There is a strange warning being passed around these days and I expect, with Independence Day coming up, its urgency will be heightened. It comes in different shades, but essentially we are being alerted to a frightening new development which seeks to retell this country’s origin story. If you have even a passing awareness of the back-and-forth about, for example, Critical Race Theory or The 1619 Project produced by the Times you know what I’m referring to. It’s not that most of the critics of CRT or Nicole Hannah-Jones’ work are engaging with particular nuances about the way U.S. American history is being reexamined. Rather, at their most flustered, they have labeled these efforts as un-American and, in some circles, anti-Christian.
However, as we approach July 4th it’s a good time to remember that criticizing the story this country tells about itself has a long history and is, in fact, a deeply Christian instinct.
One of the most obvious example comes in the form of Frederick Douglass’ famous speech on July 5, 1852 to a gathering of abolitionists in Rochester, New York. “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” is the question Douglass put to his audience that day. By questioning the fundamental meaning of the day the nation celebrated its independence, Douglass was forcing his listeners to imagine a different – and truer – story.
Fellow-citizens, above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them. If I do forget, if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorrow this day, “may my right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!” To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme, would be treason most scandalous and shocking, and would make me a reproach before God and the world.
For Douglass, to not confront a national myth which erased the suffering of so many people, which narrated the privileged as God’s innocent chosen ones, would be deceptive and un-Christian. It would represent a failure of discipleship.
America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future. Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the constitution and the Bible which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery, the great sin and shame of America!
Again, Douglass understands it to be his Christian responsibility to compel those who prefer their comfortable myth to open their eyes to a shameful reality. “Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting.”
There is, of course, room for disagreement and debate as we discuss the complexities of this country’s history. But the wholesale rejection of attempts to tell a truer story, a story which does not center those of us who’ve benefitted from the lies we’ve told but on those who’ve long endured under them, well, this is an un-Christian instinct and one that disciples of Jesus, like Douglass and so many others, must firmly reject.
Using fearmongering and shaming tactics to reinforce a false narrative is to live coherently, if wickedly, from this very narrative. People who have lied about their own goodness and innocence for so long, at the expense of so many, are today repeating what they have always done. Douglass reminds us that despite this long trajectory of deceit, it is possible to stand before the beneficiaries of a warped mythology and speak the plain truth. In fact, our allegiance to Jesus, if not this country, demands it.
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