The Shackles of History and Its Amnesia
I've had more interaction with other pastors recently and it's been interesting because we always seem to talk about "moving forward," building healthy communities, generating positive achievements. No one reckons with the past, or acknowledges much that they have one, even as a church. Sometimes it's like talking to a bunch of really sincere medical equipment salesmen sometimes.
At the same time, it's been hard for a few friends to grapple with emotionally difficult parts of their pasts. But they are grappling, more so than some of the aforementioned clergy. I've come away from though, with a deep sense of how well our world keeps us from understanding of ourselves as products of history, even though we think of everything else as a product! (I want to speculate here that part of the power of whiteness, or at least its privilege, comes from not needing to have a history.) As much as the church is impugned for not being forward-thinking, especially in regards to race and gender, I think the problem is that we are not backwards thinking enough.
The veil is behind us, not in front of us.
Anyways, James Baldwin expresses this concern, this consciousness, much better than I in his essay, "Unnameable Objects, Unspeakable Crimes." Have a look:
One wishes that Americans, white Americans, would read, for their own sakes, this record, and stop defending themselves against it. Only then will they be enabled to change their lives. The fact that Americans, white Americans, have not yet been able to do this- to face their history, to change their lives-hideously menaces this country. Indeed, it menaces the entire world.Baldwin's comment about, "[a] personal maturity and freedom which robs history of its tyrannical power," is profound and the way Jesus liberates people - especially White Americans, somehow. Our individualism begrudgingly admits to an examination of family histories, but there is a still greater examination of corporate history that we all embody, whether we like it or not. We are in many way products, and don't escape our "product-ness" until we can reckon with the social machine that created us and make room to hear the voices critical of the machinery.
For history, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On- the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be other- wise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.
And it is with great pain and terror that one begins to realize this. In great pain and terror, one begins to assess the history which has placed one where one is, and formed one's point of view. In great pain and terror, because, thereafter, one enters into battle with that historical creation, oneself, and attempts to recreate oneself according to a principle more humane and more liberating; one begins the attempt to achieve a level of personal maturity and freedom which robs history of its tyrannical power, and also changes history.
But, obviously, I am speaking as an historical creation which has had bitterly to contest its history, to wrestle with it and finally accept it, in order to bring myself out of it. My point of view is certainly formed by my history and it is probable that only a creature despised by history finds history a questionable matter. On the other hand, people who imagine that history flatters them (as it does, indeed, since they wrote it) are impaled on their history like a butterfly on a pin and become incapable of seeing or changing them- selves or the world.
"Entering into battle with that historical creation, oneself" is the challenge, especially for white men. To be set free from that and spend my energies on helping others disentangle themselves as well requires the power of the Kingdom of God.