Monday, March 12, 2018

Reading US History Inerrantly

A painting of George Washington at Mount Vernon, with slaves working in the background. Image source.
[content note: racism in US history]

I'm going to do a blog series on James Cone's book The Cross and the Lynching Tree. It's about the US's history of anti-black violence and the ways that black people have found inspiration and courage in the story of Jesus' crucifixion.

Before I actually get to talking about the book, I want to say something about the history I learned in school. The facts about slavery, Jim Crow laws, lynching, and the Civil Rights movement were covered. There were diagrams of how many people got crammed onto ships and brought from Africa, and shocking statistics about how many died. We read graphic accounts about beatings that slaves suffered. There were novels about heroic characters who escaped from slavery. We learned about the various laws to stop black people from voting- sneaky stuff like literacy tests and grandfather clauses. There were articles about how "separate but equal" really wasn't equal at all. We learned about protests during the Civil Rights movement- sit-ins and boycotts and the March on Washington- and the laws that were passed that finally guaranteed equal rights for black Americans.

So I knew all those facts. But I didn't really *get* it.

Because there was something else I learned too: American exceptionalism. Adults told me "this is the greatest country in the world." We have more freedom and democracy than any other country. The founding fathers were Christians and America was founded as a Christian nation. And they did such a good job writing the Constitution- such perfection, 3 branches of government, checks and balances, ingenious compromises between delegates from large and small states. It's so good that it's used as a model for other democracies all over the world.

The "big picture" I believed was that the US government, in its original form as laid out by the Constitution, was perfect. And, you know, throughout history there have been some bad things that have happened, but those are exceptions. My concept of "the United States is the greatest nation because it's a Christian nation built on principles of freedom and equality" was never really challenged.

Or was it? I remember on more than one occasion, a history teacher saying "you know back when this country was started, they had slavery, and women couldn't vote, so when they said 'all men are created equal' they really just meant white men who owned land." I remember one lesson where we discussed this hypothetical: Imagine aliens visited earth during the Civil War, and then visited again a few years later during Reconstruction. Based on what they saw during the Reconstruction era, which side would they conclude had won the war? (The answer is the South, and if you're wondering why, go and learn what happened during Reconstruction.) I remember when our history teacher told us that ending slavery wasn't really a priority for Lincoln; he wanted to keep the country together more than anything else- he didn't really believe in equality for black people. Little hints where it was pointed out that this big American ideal of equality wasn't really equality for everyone.

But still, there was nothing that ever caused me to seriously question that whole "the US is better than any other country because we have FREEDOM." There was a lot of conservative Christian propaganda about how the founding fathers did everything right and they were led by God, and how our country has totally gone downhill from there. 

I'm just now realizing that that's an EXTREMELY RACIST thing to believe.

I remember in middle school history class, at the beginning of the school year we took a quiz to see how much we already knew. One of the questions was "True or false: The Constitution allowed slavery." I wasn't sure on the timeline- slavery was a thing that happened a long time ago, and the Constitution was a thing that was written a long time ago, but I didn't know which was first. But I was certain that the founding fathers were guided by God to write a uniquely perfect and completely good document. So I figured, no there's no way the Constitution could have allowed slavery. Surely that was added later by bad people.

(For those of you following along at home, the answer is yes, the Constitution allowed slavery. Until the 13th Amendment came along in 1865.)

Then there was the time we learned about the compromises that went into making the Constitution. How the founders were so intelligent and came up with such good solutions that took into account arguments made by delegates from all the states. There was the Great Compromise- which said that representation in the House would be based on each state's population, and in the Senate each state would have 2 senators. Wow wasn't that such a good idea- then the large states and small states were both happy. How wonderful. And there was the Three-Fifths Compromise, which said that when counting state population for the purposes of representation and taxes, slaves would be counted as three-fifths of a person.

