Our Ugly Truth in the Shadows

What if  we told the truth: that our stories are so much more devastating that we want to remember them?

What if Donald Trump is just as “Christian” as the Pope? What if the Ku Klux Klan is just as “Christian” as altar guild?

What if we paid attention both to the trauma inflicted on Jesus at the crucifixion and on the trauma inflicted by those who bear his name in the Crusades?

What if we told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about the goriness and the glory of our history?

What if there was something implicit in the DNA of Christianity that was positioned towards conquest and control, oppression and the dismissal of marginal voices?

What if we acknowledged the shadow which has been cast over large swaths of the world by how we have lifted high the cross in order to put others down?

What if we drew the circle of G-d’s grace wide enough to embrace those who have suffered and died because of those who have acted in G-d’s name?

These questions might sound theoretical, like theological naval-gazing, but I want to suggest that these questions are necessary. The “right now” and “is-ness” of Christianity is important, but it is influenced by our complex, infinitely-nuanced history that must be told. The cost of our silence, or better yet of our willful disremembering, is the erasure of the experiences of countless millions whose bodies line the narrow-way that leads to salvation.

I opened an email thread recently where someone was lauding the amazing work that went in to the Holy Week liturgies. One person on the thread responded praising the “Risen Conquering Lord.” Now, in the context of Easter and of content of this email thread this phrase makes perfect sense and I certainly understood what this person meant by using this phrase. These three words can be lifted out of any number of Easter hymns which we sing in celebration, often uncritically, as trumpets herald the resurrection of Christ.

But for whatever constellation of reasons that phrase struck me differently as I read it. Not right or wrong. Just different. I fixated on the words “conquering” and “Lord” in a way that I hadn’t done before. If Christ could conquer death, what else could Christ conquer? What could those who bear his name conquer?

A few months ago Donald Trump gave an address at Liberty University, the largest Christian university in the world. In his remarks he referred to 2nd Corinthians as “two Corinthians,” a statement that sparked a slew of memes and sneers. Among the sneers were many who used this remark as sure proof that Donald Trump was not a Christian, but a pretender who was exploiting Christianity  for its ability to move people to the polls.

A few weeks later, Pope Francis responded to the notably troublesome rhetoric of Mr. Trump regarding immigration by suggesting “a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.”

As someone who is not a political supporter of Mr. Trump in any way, shape, or form I must admit to being a bit amused by the religious dust ups caused by his chronic foot-in-mouth syndrome, but beneath the surface of this battle lay something more sinister – our failure to remember. More pointedly, the willingness to strip Mr. Trump of his claim to Christianity, however vapid it may be, reveals our own willingness to disremember our own Christian history, one littered with not a few wall-building, empire-ruling, sword-wielding, heretic-burning, native-population-enslaving “saints” conquering and subjugating in the name of Jesus Christ. And by “saints” I don’t mean the generic form of “saints” Paul uses in the New Testament. I mean those who have reached the V.I.P room, the upper-eschalon of sainthood, saints with feast days and parishes and cathedral churches named after them.

Last February President Barack Obama gave remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast where he named the Crusades, the Inquisition, slavery and Jim Crow, and other examples of “terrible deeds [committed] in the name of Christ” in order to underscore the reality that no religion is blameless when it comes to violence perpetrated in its name. The backlash was fierce to say the least, with Virginia governor Jim Gilmore even suggesting that “[President Obama] has offended every believing Christian in the United States.” He went on to state that this simple telling of history elucidates the reality that “…Mr. Obama does not believe in America or the values we all share.” There is just so much in that statement that I simply cannot. That Gilmore’s Christianity denies its own literal, factual history is a burden too great for me to bear. That he conflates Christianity and America in such an obtuse was in laughable. That he projects that willful ignorance on our entire nation is reprehensible. There have been terrible deeds perpetrated throughout history in the name of Christ, and humanity still bears the scars that prove it.

Truth be told, as much as it is en vogue to talk about the “radical love” of G-d, there are many scriptures in our canon that might provide an interesting and troubling counter-narrative – scriptures that frame G-d as a ruthless, conquering warlord subjugating native peoples and marginalizing, even murdering, dissenting voices. As the Israelites were entering the so-called “Promised Land,” biblical writers suggested that G-d gave horrific commands that amount to nothing short of genocide. Whole cities and ethnic populations were massacred simply because of “thus saith the LORD.” Either those stories are not true or, by accepting and valuing them we suggest that Egyptian, Canaanite, and Moabite lives don’t matter as much as Israelite lives do. Either way, those stories uncover a troubling frame for understanding how G-d works in the world. We would be foolish not to see connections between the Conquest of Canaan and the American conquest of the so-called “New World” under the doctrine of “Manifest Destiny.”

Are there liberating voices in scripture and justice-minded individuals and communities in our history? Certainly there are. But, there are myriad other voices competing for airspace in scripture and a variety of figures, infamous and otherwise, in our history. Telling only one side of our story dismisses the truth of who we are and after centuries of crimes against humanity, both on a micro and macro scale, done in the name of Christ, it is no longer accurate or helpful to suggest that there represent anomalies of Christianity. There must something that is ours that is predisposed to conquering and until we tell the truth about that, the shadow of conquest will continue to rear its frightening head over and over with a new general in command. The price of our disremembering are the many dispossessed and underprivileged people around the world who bear the brunt of our insatiable desire for someone to save us.

Remembering our history and honoring all the stories of our tradition does not mean that Christians inherently are bad people anymore than any other religious or non-religious group or that we are personally responsible for the horrors of Jim Crow, the Crusades, the Inquisition, or all the microaggressions foisted on marginal groups throughout history. It does mean that we understand the history of trauma perpetuated in the name of Christ and that we take an active role in living the Gospel and moving forward the Reign of G-d in a way that is sensitive to the world we are ostensibly seeking to love. The old maxim is true: those who don’t remember their own history are doomed to repeat it.

What if we told the truth and reorganized the collective resources of our faith around who we really are?

What if we sat in the tension of our imperfection and honored the stories of those who bear the weight of our deception?

What if instead of erasing our painful history, we owned it and added to it in order to create a more fulsome narrative of G-d’s salvific work?

Donald Trump might be right about at least one thing – “Two Corinthians” 3.17 does say “…where the of the Lord is, there is liberty.” It’s high time for us to tell the truth and liberate ourselves from willful-ignorance and lies, not for G-d’s sake, but for our own, because this charade is killing us.

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