I recently went on a road trip to visit a seminary in eastern Tennessee, and along the way something truly bizarre happened. Earlier in the week I heard reports that Toni Morrison had passed away, so in preparation for the trip I downloaded her novel Beloved. As I set out from my home in mid-western Indiana I started the book and immediately knew that it was going to be a good drive. Morrison narrated the work herself and her voice combined with her own beautifully poetic descriptions of life for a runaway slave in post Civil War America captivated me. But it wasn’t until I came to the outskirts of Lexington that things started to become surreal.
As I’m listening to Morrison describe some of the most heartbreaking stories of human suffering that I have ever heard, I start driving by thousand-acre horse pastures, perfectly landscaped, with pristine black wooden fencing around every pasture and every tree! Often these pastures surrounded barns that were bigger than most of the houses in my hometown. I couldn’t help but ask myself, how many of these estates used slave labor to accumulate their wealth? I tried to imagine what it would feel like to drive by these obscene displays of luxury, if one of my ancestors had been a slave on a Kentucky plantation.
In the weeks that followed, this experience of listening to Beloved while driving through Lexington, has come to my mind over and over again. It was on my mind when I read through some of the responses to SBC president J.D. Greear’s request for the church to remember the brutal history of our past regarding slavery in America. Men and women repeatedly condemned Greear for reminding the church of their sinful past. They told him that, to bring up harmful memories like this was divisive and unbiblical. And the comment that was repeated most often was that we are not guilty of the mistakes our ancestors made. But is that true?
I personally do not believe in a theology based on inherited guilt, but the vast majority of Christians in the United States do. They believe that humanity has inherited the guilt of two individuals who lived a few thousand years ago. So why is it easier for us to accept the guilt of Adam and Eve, but so difficult to accept the guilt of American slavery? I think that it is partly because the guilt of Adam and Eve is older and more universal. The guilt of Adam and Eve is shared by all, so it creates no relational obligations in our lives. Whereas the guilt of slavery forces us to examine ourselves. It forces us to ask difficult questions like, if my great grandfather was capable of such barbaric cruelty, am I really immune?
For whatever reason it seems to be a common occurrence for conservatives to suggest that the remembrance of slavery is a “liberal tactic” to divide our nation. This type of reaction often results in a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is the very act of getting angry and claiming that remembering slavery is divisive, that divides our nation. The act of remembering slavery is not divisive in and of itself. The act of remembering should lead us to accept, not the guilt of our ancestors, but the responsibility of doing all that we can to make amends for the mistakes that they made. The scriptural command to repent does not mean that we turn away from the mistakes that we made and forget that they ever happened. True repentance is a willingness to accept responsibility, and trust that God will show us what we must do to try and make things right again.