Saturday, March 29, 2008

An Enduring Sin

Rita, Noah (our grandson), and I have spent the week immersed in history--Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Yorktown (as well as swimming and gift shops). In all three parts of the "historical triangle," the story of three aspects of American history are told well--Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement; Williamsburg, the capital of the "old dominion" of Virginia and site of early rebellion in the southern colonies; and Yorktown, the decisive American victory of the Revolutionary War. Attention is given to historical detail, political sensitivity, and "edutainment" (making the educational as pleasant as possible).

Although a great deal of effort is made to show the contributions of different races to the emergence of the American nation, there is no way to hide the fact that at least two of those races had no choice about the matter. English, Dutch, Germans, and other Europeans came in hopes of a better life, fortune, or freedom of or from religion. When the Jamestown Settlement was established, most men of the lower class in London did not live past the mid-20s. Going to the edge of the world in hopes of finding a better life was not a difficult choice under those circumstances!

The same was not true for the Native Americans and African-Americans. The indigenous tribes alternately welcomed and fought the Europeans, but their "guests" were not going away. The Africans were property to be bought and sold. They had no choice in their location or vocation. Neither of these groups were full participants in the process of the emerging American identity.

The situation did not improve as time went on. Even educated gentlemen like Thomas Jefferson struggled to justify the institution of slavery while arguing for the equality of all men (yes, only men and more specifically land-owning white men). The country was built by taking the land of the Native Americans and using the labor of the Africans. (I won't even try to get into how religion was used to further this effort.)

I assume that my ancestors (at least the white ones) were probably sharecroppers and minor merchants, but they were not innocent. They did not perpetuate the abuse of others, but they lived with it and benefited from it (and, in turn, so have I).

So, does this make me proud to be an American? Well, in a way it does, because we have come to know better. We have grown into a country that tries to embody the ideals stated in its founding documents. We have recognized our sin and are trying to overcome it . . . or are we? Have we gone too far down the road of exclusion and privilege that we can't absolve ourselves of our sin?

It is easy to look back on history and wonder why things could not have been done in a different way, but nations are like individuals. We are not omniscient. We try, we make mistakes, and we try again. At least we have the chance to attempt to find better ways. Thanks be to God!

No comments: