many currently existing nations have this exceptionalism as part of their past, and many still participate in this attitude of exceptionalism to one degree or another, but for the past century, perhaps no country has blown its horn of exceptionalism more loudly and consistently as the United States.

In pointing out the problems of U.S. American exceptionalism, I am not calling for us to become a self-loathing nation that hates itself and does not celebrate its accomplishments and contributions in the world. Such a society would not be a healthy or flourishing society. What I am saying is that for us to become a better society, we need to have a more humble, realistic, constructively self critical, and truthful view of ourselves.

Coming to terms with the truth about who we are as a society is not an easy exercise. It can be extremely sad and excruciatingly painful to take a cold hard look at who we are and what we have done; but the reality is that if we want to become better as a people, if we want to begin to make amends for our wrongdoing, if we want to be a just society for all people reconciled together in beloved community, then we have to give up the myth of exceptionalism that has clouded our thinking and our collective self assessment for so long. Before we can be redeemed in any meaningful way as a nation, we must recognize our collective sins, be accountable for these sins, repent from these ways that have oppressed so many persons for so long, and truly work to make amends for our sins in ways that are manifested in justice for all people.

Taking a hard look at who we are means being truthful about our sins of white supremacy and racism that have kept us from ever being a good and just nation for all people. 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.

The European American conquest of indigenous people and land involved the killing of millions of persons through genocide, displaced them from their lands, separated them from their families, and systematically exterminated their culture. America’s search for greatness was built on violent injustice for our indigenous siblings.

Taking a hard look at who we are and seeking true reconciliation means being truthful about our sins against 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 black people through economic exploitation, incarceration, widespread and frequent lynching, and state sponsored and enforced inequality.

Taking a hard look at who we are and seeking true reconciliation means being truthful about our sins against women who were basically treated as the property of men for much of American history, who could not even vote until 1921, with black women being disenfranchised for decades longer, sins against women who even today get paid less than men for the same work, who are exploited by men in positions of power, who have had reproductive choices taken away from them, and who endure sexual harassment and assault.

Taking a hard look at who we are and seeking true reconciliation means being truthful about our sins against persons who are LGBTQIA+ who are just beginning to share equal rights under the law that many persons are still trying to strip away from them. For most of U.S. American history, persons who are LGBTQIA+ have been discriminated against, bullied, shunned, mocked, and often attacked violently.

Taking a hard look at who we are and seeking true reconciliation means being truthful about the reality that for most of U.S. 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 recently called for travel bans on persons who are Muslim and separated refugee children from their families. Reconciliation is only possible if we see the truth of these sins, repent of these sins, and make amends for these sins.

Taking a hard look at who we are and seeking true reconciliation means recognizing that our history has included many strands of violent injustice woven into the cruel tapestry of what America has been and continues to be. Yes, we have had some good and perhaps even 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 a bit ironic given our current political situation. We have had some great moments, but we are not exceptional, we are not innately better than other cultures and countries, and if we want to bring about true reconciliation for people and the planet, the sooner we come to terms with this truth, the better for us all.

And those of us who are Christians must wrestle with the fact that the pathology of American Exceptionalism is closely linked to the pathology of Christian Exceptionalism and the racist Doctrine of Discovery that was used to justify Christian imperial and colonial expansion. If love and truth are to meet and justice and peace are to kiss one another, we as Christians will need to address this reality, repent from it, and move forward with humility in love.

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