by Matt Handi
It is strange to be proud of one’s family history while at the same time feel pangs of guilt because of it. My family has long been in the United States. Legend has it that one of the riders in that painting of Washington crossing the Delaware was an ancestor. I have family that fought in the Civil War, unfortunately on the wrong side striving to sustain the institution of slavery, as we were a Southern family back then. A great, great, great, (etc.) uncle on my mother’s side was Wilmer McLean. Uncle Wilmy, as nobody in my family refers to him, owned a house on a great field in Northern Virginia. That field became the setting for the First Battle of Bull Run. Anxious to remove himself and his family from the dangers of the war, Wilmer McLean moved to a house in Appomattox Court House and there he lived for the rest of the Civil War. And by a great coincidence, 4 years later, the peace treaty offered by Ulysses S. Grant and marked by Robert E. Lee, was signed in Wilmer McLean’s front parlor. The Civil War began on his property and it ended in his living room.
My great, great, great, (etc.) aunt on my mother’s side wrote a book and self-published it sometime in the late nineteenth century. She was on a different branch of the family tree from that of Wilmer McLean though she wrote about him. In her book, she wrote about her brothers fighting for the Confederacy and her thoughts about why the South was the mistreated force and the Union the aggressors. She felt the Southern cause was just about freedom for states to make their own decisions. And she also spoke of the slave her family kept. My great, great, great (etc.) aunt was a child before and during the war and had only warm memories of the woman whose life the family could buy and sell. And there you might begin to see why I do feel some guilt for the past sins of my family.
The very privilege of my submitting this essay to an online journal, the privilege of my education, the very privileges afforded to me by being a straight white male, derive from my lineage, some of whom were heroes and immigrants and others were sailors and others were slaveholders. I am here because of all of them for I was not placed on this earth without history nor without family.
And so, we might say that the Civil war happened 150 years ago; it’s just history; it holds no sway over you anymore. Yet, history is not a series of blips and dashes separated by time. It is a thread, a continuous thread woven into the fabric of our entire humanity. We did not fight the Civil War and then racism stopped. Slavery was not wiped out in a single day and then followed by the Day of Jubilee. No. The Civil War happened. And then Reconstruction and following that a great movement against the improvements that Reconstruction had brought. From that reactionary movement came the Jim Crow Laws that oppressed black people for over half a century until the Civil Rights movement came to the fore. And even after the height of the Civil Rights movement, we still encounter racism and discrimination and hate. The horror and violence that occurred in Charlottesville highlighted that fact just days ago.
Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”
What we witnessed recently in Charlottesville was nothing less than defilement. “You will not replace us!” Defilement. “Jews will not replace us!” Defilement. “Blood and Soil,” the English translation of the Nazi slogan “Blut und Boden.” Defilement. We cannot be coy about this. We must not equivocate. The marching and shouts of Neo-Nazis, Klan members, younger alt-right racist groups was a sin. It was wrong. It has no place in any society, much less modern America in 2017. And all of these actions, all of these racist chants were performed and said over a community’s wish to remove statues celebrating the Confederacy.
Now you may say that the removal of those statues is wrongheaded and their removal forces us to forget our history. And I would reply that a great majority of those statues were constructed as Jim Crow began to take hold. That they were put in place to serve as reminders that the white majority were the oppressors. We can have that conversation. We can bring up our points of view. We can even leave those conversations in frustration if each of us has not convinced the other.
We cannot, however, tolerate defilement.
And yet this all seems so easy does it not? That if we agree to not partake in racist imagery or speak racist language, then we will not be like those who marched in Charlottesville. Well I offer this. It is not easy. Because that thread of history woven into the whole cloth that is ourselves clothes us now, we must acknowledge our past. We were once the oppressor ourselves or we were once the oppressed. We are now the oppressor ourselves or we are now the oppressed.
And still, I am a product of my privilege. That is what we need to address. That is what we need to confront. Where we stand now, we stand because of our history. That history contains heroism. That history is a story of overcoming struggle and it is also a story of a nation, a society, a community of many sins. Acknowledging all of that, the entirety of our story, brings us closer to peace. Asking for forgiveness for the many sins of our history, though we may not have had any hand in creating it, brings us closer to reconciliation. More so, it brings us closer to God.
How then do we turn the conversation? How do we switch from the vitriol we heard in Charlottesville to the peaceful language of God? If we are to confront our history, then we must confront the most obvious odiousness we witnessed last week. Not with guns. Not with knives or clubs, but with the very love of Christ.
Jesus was of two parts. He is the son of God. He also was a human being. When we look at the last bit of this morning’s gospel, we can see that clearly. A Canaanite woman approached Jesus. She asked him for his help in healing her daughter of her demons. Jesus at first denied her request. He said he was only there to serve the children of Israel.
…she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
That is our “how.” That is how we can confront the evils of racism in this day and in our past. A woman, a Canaanite woman who held no power amongst the lost sheep of Israel confronted the very son of God and changed his mind. She did not yell. She did not resort to violence in an effort to save her daughter. She did however, state her argument with passion and vigor. And she changed the heart of a man to good.
If we aspire to such things, if we aspire to change the hearts and minds of men and women filled with hate, we can do the same. We will not always succeed; we can, however try. And by doing so, we will continue to bend the arc of history, as Martin Luther King said, towards justice.
A man once left his farm to escape the war around him and for a while, that worked. He lived peacefully for 3 ½ years. Yet suddenly and strangely, that war arrived once again in his parlor. We may wish to escape the racism that surrounds us. We may wish to ignore the tumult. Try as we might, though, that racism, that tumult will find its way into our lives once again. Now is the time to confront the hate. Now is the time when we stand our ground and say: “No more.” Now is the time for us move with the strength and calm given to us by God and go into the world with love, a love that counters hate.
Matt Handi is Operations Manager for the Episcopal Church in Connecticut