Review: Unsettling Truths

unsettling truths

Unsettling TruthsMark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019.

Summary: Shows how “The Doctrine of Discovery,” an outgrowth of a Christendom of power rather than relationship has shaped a narrative of the United States, to the dehumanizing  of Native Peoples, slaves, and other non-white peoples.

Columbus discovered America, right? Pilgrims, Puritans, and other Europeans “settled” America and drove out the “Indians” who threatened their settlements. That’s what I learned in history class. 

That’s not how the Native Peoples of Turtle Island (what they call North America) saw it. They were invaded and had the land of their ancestors taken from them, were displaced, often with genocidal marches, to inferior lands. Unfortunately, victors usually write the history.

The two authors of this work show the complicity of the church in the “Doctrine of Discovery” that justified the settlement of Native lands, and the subjugation of Native Peoples that resulted, as well as the dehumanizing treatment of African slaves. They trace this back to the transition the church underwent under Constantine, when church and state became Christendom, and Constantine’s “faith” was written into the narrative by Eusebius. The crusades led to classifying “infidels” as inferior human beings and the church baptized the early explorers efforts as “evangelistic,” and the early settlers appropriated Israel’s land covenant and Jesus’ “city on a hill” to articulate their justification for “settling” the Native lands.

The most disturbing part of this narrative is the genocidal effects of this settlement reducing a population of approximately six million to under 240,000 at one point. Some was disease. Some was warfare. Some was outright massacre, like Wounded Knee, and some, like the Trail of Tears or the Navajo and Apache removal to Bosque Redondo, when thousands died. Proportionally, the death rate of the latter was greater than the Holocaust.

Another “unsettling truth” was the equivocal character of the “Great Emancipator,” Abraham Lincoln. There is a plaque at the base of the Lincoln Memorial that records these words of Lincoln:

“I would save the Union. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not to save or destroy slavery.  If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”

An uprising of Dakota initially led to 2 of 40 being sentenced to death. Lincoln expanded the criteria for death sentences resulting in the execution of 39. Subsequently, Lincoln signed into law a bill nullifying treaties with the Dakota and Winnebago tribes in Minnesota and mandating their forced removal to the Dakota Territory. Bounties were set on those who who tried to escape the roundup.

The authors conclude with how we react to these unsettling truths, including the efforts of Christian boarding schools designed to “kill the Indian to save the man.”. One of the most interesting ideas, but also one on which I’d like to see more research is what they termed Perpetrator Induced Traumatic Stress (PITS). They contend that Native Peoples and African Americans are not the only ones traumatized by the Doctrine of Discovery. White America is also traumatized. The authors propose that this may explain the “triggering” effect of the election of Barack Obama as president. They also propose that healing can come only through lament, relational apologies to the Tribal People whose lands were taken and the children of slaves forcibly brought here, and with Tribal peoples, and acknowledgement of thanks to them as hosts in a land where we are guests. That’s only a beginning, but a necessary one.

The “unsettling truths” of this book don’t appear in traditional histories, and I’m sure there are those who will contest them, particularly because of the sweeping nature of this account, from the beginnings of Christendom to white trauma. While there is extensive documentation in the form of endnotes, the case of this book would be helped with a bibliography of further readings for each chapter. From other readings, I found much to warrant this cumulative case. Furthermore, the authors write both unsparingly, and yet with the hope that their narrative will contribute to the equivalent of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. The question is whether there will be leaders in local communities as well as national bodies willing to acknowledge the truth, make honest and sincere apologies to the peoples whose lands they occupy.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

 

I’d Settle for Modest

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

In a number of presidential campaigns the slogan of making or keeping America great has been a centerpiece. This fits a version of American history I grew up with that taught me what a great country the United States is–our democratic institutions, our Bill of Rights, our immense resources, our diverse population, and our influence in the world. I do think there is good in a number of these things, whether it be the presumption of innocence in criminal trials, the “first freedoms” of our First Amendment, our use of military power in some instances, particularly against Hitler. I think of the opportunity afforded so many like Michael Bloomberg, who came from very modest means, to work hard and smart to build a business, earn a fortune, and serve as Mayor of New York.

I love my country. But as a Christian I love a God who loves the world (John 3:16), and so I need to see my country within the world God loves. To share God’s heart is to share his love, and to love the United States alone is too small to share the heart of God. I love a God who is holy, just and true, and this requires me to look at my country through these lenses as well.

When I look at things this way, it leads me to far greater modesty about my country. While not denying the goods, there is another kind of history about which I’ve learned since I was in school. Much of it isn’t pretty. Some examples, that could be vastly expanded:

  • We didn’t “discover” America. There were Native peoples who called this home before we knew “America” was even here.
  • There were blacks forcibly brought as slaves to the United States even before the Mayflower landed in 1620.
  • Well into the early nineteenth century slavery was legal in the north as well as the south, and even when northern states abolished slavery, the economics of north and south made slavery a continuing necessity upheld by fugitive slave laws.
  • The subjection of Native peoples, Blacks, and women was written into our founding documents. Section 2, Article 3 of our Constitution reads: “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.” In other words, Native peoples had no representation (or tax responsibilities, a mark of citizenship), slaves were considered three-fifths of a person (and considerably less in the eyes of many), and women are not even mentioned.
  • Women did not obtain the right to vote until 1920.
  • After the Civil War, blacks were free but subject to a reign of terror through lynching, denial of voting rights, and segregation, collectively known as Jim Crow. More recent policies of incarceration have been called the “New Jim Crow” because of their focus on black men.
  • Native peoples suffered a string of broken agreements, displacement from good lands, and obliteration of their population through disease, the “Trail of Tears,” and massacres like Wounded Knee.
  • Only in 2020, after over two hundred failed attempts, did Congress pass a law making lynching illegal on a national basis, fifty years after the horrible lynching of Emmitt Till.

I don’t want to get into arguments that call out the notable exceptions or arguments that discuss the injustices, tyranny, and genocide that have occurred in other countries. It is a sad fact of human societies that they (and we) are capable of unspeakable evil.

All I want to suggest is that a healthy dose of modesty might serve us well as a nation.

Modesty saves us from trying to maintain a pretense of greatness that many know just isn’t so. Pretending one is clothed in greatness when in fact one is naked is not great, it is indecent and foolish. Modesty says, “let’s address our lack of clothing.”

Modesty allows us to start listening to other stories of America that are not so great rather than closing our ears. That may allow us to learn how America might be good, if not great for those for whom it has been neither.

Modesty admits that we don’t have it all, that others who are different may enrich us. Modesty recognizes value in all and includes all.

Modesty is an antidote to the burden of greatness, particularly when the greatness of some requires subduing others. People don’t tend to cooperate with being subdued–they protest, engage in civil disorder, revolt, sometimes violently or go to war. All of this comes at great cost. Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers makes the argument that every great power in history has ultimately collapsed under the burden of the cost of sustaining its greatness.

Modesty saves us from the extremes of ideologues, and the over-emphasis on national power. Modesty recognizes the value of local structures, both governmental and non-governmental including families, religious bodies, businesses, social organizations, and educational institutions. I get scared of both conservative and liberal ideologues who are inviting me into a sacred quest which I believe is reserved for my faith alone. I far prefer those who are modest about what they are doing, who admit that it is “just politics” and hope they will pursue this in the best sense of seeking what is just for the polis or city as a whole.

One may wonder about the inclusion of “Lady Liberty” as the image of this blog. To me it is an image that is at once modest and great. Lady Liberty is clothed modestly. She raises not a sword but a light. The rays of her crown are seven, symbolizing the invitation and welcome to America from the seven seas. The tablet she holds in her left are is inscribed “JULY IV MDCCLXXVI” (July 4, 1776), associating it with the aspirations of the Declaration of Independence affirming that all [men] are equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights. The statue inspired many of our fathers going off to war and welcomed them home. Likewise, many with virtually nothing to their name on arrival as immigrants found hope in the statue’s welcome. Modesty can be great. Might this be the time when our country aspires to the greatness of modesty about itself?

Review: City on a Hill

City on a Hill

City on a Hill: A History of American ExceptionalismAbram C. Van Engen. New Haven: Yale University Press, Forthcoming, February 25, 2020.

Summary: A history of Governor John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon, and how the phrase “city on a hill” from the sermon became the metaphor for American exceptionalism.

On April 8, 1630, the Arbella stood off Massachusetts Bay, part of a fleet of Puritan-filled ships organized as the Massachusetts Bay Colony, with John Winthrop elected as their first governor. Governor Winthrop preached a sermon titled “A Model of Christian Charity” that called upon the company to embrace the virtue of charity in the community they would found, a mutual care for each other. He concluded with this peroration describing the consequence of such charity:

We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when He shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, “may the Lord make it like that of New England.” For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.

As significant as the sermon would later become, it appears it was more or less forgotten in the concerns of settlement. It’s survival in handwritten manuscript form is a story in itself. In fact, it was forgotten for two hundred years, and only came into political parlance in the 1960’s when the “city on the hill” portion was first quoted by John F. Kennedy. In succeeding years it would turn up in the speeches of nearly every American president. Until President Trump.

Abram C. Van Engen traces the fascinating story of this sermon from its beginnings to the present in his new work, City on a Hill. He considers its initial import as a call to loving community among the Puritans. He follows the history of the manuscript, how it existed in obscurity among papers from the colony’s early years. He profiles archivists like Jeremy Belknap at Harvard and Ebenezer Hazard in New York, who passionately, tirelessly, and often at personal cost collected and contributed these materials at some of the earliest examples of the preservation of historical materials in Harvard and at the New York Historical Society. It was in New York that the sermon was stored, but not noticed for many years.

Van Engen considers the decision to center this historical archival work around the Puritans, rather than earlier arrivals to North America–the Pilgrims, the Dutch in New York, the Jamestown settlers, the French, the Spanish, and the Native peoples. The account was a New England account, a religious account focused on God’s providence. It shaped first the New England consciousness, and then a wider American consciousness, even while the sermon, apart from brief notice in the 1830’s continued to be ignored. He explores why it remained obscure as a lengthy sermon as opposed to a concise statement like the Mayflower Compact.

He then introduces the scholars that brought this Puritan heritage to national notice from Weber to Perry Miller to his successor Sacvan Bercovitch. An striking part of this account are his chapters on Perry Miller, who was concerned about the materialism that arose from Puritan values, and held up “A Model of Christian Charity” as the epitome of the spiritual values that even atheist Miller wanted to see embraced, incorporating it into anthologies used in teaching American history. I hope some day Van Engen follows up with a full-length study of Miller, a brilliant and tragic figure.

Miller’s work was the likely source of Kennedy’s use. Van Engen then follows its usage through successive presidents, culminating in Ronald Reagen who more than anyone appropriated the image for the country’s exceptionalist destiny, no where more movingly than his Farewell Address on January 11, 1989:

The past few days when I’ve been at that window upstairs, I’ve thought a bit of the shining “city upon a hill.” The phrase comes from John Winthrop, who wrote it to describe the America he imagined. What he imagined was important, because he was an early Pilgrim – an early “Freedom Man.” He journeyed here on what today we’d call a little wooden boat, and, like the other pilgrims, he was looking for a home that would be free.

I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind, it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind swept, God blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace – a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors, and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.

As Van Engen concludes this book, he notes President Trump’s lack of use of this language and contends that it represents a significant shift from rhetoric focused around American ideals to American interests. He argues that our current president focuses not on what makes us exceptional but on what we have in common with all nations–that we put our interests first. The vision of exceptionalism is one of being first. Van Engen wonders whether this shift in rhetoric is a longer term shift or one confined to this administration, acknowledging the flaws in each approach.

This is an important work in so many ways, from tracing the sermon’s origins and after history, to the ways the sermon has been misappropriated, ignoring the body of Winthrop’s appeal, to exploring the ways a focus on Puritan origins has blinded us to other aspects of the American story–the Native peoples, African slaves, settlement in other parts of the country, and the ways the religious focus of the message has been transformed into a founding document of America’s civil religion.

