We All Have History: Duane W.H. Arnold PhD
“Why can’t they just get over it? It all happened such a long time ago. Everyone has moved on, why can’t they?”
I heard this comment in the last week. It was not, however, about African-Americans; nor was it about Southerners clinging to the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy. The comment had nothing to do with the removal of monuments, anti-Semitism, or people that are homophobic.
The comment was made about people who have been hurt by churches or church leaders and who can’t seem to move on with their lives.
You see, we all have a history of things that we have done and, indeed, things that have been done to us through the course of our lives. That personal history has a continuing impact upon people’s lives, albeit in different ways. Some of us drag the hurt and injuries with us throughout our lives. The scars are always on display for anyone who wishes to look. Others of us bury the hurt deep within ourselves. The distant pain is only manifested when an event, or a comment, triggers the reaction. A few of the more fortunate survivors of such harm attempt to integrate what they have gone through into the broader scope of their lives, using it as a basis of understanding in helping others who have gone through the same or a similar experience, or, indeed, to show compassion for those who are still in harm’s way.
If, perhaps, we can understand our reactions to our personal history, it may help us in areas that extend outside the church as well. My mother, who turned 90 this year, was born in the South but brought up in the North. One of her earliest memories is being in the back of her father’s car traveling through a small Southern town. Her father had slowed the car and suddenly turned around to say, “Don’t look… shut your eyes.” But it was too late. There had been a lynching in the town square, and my mother had seen the crowd inflicting yet further indignities upon the body of an African-American man hanging from a tree. She remembers the incident clearly to this day. Some years later, being newly married, she was visiting her in-laws in north Florida. Her second day there, she made a big mistake. She was talking to Hattie, my grandmother’s African-American cook, in the front yard. When they turned to go into the house, Hattie turned to go round the house to the back door. My mother immediately said, “Don’t be silly, come in here” and held open the front door for her. She walked in to make her way to the kitchen, but my grandmother was in the hall way. She slapped Hattie in the face and told her to go outside and use the back door. Then my mother was lectured about “how we do things in the South”, after which she left the room crying.
Now, this was my mother’s history and it shaped her perceptions and her actions for years to come. For instance, in my father’s company there were a number of African-American employees. When company parties were held in our home, they were always invited – an unusual situation for a suburban white family in Ohio in the early 1960s. This was but one way in which my mother’s history shaped her values and perceptions.
Yet, there was another history at play and my mother understood this to be the case, not perfectly, but at least in a small way. Hattie, the cook, had children and, I imagine, grandchildren who are likely alive today. The story recounted above is also part of their history. It most likely became a story that was passed down through the years affecting perception and subsequent action, not only of Hattie, but of others as well. Did the African-American man lynched in that small southern town have a family, or descendants, or brothers or sisters? I do not know. I do not know how it may have happened or how it was recorded, but surely that horrific incident became a part of the history of a family, a community and, indeed, part of our own history as a nation. Yet, even though we may not know about what took place in that family in an objective manner, we can be certain that the history of that outrage belongs particularly to those who personally experienced the pain of what took place.
In his ministry on earth, Christ seems to have been particularly concerned to include, to understand and to reach out to those with a different history – the Samaritan woman at the well with a moral and religious history that set her outside the “norm”; the Roman centurion, whose loyalties obviously lay elsewhere, with a servant who was ill; the woman dragged from a house and about to be stoned having been taken in the act of adultery… the examples are varied and many. Additionally, we might note that he does not take issue with their history (although he is aware of the history) or their perceptions, but he deals with the need of the moment.
All this is to say, many of us may not fully comprehend the visceral reaction to Confederate monuments expressed by some, but our own histories should allow us to have some measure of compassion and understanding. I am not Jewish, nor was I a witness to the parades of storm troopers in Berlin in the 1930s. Yet, while we may not fully comprehend the fear engendered by marchers shouting anti-Semitic slogans in a torch lit march in Charlottesville, our personal histories might allow us to reach across the divide and seek to alleviate the anxiety of those who, through families and friends, have such a history. Our own personal histories, if given the opportunity, at the very least, might engender in us some sense of active empathy. Our own experience might even lead us to reach out in love to those with a different history that we can only vaguely comprehend.