And middle-school-Perfect-Number was like, wait that doesn't make sense. They weren't actually letting the slaves vote. They weren't giving them representation- so OF COURSE they shouldn't be counted in population numbers for determining how many representatives each state should have. This has the practical effect of giving white people in slave states a disproportionately large say in the government. I mean, this is just totally illogical.

(Many many years later, I realized that laws get passed by the government because they managed to get enough people to agree to them. It's not really about what's good and fair and makes sense.)

But this three-fifths crap is written into the Constitution. I should have realized right then that all this stuff about "the Constitution is such a perfect document" was a myth.

But I didn't. Because I had a lifetime of experience laughing about that time Elisha called God to send bears to maul some kids, while still believing the bible was inerrant.

See, the way white American Christians talk about the Constitution is very similar to the way they talk about the bible. Apparently, back when the Constitution was written, the founders had this big ideal of how America would be a Christian nation and a democracy where everyone was equal, and ever since that time, our culture has moved away from that perfection and become more and more immoral. Oh if only we could just get back to the Constitution! We need Supreme Court justices who just do what the Constitution says, not like these liberals who add all this other junk because they're secular and don't want to follow what the founding fathers intended. Just stick to the plain meaning of the text!

They framed it like there's the good, honest people who obey what the Constitution clearly says, vs the bad liberals who want to change our country into some kind of awful godless wasteland, who make dishonest arguments to try to lead people astray and twist the words of the Constitution into something they were never meant to be. Just like the good honest people who just obey the bible and the fake Christians who only pick out the parts of the bible they like and preach some kind of weak lovey-dovey God who just wants everyone to have good self-esteem.

I eventually discovered that interpreting the bible isn't so clear- that every Christian comes in with their own perspective about what the bible is and what it's for, everyone has their own biases, and those things determine the conclusions they reach about "what the bible says"- not their own honesty and good intentions or lack thereof.

Much later, I realized the same thing is true about the Constitution. So it's meaningless to say we want Supreme Court justices who "just follow what the Constitution says."

They said the bible was good and perfect and inerrant and inspired by God. Then I went and read the bible and there were a lot of foreskins and God killing people and graphic scary prophecies about war and destruction. And I had to believe that was all fine and didn't in any way affect the bible's status as good and perfect. As a good church kid who read the bible a lot, I developed the habit of not noticing or questioning those things. Or, I did notice them, but I saw them as fun bits of trivia that would show off my bible knowledge. I trusted God so much, so I was sure there was a good reason he did all those shady genocidal things. In fact, I was so confident, I would laugh about the atrocities God committed in the bible.

They said the United States is a Christian nation, the best country in the world, and that the founders were good Christians who prayed and were guided by God to write the Constitution. Then I went to history class and learned about slavery and segregation and violence. And just as I had trained myself to read about the Canaanite genocide without ever thinking "hey, maybe this was a bad thing that God commanded here", I read about the kidnapping, sale, torture, beating, and murder of African people without ever thinking "hey, maybe it's actually NOT true that this country was founded on principles of liberty and justice for all." Sure, those things were awful, and there were times that I cried when I read about families being split up when they were sold into slavery. But I saw these horrific events as exceptions that didn't have any bearing on the United States's identity as "a Christian nation, the greatest nation in the world because we have freedom." It was just an isolated thing, a bad thing some racist white people did back then. Just like God can command an army to "kill everything that breathes" and still be perfectly good and worthy of worship.

So I learned all the facts about racism in US history, but I wasn't able to really *get* it. There was no way I could get it, when all the adults said "this is the greatest nation in the world." And I read the bible from cover to cover and believed it all really happened, but the thought that maybe God is a monster never crossed my mind. There was no way I could get it.


Posts about The Cross and the Lynching Tree (by James H. Cone):

Reading US History Inerrantly
Ending Slavery Didn't Address the Real Problem
For the Sunday School Kids Who Never Heard About "the Curse of Ham" Or "Black Simon"
Dr. King and What Taking Up the Cross Actually Looks Like
"The South is Crucifying Christ Again"
"Strange Fruit"
"The Cross and the Lynching Tree": Conclusion

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