A Tale of Two Americas

 

This blog focuses on issues of unity, especially among Christians. We look at how disunity manifests itself along theological, racial, cultural, economic and nationalistic lines in our society.

We want to follow the gospel mandate to repent, repair the damage and offer restitution on the hopeful path toward reconciliation. That is a page from good, old fashioned Christianity! But one giant obstacle in the way is a poor self understanding. We can’t do any of this well if we aren’t honest about ourselves or the situation. This may require shattering some long-held golden calves. But I believe we can do it.

As the churches following the liturgical calendar move toward commemorating All Saints Day and All Souls Day—and Day of the Dead in Hispanic cultures—it is a good time to ask: Who are we? Where did we come from? What narratives do we tell of our past that define who we are today? Who do we want to be going forward and where do we ultimately want to go?

There are two Americas.

We have a very difficult time admitting it. But in order to be healthy and whole and to become the people we want to be (and think we are), it is necessary to come to terms with this. The truth will set us free.

We have indeed been an experiment in freedom and equality. When the U.S. was founded, we attempted something no other nation in the modern era has ever attempted, at least not on the scale we were attempting. Smaller communities were the model but there was never anything so grandiose. And yes, through the years, very often our stated ideals of freedom and equality have pushed us (often kicking and screaming) to live them out more fully.

However, perhaps more importantly, you could say instead of “freedom and equality for all” what we have instead created is a pocket of power and privilege for a few in the guise of freedom and equality for all. As noted evangelical writer Jim Wallis often says, racism is “America’s original sin.”

There are other words that can accurately describe American society:

Apartheid.
Caste system.
Rigid social hierarchy.
Forced labor camps.
Forced patriotism.
Genocide.
Privilege.
Concentration camps.
Internment camps.
Forced family separation and re-indoctrination of various groups (slaves, natives, migrants, immigrants).
Militaristic empire.
Colonizers (both neocolonialism and good ole fashioned regular colonialism).

All of those are accurate and factual descriptions.

“We don’t like those words! That’s what other countries do, not us!” We tell ourselves: “Sure, we’ve made a few mistakes along the way, but we’re not like them!”

But when your idea of freedom and equality for all is to do the following, perhaps we are not being honest with ourselves:

1. “Clear the land” of the first nations people and cultures already here as if they were simply annoying weeds.

2. Kidnap, capture, and import slaves, dehumanize them and write the laws to regard them as property—and then even after slavery to keep them in forced segregation and oppression—perhaps in unconscious fear that if granted true equality and freedom they might do to us what we did to them.

3. Beat down on successive waves of immigrants who might steal the power and privilege we have amassed for ourselves—also perhaps in unconscious fear they might do to us what we did to them.

Different Words for Different Folks

One of the ways we perpetuate these divisions is that we use different words for ourselves than we use for others. The U.S. was populated by migrant workers, immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers. But we don’t like those words, so we call ourselves “settlers” instead. How come Mexicans crossing the border today without documents aren’t called “settlers”? They meet that definition as well as any European from three centuries ago did.
The U.S. started as genocide toward native people and continued with a string of forced labor camps (what we usually call “plantations” (you know, where slaves were imprisoned)) where the inmates were subject to brutal life sentences and continual torture—and so were their families for generation after generation.

In all this, the U.S. has then maintained a rigid social caste system. On top of the social caste system are white (preferably northern European), Christian (preferably Protestant) heterosexual, cisgender males. There are some anomalies and complexities in this that must be named but that is the overall system.

At Home and Abroad

Whatever freedoms we may legitimately enjoy here, we brutally deny to most everyone else on earth. Seriously, for every place on earth that we hold up as an example that we have genuinely helped become a democratic, freedom-loving society (er… usually by force), there are probably a dozen more where we have installed and supported autocratic regimes—keeping the third world poor and vulnerable so our corporations can exploit the people and land without resistance or interference. It was actually a Catholic Maryknoll missionary priest who played a large role in uncovering these maneuvers.

The refugees and asylum seekers currently at the U.S./Mexico border begging for mercy were driven in no small way by U.S. policies that wrecked their homelands, either directly or indirectly. This includes the drug wars (Colombia), embargoes (Cuba/Venezuela), destructive trade policies (Mexico) and overthrowing democratically elected governments (Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, etc).

We maintain that industrial military complex through forced, obligatory patriotism here in the U.S (“Support the troops” who are “making the world safe for democracy.”) However, people around the world simply do not universally cheer us as their “liberators.” Some do, but many do not. So often, we have betrayed the people who have helped us. We get upset when we hear about how communist and socialist governments have attempted to force their systems onto their people, but when we have “brought democracy” abroad is has generally been through force and military rule.

Despite all this negativity, there are bright lights to report.  For example, we have historically settled permanently more refugees than everywhere else on earth combined (not since Trump’s restrictions but previously). Granted, that’s only a small fraction of the world’s refugees. It must be said that we certainly do not take in the most refugees—not by a long shot. But the ones we have taken in we have granted permanent status. That’s the difference. It’s still a very good mark for the U.S. Granted, we should also ask how many of those refugees we have created in the first place through our policies and practices.

It must also be said that even though historically the U.S. has been a leader in pushing for freedom and equality for all, we are nowhere near the leaders in world freedom anymore. Lots of studies have been done from lots of groups to measure the relative “freedom” of people all over the earth, and the U.S. does not rank anywhere close to the top of freedoms today. This is especially true in post-9/11 America where all the infrastructure for a police and surveillance state has been quickly and firmly put in place. In addition, there is too much disparity in power and privilege along economic, racial and social lines.

Conclusion

I’m sure folks could point to other areas where we have done an exemplary job and other areas where we have been dismal. But that’s the point—both have been true. And this is why democracy in the U.S. is always fragile and that fascism and white nationalism are ongoing threats just around the corner. We have always been dangerously closer to that than we usually care to admit—lynchings, McCarthy “red scare” hearings, Japanese internment, family separation of native peoples and “re-schooling,” not to mention slavery and native genocide. The list goes on and on. I believe it was Noam Chomsky who made that point—we have always had the infrastructure for fascism, especially in post 9/11 America. We just haven’t had a leader or a populace willing to exploit it to its fullest… yet.

A nation of freedom and equality does not have a military many times the size of the next closest competitor with bases in 150+ nations worldwide. A nation of freedom and equality does not mandate saying the Pledge of Allegiance or standing for the national anthem—those quasi-religious gestures would have been abhorrent to our founders. It’s not what you do in a genuinely free society. It’s just not. By Definition.

So there you have it. A tale of two Americas. We are not all bad. We have done some great things for freedom and equality in the world, even if most of those gains are historical. But it’s time we let go of any paternalistic, comic book fantasies about what our country is. We can do this. We need to first be honest about who we are, what we have done and what we are planning to do. Only then can be actually be the people and nation we aspire to be. We have to quit saying “We’re #1 We’re the best!” We just not. Let’s face it—that’s kind of juvenile. Life is more complex than that. Besides, Christians in particular should set their gaze on the Kingdom that Jesus announced rather than worldly things, statuses and titles. But admitting it is the first step on the road toward repentance, restitution and reparations and ultimately reconciliation.

A lot of folks say:  “This can’t be true because of such-and-such positive thing about America.” But that’s it—we have two sides and need to acknowledge—fully—both.

Let’s go back to church and learn the 4 R’s: Repentance, Restitution, Reparations and Reconciliation.

Visit Frank Lesko’s Blog here.

Review & Commentary