Bearing the Pain of History
April 27, 2021
Updated April 28, 2021
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Last week I had a second surgery on my eye. The surgeon had to remove the synthetic oil belt that had been holding my retina in place for the last four months. After removing the oil, he replaced it with a gas bubble that will dissipate on its own over two weeks. I spent four days “out of combat,” as my father would have said. My limited mobility allowed the gas bubble to stay in place and serve its purpose.
After having spent almost a year working, studying, researching, and writing “The Ideology of Whiteness" course (now available online), I realized my exhaustion. For four days I was going to be able to do nothing, but it wasn’t until I sat in front of my computer again, I realized the tremendous weight of everything my mind and body received this last year and now coupled with the pandemic, political conflicts and racial tensions, it felt like pain was coming from every angle.
Now history is something I am passionate about. But, my pain and exhaustion was not about studying history. The issue is when you investigate the other side of the history. The one that is hardly talked about. Discovering that the church engaged in the pain and suffering of so many is what hurts the most.
I probably can deal with the pain better if clergy and congregants alike weren’t involved in practicing and establishing a heresy over and against a foundational belief of people created in the image of God. How could they create a distinction and classify fellow human beings as inferior, created to serve them, the superior. To do this Christians committed a grievous sin against God and humanity. They embraced a heresy, equating non-Christians with pagan, savage, and uncivilized deemed incapable of receiving the gospel. They were not just classified as such, but affirming their incapacity was hereditary and ingrained in their hearts and souls. Then, what’s the purpose of the call of sharing the gospel? The painful history is the heresy that allowed the church to prioritize domination over Christ’s transforming kingdom.
It is regrettable to "discover" names of Reformed ministers affirming these statements from the pulpit. Gerald Francis De John indicates respected ministers of the Dutch Reformed in the American colony during the 18th century were slave owners (1). He specifically cites Reverend Johannes Ritzema, president of the New York Dutch Reformed colony during the 1800’s. An interesting pamphlet from the same time period is "Slaveholding is Not Sinful”, which supported their positions. It was difficult for Reformed ministers and the mother church in Holland to criticize or openly oppose slavery. Much of their wages and income depended on the slave trade. Holland-owned ships transported more than half a million African slaves across the Atlantic between 1596 and 1829. Their deliveries reached plantations in America, the Caribbean, and Brazil, gaining the Netherlands great windfalls.
Today we do not hear overtly racist statements from a pulpit. But, is it behind us? The fact that there is an office dedicated to countering racism confirms the opposite. The fact that on April 20, 2021, a white police officer was convicted of the death of George Floyd, a black person, confirms otherwise. Is racism really a thing of the past?
The brutality of racism continues into our present and may continue into our future.
How often do we turn a blind eye to racism because it benefits us at the time. But we do so at our demise. We sacrifice principles and values. I remember a great television personality from my native country Chile, a man admired and respected by many and an invited guest to several countries. During the dictatorship period, he was the main face of the 9 pm news. The admiration and respect we felt for him greatly declined because we knew he was reading what was propaganda and not the truth. Then one day, an unannounced and unexpected, he no longer appeared reading the news. One of the two newspapers that dared oppose the dictatorship, published an interview where this man is quoted saying, "There came a time when I could no longer see myself in the mirror." That stuck with me because to do what he did, in the context in which we lived, he had to have guts.
In my personal life, I have been learning about the importance of staying in the state of contrition for a period of time. It allows me to think and reflect on my negative and harmful attitudes and behaviors. It helps me to weigh the matter and not rush into the process of facing and confronting what I must change, and then confess before the Lord and receive from Him renewal only He can give.
Holland is dealing with their past. In July 2020, the Dutch Prime Minister said: “for some people this goes too far. Can people today be held accountable for a distant past?"(3) Meanwhile, others try not to turn the page, as if nothing had happened (4).
The Netherlands and the United States have their dark history from which we cannot separate. An unpleasant past is hard to talk about but not talking about it will not erase it. The church is not exempt since it also has its dark history, but by remaining silent about it will not make it disappear like the gas bubble the surgeon put in my eye.
The best and only way to move forward is to be strong, brave, and confront the past.
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