Within this narrative, Van Engen also highlights both the significant contribution and blind spots of archivists and curators in American historiography. Van Engen shows how our histories are shaped by what is collected. In the process, Van Engen also faces us with crucial questions of the substance of the rhetoric we use to describe our sense of national purpose and character at a time where we may be witnessing a sea change in that sense.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

The Greatest Thing de Tocqueville Never Said

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Alexis de Tocqueville. Artist Théodore Chassériau [PD US + France]

I’m writing this on July 29. It is the birthday of Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote Democracy in America. Each day, I post on my Bob on Books Facebook page a literary birthday of the day, and a quote by that person. I am learning that one must verify the source of quotes one finds on Google–many that are attributed to individuals for whom there is no record of them actually saying what is attributed to them. I discovered this to my chagrin with de Tocqueville. He was reputed to have said:

“America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”

My chagrin is that I made this discovery after posting the quote, which cannot be found in his works. Note to self: always double-check the source of quotes!

It has become popular to quote this with all the “make America great again” rhetoric, perhaps as a counter, asserting that only a “good” America can be a “great” America. It turns out that a number of U.S. presidents including Dwight Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton quoted it attributing it to de Tocqueville. Hilary Clinton used the quote in her debate with Donald Trump. So I am in famous company. I’ll leave you to decide if that company is “good.”

A friend’s comment got me to thinking further about this quote. At first glance, it seems like an elevating idea that our greatness is a reflection of our goodness. And indeed, some of our ideals, including the equality of all human beings (at least all “men”), equal protection under the law, inalienable rights, and so forth, are good ideas. I think our “first freedoms” are good ideas.

The truth though is that we have never entirely lived up to these “good” ideals, and what is not good is the pretense that we have. In fact, the pretense may be more dangerous than our failures because it prevents us from honestly facing them. Despite our beliefs in equality, for the initial part of our history, we considered blacks to be three-fifths of a person for representation, and in a number of states, merely property to be bought and sold. We protected property rights, except that of the original inhabitants of the land. With them, we repeatedly broke treaties and seized lands. We interned our own citizens of Japanese descent during World War II, even the families of those who served in our military.

We actually are a better nation when we recognize the ways we have not been good, and take steps to rectify them. Often, these steps are ones we take with the children or grandchildren of those wronged. In some instances, we’ve never fully faced the wrongs we’ve done, or even denied the wrongs.

It seems to me that we are at our most dangerous when we are blind to the ways we have not been or are not good. When people of the north sat in their churches and railed against slavery while benefiting from the cotton trade, there was a blindness to our complicity with evil. When slave owners sang hymns to God after coming from beating their slaves, there was a blindness to participation in evil.

I think rather than boasts of greatness or goodness or rating ourselves against other nations, I would be content if we would spend more time measuring ourselves against our good, but imperfect, ideals. And rather than pointing at others and how they might be better, it seems a healthier and more honest stance would be to look at those ideals and how each of us might be better. Oddly enough, that might be a “better” that is actually pretty good–good for us, good for the nation, and good for our reputation in the world.

Review: A Letter to My Anxious Christian Friends

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A Letter to My Anxious Christian Friends, David P. Gushee. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016.

Summary: Written as a series of letters, this is an exploration of what it means as a Christian to both love and be anxious for one’s country as people of faith committed to the global kingdom of God.

David P. Gushee thinks there are good warrants for American Christians who love their country to be anxious–the erosion of a Christian consensus, the economic jolts we have faced as a country, the deep fractures along lines of race and values that we have experienced, the violence of our streets, and the instances where police have also exercised force unjustly. Written in the run up to the 2016 presidential election, Gushee explores what it means both to face the issues that arouse such fear, and step back from the fractured political discourse to try to think as Christians about what it means to live into our faith instead of being governed by our fears (and perhaps those who play upon them).

He writes:

“…the assumption lying behind this book is that it is okay for Christians to care enough about the country they live in to be anxious about it. It is, indeed, perfectly acceptable for Christians to be patriots, to love their country with a robust and full heart. Many of my fellow Christian leaders do not agree with me on this, and they have good reasons for their views. Mainly their worry is that American Christians, in particular, have a hard time distinguishing between God and country when they attempt to love and serve both. I think that I can point to a path of critical, informed patriotism through the various reflections offered here. But I acknowledge that I do love this country, and precisely because I do, I want it to be the best country it can be. If you agree, read on.”

