This piece ran as a newspaper op/ed in late November, 2022.
In recent years, there’s been a movement – which has included many Christians on the right – to prevent American schools from teaching American children about aspects of American history that might make them feel guilty.
Of course, American history contains aspects that are painful even for adults to look at. The truth is, the history of our nation is a mixture of some wonderful things and some shameful things.
- Like the way the Americans of European origin treated the Native Americans, as they conquered the continent that had long been the home of the other peoples. And
- Like the oppression of blacks in American civilization, from the first kidnapping of innocent people in Africa, through two centuries of enslavement in America, to the Jim Crow regime of racial oppression after slavery was officially abolished after the American Civil War.
Even as America has indeed been a beacon to the world in important ways, so also has it committed major sins.
In such sins, our nation like the larger human world in which ugliness of that sort mars the record of every civilized nation with whose history I am familiar: e.g. how the feudal lords of Europe treated the peasants under their rule, how the English treated the Irish, how the Japanese treated the Chinese, how the Nazis treated just about everybody, etc.
Christianity teaches that we are all sinners. And certainly, the record of history suggests that the same is true of nations.
I’d expect Christians to believe that their children should know that basic reality, and deal with it as Christianity teaches.
The darker side of our national reality should be presented to young children in appropriate doses, large enough to know that the nation with which they identify has shortcomings, as well as greatness, while small enough not to burden them. (Just as most parents I know don’t let kids see movies that might give them nightmares.)
Isn’t it fundamental to the teachings of Christianity that one should learn to carry oneself in a spirit of repentance for sins, and an accompanying desire to “go and sin no more”?
It hardly seems Christian, as I understand the spiritual teachings, to think of one’s nation as perfect. If our children think America is already perfect, how will they become the kinds of citizens who help to make America more whole?
How good of a moral force in the world can America be if we do not, as a people and a nation, heed what Jesus says about not focusing on the mote in our neighbor’s eye while ignoring the beam in our own?
Why, for example, would a Christian be afraid for our children to be taught about the reality of historical race relations in our country, not wanting them to know that — too often — the way white people have treated black people has gone against the Golden Rule, about treating others as we would wish to be treated?
I would think that Christians – understanding the importance of repentance and forgiveness and humility – would want their children to learn their history in a way that leads not only to loving their country, but also to moving forward with others, out of the struggles of the past, into that Christian vision, announced at Jesus’s birth, of “Peace on Earth” and “Goodwill Toward Men.”
As I think about it, I come to suspect that these conservative Christians who have been on this mission to prevent the truth about America and race from being taught in the schools aren’t really concerned about the children.
It’s not as though Conservative Christians – at least from what I’ve observed – aren’t willing for their children to experience the pangs of guilt regarding their own personal sinfulness. So why try to protect them from some proper dose of moral pain from the truth about the cruelties and injustices that have been part of their ancestral past, some of which are present still?
What seems plausible is that it is not the children whom they wish to spare having to look at our national imperfections, but they themselves who have been unable to come to terms with the sins of their ancestors and of the present day.
And that thought, in turn, leads to my feeling compassion for those Christians who seem to have substituted denial for repentance. For it suggests that they have not found the path that Christianity itself teaches, that they are not enjoying the blessings of entering into the space that in which peace and love are the fruit of people repenting for their own sins and offering forgiveness for humankind altogether, for the broken state of the human world.
“Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”