The city of New Orleans is in the midst of a campaign to remove statues memorializing confederate Civil War heroes.
As expected, this has led to no little amount of controversy among folks who idealize southern heritage.
Where no responsible person wants to sanitize the history of America’s southern states, problems arise when pieces of that culture are celebrated without acknowledging the deeply unjust structures and sedition once rooted there as well.
In short, to honor an icon of a culture without confessing the sins that culture was built on, is a half-truth limiting hope for much-needed healing, and one that offers temptations to repeat those mistakes anew.
But this is not an article about Civil War statues; this is an article about faith.
In his 2016 book, “The Value of Doubt,” Bill Tammeus of the Kansas City Star correctly notes, “Faith that cannot repent of its past, or thinks there’s nothing in its past that requires repentance is not to be trusted.”
Occasionally I hear non-Christians cite the abusive, violent, sexist, even jingoistic chapters of Christian history as reasons for not engaging with God via my faith tradition. When so confronted, I simply have to acknowledge that it is true, Christians have our fair share of skeletons in the prayer closet.
I wish it were not so, but on occasion the church has poorly represented the gospel of Jesus Christ.
That does not mean that I need to feel personally responsible for the Crusades, the church’s sanctioning of slavery and its historical subjugation of women. My spiritual ancestors were the agents of those abuses of faith, not I.
Still, I have to admit that the name I have taken for myself, (that is, Christian) has been marked and marred by the mistakes of the past; their story is part of my story. The road to where my faith is located today has been an experiment peppered with hurtful errors, fueled by misread and misapplied scripture, not to mention bald sins of unchecked ambition.
To learn from, and not repeat these pieces of my history, requires my acknowledging them at a minimum, and to the degree possible, correcting the broken parts of that narrative.
Again Tammeus, “One of the dangers of failing to do that [acknowledging the bad parts of our faith history alongside celebrating the good] is that we will imagine that when we pledge allegiance to our faith, we are part of a long and unblemished history of goodness and light.
“This not only relieves us of responsibility for correcting what our ancestors got wrong, it also leaves us imagining that the path forward will be smooth and without difficult moral choices. That would be an unguided journey into disaster.”
I believe God has a great deal in store for the church, I don’t want to limit that potential by repeating mistakes from our past. Therefore, I need to understand that some parts of my history are to be celebrated and lifted up, while others need to be contextualized and publicly repented of.
Pretending that God is always on our side and endorsing our every move is to be spiritually naive, if not blind.
I look forward to the day when, with God’s help, history will be redeemed and all of our wrongs will be righted, a time as the Prophet Isaiah described as, “Every valley being raised up, the mountains and hills made low, and the rugged places made level” (40:4, my paraphrase.)
This healing surely will not happen until we’re willing to address the rough places and admit that we have more than a few valleys in need of raising.
But if we’re willing to be historically honest with ourselves, maybe… just maybe the door will be opened so that “The glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it” (:5).
(Mitch Jarvis pastors Neosho United Methodist Church. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.)