The rest of the book consists of twenty reflections (letters) divided into two parts. The first eight are an exploration of who we are as a country of Americans, the place of Christians within that, how we understand our form of government and the development of political parties, the state of our civic character, and how Christians might think about patriotism. He helps his readers understand the changing place of the church in this country and how we might think about that. What I appreciated best were some of his reflections on how we are and are not a Christian nation–both the Christian influences upon our institutions and the fact that no nation can be a “Christian nation” as Israel was the people of God. Gushee is able to speak honestly both about our flaws and injustices as a nation, as well as commend the cultural goods that might be observed and built upon. He commends a kind of patriotism that is not an “America first” mentality but rather a wanting what is best of this country for all of its people while being mindful of our place in the world.

The second part of the book then considers how we might move from fear to faith in addressing some of the fearsome challenges we face:

  • Race: a call for white majority Christians to listen.
  • Police: while commending most law enforcement personnel, pressing for greater oversight and rooting out of unjust policing practices.
  • Sex: as one who has previously endorsed gay marriage in the civil sphere, he argues that our focus is better spent on the more casual and thoughtless expressions of sexuality and its heart-wrenching consequences.
  • Abortion: while deeply troubled by a casual approach to abortion, especially late-term abortions,  and favoring some legal restrictions on abortion with exceptions for rape, incest and threats to the life of a mother, he argues for greater focus on preventing pregnancies that would lead to abortion.
  • Aliens: here, he would like to see reforms proposed before our recent election cycle for comprehensive immigration reform that both secures borders while providing some path for undocumented persons who have not broken other laws to gain some kind of legal status.
  • Guns: this is one he speaks deeply and passionately about, questioning whether the founders had in mind the proliferation of weaponry we see.
  • Money: he calls us beyond competitive greed to a generosity with our resources.
  • Climate: he decries that denial of climate change and the partisan impasse that leads to doing nothing while creation suffers, and with it many of the most vulnerable.
  • War: we have been at war for most of the last century. While nations must protect themselves, he argues there are many tools and Christian should press for the nonviolent ones to be used insofar as possible and for constitutional processes to be protected.
  • Executions: the death penalty is an anomaly, the consequence for only a handful of murders, and often inequitably applied at great cost to our system.
  • Education: a call to pursue the best possible education for all our people. Surprisingly, he calls for removing tenure and union protections of incompetence while saying students, teachers, and parents all are required to make this work.
  • Health-care: all of God’s children should have access to affordable and adequate care. A generous patriotism doesn’t want any to fall through the cracks.

The strength of this book is that it articulates an ethic that is broadly pro-life, and expands upon what would be a generous and faith-informed vision of patriotism. Obviously, not all will agree with all he commends. I personally took issue with what I thought a cavalier treatment of Romans 13 about authority that imputed Paul’s statements to his privileged status as a Roman citizen. I thought this was biblical eisegesis and unnecessary to make his case against unlawful use of police force.

Because Gushee tries to cover so much ground, especially in the second part of the book, in a series of short reflections, many of his recommendations, which tend to echo more progressive positions in most cases, come with relatively little biblical or theological argument, nor is there much of an effort to address opposing views. As a result, my sense is that the book will be re-assuring to those of Gushee’s “anxious friends” from a more progressive outlook, but dismissed by his conservative “anxious friends.” Nor do I feel it will promote dialogue between these factions within the Christian community who are anxious for very different reasons (it’s telling to me for example that he is silent about issues of religious liberty). I found Russell Moore’s Onward (reviewed here) a far more helpful resource for promoting this kind of engagement.

Perhaps the two might better be read together. Perhaps the places they differ might open up the safe space for Christians to wrestle toward an ethic of societal engagement that is neither left nor right but distinctively Christian. I think that is what both authors would want. And for Gushee, an ethic of faith working through love is much preferable to one that resides and responds in fear.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via a pre-publication e-galley through Edelweiss. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.