I’ve spent nearly a decade living outside of the United States, and at this particular moment in history—a pandemic, a contentious presidential race, smoldering racial tensions, violence in American streets—people often want to know if I’m committed to America’s good name.
Recently, President Trump called for a Commission to promote “patriotic education”—a largely symbolic gesture to defend America’s “proud history,” or the “legacy of 1776.” The commission intends to counter other efforts like The New York Times‘s 1619 Project, which insists that American fought a revolution, in part, to protect the institution of slavery.
Americans fall out on both sides, as in every other debate. Some insist our nation’s history is far more unblemished—and others, far more flawed. Whatever our general bent, though, nearly all of us would acknowledge that our history as a nation is complicated.
This fight for American’s history—and reputation—leaves us with a haunting question. Can we love America if we can’t always be proud of her?
Can we love America if we can’t always be proud of her?
The earliest political idea I held, as a white American evangelical, was patriotism as Christian virtue. God had shed his grace on our land, and we celebrated the Fourth of July like a high holiday. I was discipled in love for country and committed to the creed that God had uniquely favored our national project. This all had a sense of obviousness to it, especially because American democratic freedoms (of religion, of speech, of the press) weren’t guaranteed around the world.
In more recent years, I’ve been sitting under the witness of those who’ve not come so easily to halcyon notions of American history and identity. After my brother- and sister-in-law moved to Lawndale, one of Chicago’s predominantly black neighborhoods, I began to understand how “ghettoes” were formed in cities like Chicago. As Isabel Wilkerson details in The Warmth of Other Suns, between the years of 1915 and 1970, more than 6 million black Americans left the South for what they’d hoped would be better lives in the North. But cities like Chicago did not bear them welcome.
Instead, white citizens worked assiduously to segregate their cities, sometimes by bombs—and sometimes by more invisible forms of violence, such as predatory mortgages and nefarious lending practices. Owners lost homes, and homes lost value.
Today, North Lawndale has much higher rates of homicide, infant mortality, unemployment, and poverty when compared to city and national averages.
History, of course, is an interpretive discipline, relying on selectivity and arrangement. Facts can tell a variety of stories, from a variety of angles, even for a variety of purposes. This is something Christians, as readers of the four Gospels, can uniquely appreciate. Each is true, yet none reads like a facsimile of the other.
With regards to American history, I’ve wanted to scrutinize my own search for the “facts.” I’ve wanted to ask hard questions like: if the only meaning I make is the meaning that makes me comfortable, can I be assured it’s truth? Which of my assumptions might hinder the rigors necessary to investigation? What fears might drive inevitable conclusions?
History is an interpretive discipline, relying on selectivity and arrangement. Facts can tell a variety of stories, from a variety of angles, even for a variety of purposes.
I’m reminded of a trip to Rwanda several years ago with an American non-profit. I remember the night we drove home from an event in a crowded minivan, night falling around us, voices becoming hushed. The conversation had turned to the history of the 1994 genocide, and it became clear that our Rwandan partners, sitting shoulder to shoulder, represented both sides of that murderous conflict.
I marveled that night at my new friends’ capacity to squarely face this horror, and I learned that their truth-telling, even their healing, was in part made possible by the government’s ritual remembering. Every year, the Rwandan government observes a 100-day commemoration period of the genocide.
Survivors and sometimes even perpetrators bear witness to horror of the days when the rolling Rwanda countryside was soaked red with the blood of more than 800,000 of its people. I imagine it would be easier to turn away from this story.
But that would be sin.
Sin isn’t simply doing evil or committing violent acts. It’s making violence possible by seeing only what we prefer to see. It’s refusing reality. If the truth binds us to Jesus (and sets us free), any distortion of the truth—any refusal of the real, however inconvenient and uncomfortable—declares our allegiance to the Devil, who has been a liar from the beginning (John 8:44).
This is a biblical truth that challenges those who would seek to conserve a certain narrative of American history, as well as those who would seek to destroy it.
Any distortion of the truth—any refusal of the real, however inconvenient and uncomfortable—declares our allegiance to the Devil, who has been a liar from the beginning.
The entire Old Testament tells and retells Israel’s national story—and not just the gilded moments. In Psalm 78, God calls his people to remember his mighty acts revealed in history, and also to rehearse the nation’s chronic unfaithfulness.
Memory, in the Bible, was never a prop for blind patriotism: it was clear-eyed about the “stubborn and rebellious generation [of the exodus], a generation whose heart was not steadfast, whose spirit was not faithful to God” (Ps. 78:8). There was something important, even salutary, in Israel doing the hard work of remembering.
That seems worth imitating today.
It strikes me that American Christians, who love the truth and who lay claim to another citizenship, are in the best position to remember America’s true story: its nobility as well as its flaws.