Creating a New American Ethos | Sojourners

Creating a New American Ethos

We stand at what could be the greatest divide in American history. America has come from Native American genocide, African slavery, the Jim Crow era, Civil Rights enactment and now we have elected the first mixed-blood white/black president.

America is fast becoming transformed to a multi-ethnic blend of citizenry, and yet the majority of positions of power (in most spheres of life) are currently held by Caucasians. As a person of mixed Native American and white ancestry, I am concerned about the possibility of a multi-ethnic America eventually turning into something resembling a less ambitious form of South African Apartheid, with a minority white government setting a harsh agenda for the "ethnic" majority.

As new possibilities emerge from the president-elect's nomination, white Americans can already be heard resisting these changes while ethnic minority folks are complaining about the lack of "color" in recent appointments. It is a dilemma that requires education and a change of worldview in order to enable the America we are becoming to learn to appreciate itself. I offer a few simple points that could be helpful for everyone, but perhaps especially helpful for white Americans to begin to re-educate themselves in this process:

If You are Not Native American, You are an Immigrant and an Ethnic Person

Unless you are a Native American, you are an immigrant to a country whose history began long before 1492. Native Americans have a rich pre-contact history that can be shared with all Americans because it is the history of this land. We make jokes about the first "Boat People" (whites) and America's first "Welfare Line" (Thanksgiving). But, as good hosts, we want to include everyone in our long history and how our stories are now inextricably linked together.

Diversity is a Gift

Ethnic and cultural homogeneity is impractical, boring, and not worthy of the American ethos. Yes, most people feel comfortable when they are around people who seem like themselves, affirm their identity, and make them feel safe. But to stay in the safe zone is not the American way. Curiosity of other people and other cultures is natural. We are made to reach beyond ourselves and to learn about others. And we are always surprised to find out, not only how different "the other" is, but also how similar.

The Past is Still Present

"Just get over it" is an oft-repeated phrase used on minority folks when justice issues are raised. But we can only get over it when it is over. Just because one does not see the everyday residual effects of American systemic racism does not mean racism has ended. Minority people face both direct and indirect racism on a regular basis. Realize there are other moccasins that you should try on. When we are at our best, justice is an American trait of which we can all be proud.

The Founding Fathers' Myth is Unfounded

Let's face it. The founding fathers stole a continent and appropriated slavery. Many of them claimed to have a religious faith, but theirs would not be the church of our choice today. The myth of clearing the wilderness with their own bare hands neglects the fact that the Woodland tribes and others already had tens of thousands of acres of gardens. Then, much of America's prosperity came on the backs of imported slaves. The "fathers" were men of their own times with ethnocentric views, greed, and some good ideas of what freedom should be. Their imperfect idea of freedom may have moved society closer to realizing the dream today, but the idea has been greatly sustained by other "founding fathers and mothers" of many ethnicities. We need to give them all a place in American history.

Wealth is Meant to be Shared

The general principles of capitalism and socialism have this in common: Everyone should get something. If a social program is broken, work in a bipartisan, inter-denominational, cross-philosophical, et. al. way to fix it. Regardless of whether you favor a strong safety net or a more gradual trickle-down economics, our real wealth is in our concern for the most marginalized of society. America should not leave anyone out at any time.

Hugging a Tree Could Save Your Family

Our native view is that all of life is sacred. If we are to survive, the dominant society must learn how to love and honor the land, not just for what it can produce but because it is a gift. America is much more than land, but it is also land. If you love America, learn to honor each tree, stream, field, and all the resources of the earth because it is the richest inheritance we can give our children and grandchildren's generations.

Every War is an Automatic Defeat

War should always be the last resort. Many Americans believe the false premise that we must always fight to be free. In truth, we always lose when we go to war. We lose the lives of our young men and women. We lose economically. Often we lose our standing of honor in the world. And we lose because we not only kill others, but we make killers of our own children. Native Americans have the highest enlistment per capita of all minorities in military service, yet our best ethos is to bring about peace and harmony if possible. It's time for the American war myth to be replaced with the idea of wise but powerful peacemakers. Regardless of the outcome, Might Makes Right is the value of bullies and it should not be the value of Americans.

Mistakes can be Made Right

We are all in this together. It is time for white America to face the truth of its own history and to be welcomed into the greater history now occurring for all of America. I pray that can we take a chance by seeing through the eyes of the other in order to make a better America.

Randy WoodleyRev. Dr. Randy Woodley is a Keetoowah Cherokee Indian descendent and the author of Living in Color: Embracing God's Passion for Ethnic Diversity. He teaches history, theology and culture at George Fox Evangelical Seminary in Portland, Oregon.

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