We are a generation reconsidering its past. It is not something many of us know how or even want to do. But the past has a way of catching up to us, and that is exactly what is happening.
Two centuries of carefree industrial expansion has now become dangerous climate change. The slave trade that built the American economy made us into a two-tier racialized society. We are learning a more complex history; we see the shared videos. While people of color renew the demand for accountability, white nationalists get elected to Congress, try to limit voting rights or wield bear spray, guns and flags while violently storming the nation’s Capitol.
What the heck happened? Many social scientists point to a central shift: the revolution of mass access to the internet and social media. The common aspects of culture — family and education, work and vocation, disease and aging, governing and politics, religion and science, gender and sexuality — began shaking with the multiplicity, democratization and blending of opinions. What we now feel are the resulting paroxysms of rapid social revision with passionate political resistance.
The Christian Church is not immune. This is the shift that has captured my attention for years now. I was raised, educated and trained in an institution that simply assumed its rightful place in the hearts and minds of mainstream society. Even as I was beginning my ministry in the mid-1980s, I could feel the ground shifting under my feet. In the last 30 years, as culture has changed, mainline churches are no longer the most powerful social institutions in the land. Fewer and fewer seek membership or even show interest. Our children look elsewhere for community, ethics and life direction. We wonder just where this shift will take us.
In the church’s experience of historical revision, we are struggling to repent of the abuse of power social status regularly allowed: clergy infidelity; financial embezzlement; child sex abuse; institutional misogyny and racism. This summer, evidence of this abuse of religious power has been found underground. Nearly 1,000 unmarked graves have been found by Canadian Indigenous engineers using ground-penetrating radar. They have been surveying some of the 130 former church and government Indian boarding schools in Canada run for 100 years.
The search has been for the nearly 6,000 missing children who died during those years, forced out of their homes in an attempt to assimilate them into western culture. Stripped of their families, forced to adopt English language, dress and traditions, thousands upon thousands languished and were lost to emotional, physical and sexual abuse and trauma. Canada has officially apologized to their Indigenous tribes for this tragedy. The Roman Catholic Church, which ran the schools, so far has not.
Yes, it is true that this is how human beings have behaved for millennia. The powerful accumulate more power, seeking out enemies, writing history as the celebrated conquerors. We have told and taught human history this way. But just because this is how human beings have behaved, does this mean we just shrug and tell ourselves it’s not our fault, we weren’t there and move on? This is one powerful response to the wave of revision and calls for repair within many aspects of American society. Get over it, I wasn’t there, don’t bother me with your cries about social justice.
Church, we must not turn away. For this is the experience of our faith — the call of Jesus to recognize our own blind spots, to see our neighbor, to act with compassion and justice. We even have centuries’ old language for this: it is called confession, repentance and restoration. We recognize we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. We continuously call one another to turn away from the things that deal in death. We seek ways to restore, renew and repair all the damage we can find. If this is not our spiritual work, it is not of Jesus, and we should abandon it.
If it is, we should rejoice that we are being emptied of our institutional power, chastened by the pain of the past and called forward toward healing. I want to be part of this historical swing that moves us from revision through resistance to renewal. Please join me, and let’s buckle up. It’s already a difficult ride.