Filling in the GAPS: Telling the Truth about Our History
- Heather Hedlund
- Scripture and Justice
Have you ever made a judgment about a situation and later realized you only knew part of the story? Did learning more details change how you thought about it? This has been happening to me a lot lately as I delve into the history of our country from different perspectives. We're in the midst of a series of articles applying the GAPS model for personal reconciliation to racial reconciliation. This time we're looking at the A in GAPS, which stands for "Admit your part of the conflict." Applying this to racial reconciliation, this means telling the whole truth about our history as a country. As I noted in the first article, this step requires white people like me to do the heavy lifting because we have inflicted most of the damage in the relationship.
If we're going to tell the whole truth about our history, first we have to know it. But if you're like me, your knowledge of history probably has some large gaps, and you may not even realize it. I think there are a couple of reasons we have these gaps. First, history tends to be written by the people with power, and they tell their own stories, not the stories of those who are marginalized. Second, we are proud of our nation's ideals, and so we want to hear the stories of how we lived up to those ideals, not the ones where we failed. We can be afraid of spoiling our nation's reputation and maybe our own. But how do these reasons line up with the Bible?
In 2 Timothy 3:16, Paul says, "All Scripture is God-breathed." One of the many reasons that I have confidence in this statement is that the history of Israel told in the Bible is so very different from most other histories. Beginning in Genesis 3 with the Fall and continuing all the way to the end, the Bible tells the whole story, good and bad. Sometimes, it seems mostly bad. The Bible doesn't shy away from the failings of leaders (like Moses, David, and Peter), and it doesn't shy away from the failings of the nation itself (like the idolatry that led to the Babylonian captivity). The prophets detail Israel's failings in no uncertain terms. It also highlights stories of the marginalized. If the Bible had been written by humans alone, I think it would be a lot shorter and a lot more upbeat. In contrast, the history of the United States that I learned in school and in my own reading as an adult spent a lot of time exploring the great leaders of our country and our great founding ideal - that all men are created equal. The times we failed to live up to our ideals got only a brief mention, if at all. This doesn't seem to line up with the Bible's example of how God wants us to understand our history. It seems to me like God wants us to tell the whole story. Everybody's story.
I think we also avoid telling the whole truth about our history because we are afraid of spoiling the reputation of our nation. I want to be proud of my country, but if I know about the horrible parts of our history, will I be ashamed instead? Our current culture makes it hard to hold the good parts and the bad parts in tension with each other. Instead, the tendency towards cancel culture can drive us to hide the bad for fear of the good being thrown out along with it. The Bible gives us a different model. Proverbs 28:13 says, "Whoever conceals their sins does not prosper, but the one who confesses and renounces them finds mercy." And 1 John 1:8-9 says, "If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness." God wants us to bring our sins out into the open so that through Jesus, he can set us free from them, including the sins of our nation.
My own personal journey to understand the truth of the history of racism in our country and how it still plays out took many years. I'm a Gen-Xer, and for a long time, I thought my generation had solved racism and it would only get better from here. Then God placed me in friendships with people who were being treated unjustly simply because of their race or ethnicity. Because they were my friends, I didn't want to explain away their experiences; I wanted to fight for them. These friends made me curious and open to new information. I started seeking out books and articles that helped me understand their history and experience.
It wasn't enough, though, to have an intellectual understanding of this new history I was learning. God also used Christian leaders like John Perkins and the Rev. Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil to help me understand all of this in a biblical framework. And much like the prophet Nathan told King David a story to help him grasp the depth of his sin against Uriah and God, I have needed modern-day prophets along with the work of the Holy Spirit to help me see my own racism and my shared responsibility for the collective sins of our nation. God's intent is that the truth will lead us into the next steps of lament, confession, repentance, and repair. Despite learning difficult truths about racism in our country, my response has not been one of shame and guilt, but rather sorrow that leads to repentance. My great desire is to do everything I can to make things right. I believe this is the Holy Spirit working out God's mercy and grace in my life. Jesus told his disciples, "the truth will set you free" and "if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed." (John 8:31-36) We'll never be free of the racism in our country until we bring the truth out into the open.
One of the biggest gaps in my knowledge was the history of African Americans during the period between the end of enslavement and the beginning of the Civil Rights Era. These books have been particularly helpful to me in learning more about this history. We've also included a video alternative for each one.
The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein
A history of how government policy caused residential segregation in America.
Video: Richard Rothstein in conversation with Ta-Nehisi Coates