Our National Wound

"At the bus station," Durham, North Carolina, May 1940. Photo by Jack Delano. Public domain.

“At the bus station,” Durham, North Carolina, May 1940. Photo by Jack Delano. Public domain.

“They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.”  —Jeremiah 6:14 (English Standard Version)

If the Bible is to be believed, it is possible for a people, a nation to have unhealed wounds. I would propose this is so for my nation, the United States. I believe that wound is a wound involving racial injustice and hatred. We said in our Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” And yet we have systematically and brutally restricted these rights for a number of our people.

We did so for the native peoples who held our land when we arrived, breaking every treaty we made, and at times engaging in acts of genocide, and in the end confining the remaining to “reservations”. Was this Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness?

In our Constitution we called the African-American slave “three-fifths” of a person and codified a system of oppression. We spent hundreds of thousands of lives over this issue, and while slaves were emancipated and supposedly given many rights, the hatred of African-Americans by both north and south continued from the time of Reconstruction and the Jim Crow laws that followed down to the present. We say we’ve made progress, and indeed we have when we elect a President of partial African-American descent. And certainly racial attitudes have changed for many. But hatred remains, and anger, and we are faced with the dilemma of realizing that no laws or policies can change the human heart.

Despite all we have spent in money, and blood, and in our legal system, I would propose that we have healed the wounds of our nation lightly. While more might be done institutionally, and probably should be, unless we face our woundedness as a people, these are only bandages on festering sores–concealing the wound but not really cleansing it.

What is involved in facing our woundedness? First of all, I think it means to acknowledge that it is there in all its uglinessness and fetidness. We often want to believe the best of ourselves and our national ideals and so it is hard to face that we are caught up in a legacy of oppression, hatred, and deeds of violence. It is hard to just sit with this–we want to move on, change the topic of conversation, change the channel. And we go on healing wounds lightly.

Sitting with this leads to grief. I grieve that my only fear in driving is being cited for speeding. I never think that I might be stopped, and my vehicle searched, because I fit a racial profile. Some of my friends live with this fear every time they get in their car. I live between two rivers with Indian names, yet the history of my own state is one of driving native peoples out and taking their land. Now in my state only 25,000 claim native heritage out of 11.5 million. Who have we lost, and what have we lost?

Sitting with our woundedness may lead to repentance. Repentance is coming to the place of being sick and tired of being sick and tired. Repentance is honestly facing our wounds and wanting healing, whatever it takes. In this case, it is saying we can no longer live with an atmosphere of hatred, of systemic injustices and the demeaning of others to preserve our sense of self.

As a person of faith, repentance takes me to a place of acknowledging that I need God, and others to heal my wounds. This so goes against American solutionism that thinks we can fix anything with a few more laws, more money, more research. Could it be the case that we are faced with something that runs so deep in our national nature that we need the help of God, and even those we might consider our enemies or those we fear or resent to help us?

The language of repentance and faith is language that makes many of us uncomfortable. We think, maybe if we just try a little harder, do a little more, elect the right people, things will get better. The question remains, have we just covered a festering wound?

Henri Nouwen speaks about how wounds brought to God can become “sacred wounds.” This makes me wonder if the honest facing of our woundedness could lead not only to healing, but something better, the experience of the “beloved community” our founders envisioned where the opportunity of each to pursue life, liberty, and happiness immeasurably enriched us all. I think in fact that the degree to which we have done this as a nation is the degree to which we are rich.

I must close, and would simply ask a question Jesus sometimes asked before healing, is, “do we want to be well?”

8 thoughts on “Our National Wound

  1. What about the right to property instead of ” pursuit of happiness?” Didn’t our fathers already know that there was an issue?

    • Of course the question of the right of property is in fact a right the south claimed with regard to slaves, whose owners had significant financial interests in those slaves. It was this right for example that was the basis for the enforcement of Fugitive Slave laws in the north.

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