Were you confused earlier this month? Was Oct. 11 Columbus Day or Indigenous Peoples’ Day? It was both. Though only Columbus Day is a federal holiday, several cities and states, such as Boston and South Dakota, celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day on the same date.
In doing so, they recognize that some associate Columbus with the displacement of Native American people. As the Wall Street Journal reported, people “associate the explorer with atrocities brought against indigenous people and the emergence of the transatlantic slave trade.”
Others disagree. As Robert Allegrini, president of the National Italian American Foundation, noted in the same WSJ article, “Columbus represented [the Italians’] assimilation into … the American dream.” Thus, Indigenous Peoples’ Day on the same day as Columbus Day dilutes the explorer’s legacy.
The Columbus Day/Indigenous Peoples’ Day debate will continue to be argued. But is there a “shadow side” to state and church that’s clearly problematic? And if so, what’s the role of God’s people in speaking “the truth to one another, [rendering] ... judgments that are true and make for peace” (Zechariah 8:16)?
A mentor once remarked: “Few of us tell the last 10 percent. Oh, we’ll reveal up to 90 percent of the truth but seldom risk 100 percent.” Of course, there are times when a full revelation is best voiced only for God’s “ears.” But when it comes to life together, risky confession is good for the soul, including the soul of country and church. Regarding the nation, Jon Meacham remarks: “The message of Martin Luther King Jr. — that we should be judged on the content of our character, not on the color of our skin — dwells in the American soul; so does the menace of the Ku Klux Klan. … Our fate is contingent upon which element — that of hope or that of fear — emerges triumphant.”
But the KKK is only a small part of the confession needed to tell the last 10 percent. Other realities overshadow the narrative of both nation and state. For example, Martin Luther spoke barbed, anti-Semitic speech against the Jewish people. Abraham Lincoln ordered the hanging of 38 Dakota Indians, the largest mass execution in U.S. history. And Catholic clergy in France abused over 200,000 minors over the past seven decades.
Naming such offenses is not meant to vilify either nation or church. Please hear this. Instead, it’s to continue the biblical tradition of telling whole-truth history. Have you noticed: Scripture doesn’t whitewash the people of God? Rather, it readily reports that David committed adultery with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11:1-5), that Saul was complicit in the murder of Stephen (Acts 22:20), and that Rahab the prostitute was a member of Jesus’ family tree (Matthew 1:1-17). Just as the Bible tells whole-truth history, we need to tell whole-truth history.
A difficult truth is confessing that racism is not just personal prejudice but a deep, systemic, far-reaching sin. My elementary school growing up held minstrel shows as fundraisers. The shows featured white people smeared with blackface who performed skits and musical acts that represented African Americans as dimwitted, lazy, buffoonish folk. In the 1950s, we thought such portrayal was fine, and so I grew up with a distorted picture of Black people as comical, “less than” individuals.
Though minstrel shows have waned, people of color are still perceived and treated as “less than.” The violence against George Floyd and others attests to that. However, people are still in denial, most prominently the church. As Robert P. Jones notes, surveys conducted in 2018 found that “white Christians — including evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics — are nearly twice as likely as religiously unaffiliated whites to say the killings of Black [people] by police are isolated incidents rather than part of a [systemic] pattern of how police treat African Americans.” Christ’s church must face such denial.
The need to preach the Gospel is more urgent than ever. But as Raymond Fung underscores, the Gospel is not just good news for sinners; it’s also good news for those sinned against. Thus, a new honesty about the angst of “the sinned against” is needed, telling the whole truth about the injustices we’ve tolerated and fueled as a nation.
Whole-truth history is such an awkward, upsetting topic. However, its intent is not to rile or offend but to liberate. As Jesus proclaimed in his first sermon, he came “to proclaim release to the captives and the regaining of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18-19). Not just freedom for those suffering injustice but freedom for those denying that injustice exists. For as Jesus notes in John 8, it’s in reckoning with the truth that we’re truly set free!
Paul Mundey is a minister, consultant and writer. He recently completed two years of service as moderator of the Church of the Brethren, the denomination’s highest elective office. For 20 years, he served as senior pastor of the Frederick Church of the Brethren.