Remorse following Charlottesville

"To this day you haven’t shown any sorrow for what you have done. And you haven’t revered me or followed my Instruction and my laws that I set before you and your ancestors."

-Jeremiah 44:10, Common English Bible

“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 otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations."

James Baldwin, 1965

On Wednesday afternoon I received an invitation to join community prayers that evening at John Wesley United Methodist Church in Eastport. The white clapboard church was filled. Black, white, Latino: all together in one place for a one hour prayer service in a church without a web site. Historically an African American congregation, that night it looked, as Pastor Jerry Colbert intoned, like "the kingdom of heaven." Pastor Meredith Wilkins-Arnold, lead pastor at Calvary UMC in Annapolis, was the first invited pastor to offer prayers. She admitted to arriving there with a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach for what is occurring in our nation. She admitted to not having the words to speak. And the congregation assured her that was alright.

IN our grief over the events in Charlottesville, we will, for a brief time, lack words. Yet even without the words, actions are occurring. Around us - including last night at the Maryland State House - monuments to the old South are being removed. The motivation behind these removals is clear: fear of rallies and riots that will topple them. No city wants to be the center of another Charlottesville event.

I agree that these monuments must come down. Yet I disagree with the motivation behind removing them in this moment, for they are being removed out of fear of public riot. More appropriately, these should be removed out of remorse for what they represent. Certainly, public figures such as our own Gov. Hogan have expressed "revulsion" at what happened in Charlottesville. Good. Yet that revulsion should turn to remorse through reflection of our own participation in the systems which tolerated such figures in the first place. 

Those figures, whose statues were generally installed between 1890 and 1950, represent a nostalgia for our common history: a time when people were treated as property - slaves. Lives were lost fighting for the privilege of treating people as slaves, and the United States Supreme Court once decided that people of African descent counted not as full persons, but 3/5 of a person - a "compromise" reached by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney in the Dred Scott case as a way to keep southern states from seceding the Union. The compromise didn't work, but the attitude of white supremacy remains entwined through Jim Crow laws, redlining of cities including Baltimore and no doubt Annapolis, the New Jim Crow, and the overall disregard for black and poor people that rings true today in our education systems and opportunities - no matter what words we use.

As James Baldwin makes clear, we carry this history with us. President Trump's emboldened nativist approach to the violence in Charlottesville is, I am afraid, morally indefensible. It is horrifying that we are in such a place in our history that people are unashamed to fly Nazi and Confederate battleflags in our communities, surrounding churches with torches and chanting, "Jews will not replace us" (see Rev. Traci Blackmon's interview below). It is beyond the pale that, for some, those who resist this effort are somehow "equivalent" in blame for the violent actions in Charlottesville. After all, both of my grandfathers fought in a World War against Nazism and its representations, as I'm sure many of your ancestors did, too. Monuments of people wearing the uniform that attempted to validate slavery - a uniform worn by our own ancestors - cannot be "beautiful" in public parks. How could they be? They represent a hate that may not even be overt, but is certainly woven into the layers of our nation's history, and is burrowed into each one of us in ways that we may not fully appreciate. Yet we have tolerated them for many years. 

Our calling is to be aware of our history and how it is played out today. And it is to move from a place of fear and revulsion to one of remorse should you find that you have benefited from the morally repugnant aspects of this history. Yet we also cannot wallow in that remorse. Our Scripture for this Sunday is from Matthew 15:21-28, when Jesus calls a Syrophoenician woman (read: not Jewish) a "dog," and yet quickly regrets that characterization, corrects himself (this is important!), and then celebrates her faithfulness and inclusion amongst people of faith. We are called to do the same: recognize our part in the pain of the world, express that remorse, take actions to tear down such a system, and then call upon God to work within us and each other to reveal the kin-dom of heaven in our midst. Thanks be to God.

The below is an interview of Rev. Traci Blackmon, Executive Minister for Justice and Witness Ministries of the United Church of Christ.