Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Churches' Confrontation with Historic Guilt: Implications for the Present

When I ask where hate goes, once it has spent itself and done its dirty work within a given social context, I’m asking, as well, where such hate goes in the lives of faith communities who participate in or even engender such social violence.  Where does hate go, for communities of faith that have taken part in the scapegoating and even destruction of demeaned minority groups?

What I’m asking quite specifically is not merely how communities of faith deal with the memory of our participation in such unethical actions, but what that memory implies for us, if we are sincere about remembrance (and about the solidarity that remembrance inevitably implies, since remembering is re-membering: it’s an act of solidarity that puts broken pieces back together).

As a Christian, I have an obligation to ask such questions about my own religious tradition—and about myself, as someone formed within that tradition and still interacting with it.  And if I were honest, I’d have to say that I’m struggling with these questions, that any answer I can propose to them is not entirely satisfactory.  These are questions whose answers require me to live in uncomfortable tension that can be acutely painful, if I take the questions seriously.

I am not convinced, first and foremost, that many of us who belong to Christian communities of faith want to commit ourselves to the struggle to remember and what it implies.  It is easier to pretend that we have atoned for the sins of our past and to move on, as if those we buried in the past are now safely buried: as if their voices do not cry out for remembrance in the present, since they are dead.  And gone. 

Built into the worldview of many faith communities living in cultures of atomic individualism is a hidden, unexamined presupposition that the marginalization and destruction of despised others in the past is a lamentable, but necessary, precondition for how things happen to be today.  The road along which we marched to modernity is, unfortunately, paved with the bones of those who had to die in order to build that road.

And so we lament.  And mourn.  And profess our sorrow for the destruction of despised others in the past, and for our complicity in that destruction.

But even in the lamentation and mourning and professions of guilt is buried the belief that, precisely in making our statements of repentance, we have absolved ourselves of any connection to or responsibility for those who are now safely dead and gone.  Our very statements of repentance proclaim our intent to move on, as if making acts of repentance for the inevitable cruelty in which history involves us as we move to the future is simply part of the price one must pay for walking down the road of history.

And as if we do not vastly compound the guilt of atrocities in which our faith community was involved in the past, when we accept those atrocities as part of the price we must pay for living in the present we have constructed.

I am not convinced that many Christian communities of faith in contemporary American culture authentically lament the churches’ involvement in slavery and the destruction of indigenous peoples and culture, for instance—I am not convinced that we even have the capability for such lament—when I look at how we continue to live, despite those events.  Events that should interrupt history, and not be used as a tragic but necessary step along the path of progress.

Events that should interrupt our own lives today, if our lamentation were authentic.

I say that I am not convinced that we North American Christians even have the capability of lamenting such interruptive events in history and our complicity in making them happen, because we did not in the past and cannot in the present even imagine that our lives connect in an effective, inextricable, never-to-be-ignored way that makes us one with those whose lives we have used and destroyed in order to “better” our own.

If the lamentation of Christian people of faith for our involvement in sins of racism and slavery in the past were real, we would find it unthinkable to replicate those sins today, in a social context that demands new and different others to vanquish. 

And yet it is frequently the very groups within our communities of faith who were most vociferous about demeaning people of color in the past—and who are often now the loudest in proclaiming repentance for the sin of racism—that are most intent on doing to gay and lesbian persons today what we did to people of color in the past.  It is not merely that we do not learn and cannot learn from history.

It is that we deceive ourselves into imagining that our vilification of gay people and destruction of gay lives and relationships today exists on some other plane than that on which the racism of the past existed.  When it is precisely the same phenomenon in new historical clothes . . . .

And at some point down the road, those now lamenting the churches’ historic racism in order to consolidate political ties between black and white Christians resisting the inclusion of gays in church and society will profess, just as they profess now, that they were blind about the implications of their homophobic hate, in the period of history when they gave that hate free rein.

But those whose lives are being made miserable as a result of the hate in the 21st century will be as dead and gone then as the enslaved people or the victims of the Holocaust whom we claim to mourn are now dead and gone.  And the churches’ professions of repentance for its involvement in homophobic hate will be as unconvincing and inauthentic in the future as are the professions of repentance for racism or anti-semitism now.

It’s only when the church makes such professions of guilt with the intent to stop hating here and now—at the point in history when the church pays a price for repudiating hate—that such statements of atonement become authentic.  Until people of faith recognize that there is never a point in history in which turning others into despised objects in order to give ourselves the illusion that we are free of sin is never justifiable; until we people of faith commit ourselves to struggle against that tendency at every point in history, because it is inside all of us; until we learn that our faith commitment requires us to analyze and make choices about the social operations of hate in the present and not only the past: until all of this happens, we will not be convincing when we claim to have recognized and begun to deal with our complicity in the sins of the past.