Christians Should Face US History, Not Suppress It | Sojourners

Christians Should Face US History, Not Suppress It

Indian River School Board member Peggy Jones speaks during a town hall meeting in Gifford at the Gifford Community Center, July 31, 2023. Jones asks while holding back tears, "Can you imagine an African American middle school student sitting in a classroom and seeing there is a benefit of slavery? Can you imagine an African American teacher having to teach that?" Credit: USA TODAY NETWORK via Reuters Connect.

Across the U.S., a coordinated effort is being made to suppress any history that might be deemed “uncomfortable” to its listeners.

In Oklahoma, the state’s superintendent of public instruction Ryan Walters sparked outrage by saying that teachers could teach about the Tulsa Race Massacre so long as they did not, “tie it to the skin color and say that the skin color determined it.” New legislation restricting the teaching of “divisive concepts” in Tennessee, Georgia, and New Hampshire has teachers fearing they’ll be fired simply for discussing racism or sexism in history.

Perhaps the most infamous example of a state intentionally trying to suppress history is Florida. Its state board of education recently approved new standards that require students to learn how enslaved people “developed skills” that “could be applied for their personal benefit.” This is a blatant attempt to sanitize the evils of slavery. But when confronted with the backlash, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis doubled down on the standards, calling them, “the most robust standards in African American history probably anywhere in the country.”

Florida also came under fire for approving the use of PragerU videos as supplemental resources in classrooms. PragerU, an unaccredited, hyper-conservative media organization, is notorious for its highly partisan and misleading depictions of history, such as this video where Booker T. Washington celebrates America for being among the first places to outlaw slavery (in reality, it was among the last).

What makes these censorship efforts even more disturbing is that they are frequently supported, defended, and even championed by Christians. Walters, who tried to downplay the racial element of the Tulsa Race Massacre, is a vocal Christian who regularly promotes Christianity and “Western heritage” in his Oklahoma classrooms. DeSantis’ attacks on education have been praised by Christians as a regaining of lost ground in academia, while many of the “divisive concepts” laws are being introduced and shepherded through legislatures by Christian politicians. These attitudes, policies, and laws are not only bad for students and educators, but for Christians who are committed to telling the true history of the U.S. in order to pursue a just future.

The ugly truth is that U.S. history is littered with examples of terrible and unresolved injustice. Whether it’s the medical exploitation of African Americans, the kidnapping of Indigenous children, or the targeted demonization of LGBTQ+ people all of these stories undermine the cherished myth of American exceptionalism. Christians in the U.S. must accept that while these stories are uncomfortable, they are also necessary. Unless we are willing to own up to our past transgressions — both as individuals and as a country — we will continue to inflict harm on the neighbors that God has commanded us to love.

In The Cross and the Lynching Tree, the late author and theologian James H. Cone laid bare the ugly history of lynching in the U.S. and the role it played in shaping our nation. Lynching, he explained, was not a rare or random occurrence, but a horrifying and pervasive instrument used to terrorize African Americans. For years, African Americans lived with the constant threat of death by mob violence, often for simply being in a place that white people thought they should not be. It was only through the work of activists (who frequently fought this evil) that the practice of lynching finally began to recede. Today, some citizens would prefer to consign these despicable acts to the shadows of history, but Cone strongly argues against doing so.

“But as with the evils of chattel slavery and Jim Crow segregation,” Cone wrote, “blacks and whites and other Americans who want to understand the true meaning of the American experience need to remember lynching.” Given the recent shifts in education that attempt to distort America’s history, Cone’s warning has never been more relevant.

Christians looking to follow in the footsteps of Jesus must be willing to acknowledge where they have done harm and work to repair the damage. By refusing to give an honest accounting of our own history, U.S. Christians are choosing to deny Christ and embrace, as Cone called it, “a fraudulent perspective of this society and of the meaning of the Christian gospel for this nation.”

In the days ahead, Christians will need to speak out against the suppression of history in our libraries and schools. We will be obligated to educate ourselves, not with propaganda that affirms our existing worldview, but with trustworthy sources that teach us about the good and the bad. It may even require that we confront fellow believers who are putting politics and pride before confession and reconciliation. This will require a lot of hard work and personal humility, but this is the path that Christ has called us to take. Like the gospel, history can be a powerful tool for justice, but only if it is pursued.

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