February is Black History Month.
Black History is American History.
Black History tells the stories that have been excluded from many history books. It tells the stories of enslaved people longing to be free. It tells the stories of a small – very small – portion of the population, less than 14%, who, against great odds, overcame Jim Crow segregation, the lynching era, mass incarceration, voting discrimination, Red Lining and so many other social ills.
African Americans did not do this on their own. Many who were not of African descent joined the struggle for racial equality and social justice. Black History tells their stories.
The stories of Black History are often difficult to hear. They remind us of the collective sins we all share as Americans.
This dark history is not limited to African Americans. Every racial group has troubling stories. The genocide of native peoples, the development of ethnic ghettos in our major cities, the support of Nazism during and after World War II and the imprisonment of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor are all a part of American History. As horrific as these matters are, they are true events that took place in our country.
I understand why people would like to ignore or forget these stories. But there is a danger in hiding ourselves from them. Spanish philosopher George Santayana (1863-1952) is credited with saying, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” While American History contains many painful stories, we cannot eliminate them from our history books or refuse to teach them in our schools. Our fear of the truth is a slippery slope that will only lead to developing new painful stories.
Our faith traditions offer a transformative means of addressing the difficult stories of American History. While the following terms might sound archaic and anachronistic, many of us believe in a faith renewing process of confession, repentance and reconciliation. We believe that the best method of addressing the past sins of our nation is to own up to them, to confess them. To declare them as wrong and sinful.
The Beloved Disciple, John, wrote: If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us of our sins and will cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
Confession opens the door for repentance. When we as a people acknowledge our history, we can then make a commitment to change, to make our future better than our past. Ultimately, repentance will open the door for reconciliation.
Our faith traditions teach us that sin separates us from God and from each other. However, the opposite happens when we utilize a restorative justice model. Taking responsibility for our history allows us to participate in aiming and guiding our future.
By faithfully facing the past, we can dream of a future where people are not judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. We can dream of a future where the vision of our founding fathers and mothers is a reality for all citizens.
The Rev. Dr. Jon R. Black is senior pastor at Campbell Chapel A.M.E. Church in Bluffton.