There is no going back to black and white in a land spattered in many shades of grey.
On the heels of the just-ended sesquicentennial marking the end of the Civil War, history seems to have once again repeated and recast itself, as it often does. As with the two weeks 150 years ago that saw a sudden if inevitable end to an intractable Civil War and the assassination of a President, once again events in our America have jolted us like the sudden calving of an immense and seemingly motionless glacier.
There is no denying that much has happened in the last couple of weeks, from the church shootings and aftermath in Charleston, to some rather monumental shifts in the laws of the land. And while some of those happenings seem a surprise, some of the reactions to them are sadly all too familiar. Our freshly exposed wounds are burning with the salt of the bitter in defeat and the gloating and self-righteousness of the triumphant. History will doubtless look back on this fortnight 50 years hence as a pivotal lightning bolt. But right now we are consumed by ideological bombs hurled back and forth across a great chasm, with a renewed passion and fervor for the fight.
Whenever monumental change comes in these United States, it does not come easily. It is rarely a huge overwhelming majority finally overcoming the voices of a recalcitrant few. One need only read about the atrocities committed on both sides during the American Revolution to realize that we were born with a tendency towards "my way or the highway," and that change is imposed on a reluctant and large minority at great cost and with great cataclysm. The American Civil War did not end with a reluctantly apologetic and acquiescing South, it ended in subjugation - and that led to a century more of deeply entrenched resistance at the expense and continued demonization of the newly "freed". That hatred still rears its ugly head here in our time, as it did in the tragedy in Charleston. These epic conflicts left a large and bitter minority on the losing side of history. It is hard not to see the two great armies on social media and onscreen, plotting ever more vigorously how to demonize the other after the outcomes of the latest "battles".
in the wake of all that, I personally need to take stock and get some grounding. I don't feel any less free today. I am free to go to my church, bike through my town, buy whatever I can afford at the store, and sit in miserable traffic with tens of thousands of other wretched huddled teeming masses. I also realize whether I admit it or not, I do enjoy considerable unearned privilege simply because of what I am regardless of who I am.
There are still plenty of "isms" to deal with today. Racism is still a stubborn and persistent blight from our past staining our present. If you need convincing, try driving while black, or speaking Spanish with the day laborers gathering for their morning's work. Nothing that has been said or done in these past two weeks can or will change that. Nor will same-sex couples suddenly feel free to walk holding hands down a sidewalk in some small town without looking over their shoulder.
So how do we navigate these murky new waters in the Land of Liberty? If you are largely pleased with how things have turned out, this is not a time for gloating. It is a time for understanding, empathy and respect. For many, the very fabric of their faith and their family histories seems uprooted or threatened. This is not a thing to take lightly. We need to find a way to hold and honor our stories that we have been handed by our forebears, to revere the good in those stories and come to grips with the "other" without being charged and convicted for the sins of our ancestors. The families of the fallen in Charleston and the surrounding community have provided the rest of us with a very powerful and beautiful expression of grace in their grief. The heartbreaking images of black churches burning across the southland seem a tragic and familiar lashing out from a past that will never be again.
And for those who feel like Hell in a Handbasket is the next stop on this ride, may I gently suggest that, just perhaps, this is not a great apocalypse. You and I are still just as free to worship as we choose, to love who we choose, and to go about the great tasks of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness - as long as we pay all the damn tax collectors. While it may feel like the end of western civilization as we know it, the truth is that civilization has been evolving for millennia, and will continue to do so. I might suggest that what has happened is that the institutions of our great nation have given preference to the individual over the state. You may not agree. It's ok. It's a free society, and we cherish that and many other rights of the individual from those very founding documents forward. I'm simply guessing that in 20 years we will look back on these convulsive changes and find that they didn't destroy all that you, or I, stood for now or then. I have the First Amendment right to be a serial optimist.
Like it or not, our best and worst stories are all tied together. Slavery is the great original sin upon which this nation was founded. All of our American ancestors had some stock in it. Those who fought to abolish it generally had little interest in a true "equality" with the newly freed. I harbor no illusions that my ancestors, those of Revolutionary War pedigree and dozens of immigrants arrived since, had any great notions of equal opportunity for all. And it is clear today that we are still a long way away from a society living in balance with its many differences. The Virginia battle flag, with all it has come to symbolize in the last 60 years, is flying as defiantly as ever, and hardly restricted to the old Confederate states. It is any individual's right to do so, of course. Removing it from official non-museum/heritage site locations - like state government buildings - is to finally acknowledge that for non-whites, it is a symbol of state-sponsored terrorism.
No one said that reaching the American ideal would be easy. Maybe the real step forward here might be embracing the whole of our stories, with respect and reverence not only for those of our ancestors, but their ancestors too. Every family, black, white, brown, red, gay, straight, Anglo, other; we all have our narratives. Acknowledging the darker truths and chapters does not mean that we in this moment are any less worthy of being loved or having the same basic rights as anyone else. We are all human - born innocent and largely a symbol of our own lives and stories, but not bound to atone for the sins or successes of our ancestors.
It is heartening to see us bringing up and reexamining our collective history. It would be an achievement indeed if we all could learn some new things from all of it, not just the cherry picked bits of it that support one side's arguments or the other. We are fascinatingly, tragically, and inspiringly imperfect and complicated.
In just two weeks, we will again make history of a different kind. With continued good luck, small probe the size of a piano will fly past Pluto, a journey of 9 years and 3 billion miles. Most people over the age of 30 learned about Pluto as this mysterious and weird planet that no one had really ever seen. The teams that designed, built and operate New Horizons are from all backgrounds, ethnicities, and political philosophies. While I'm sure that getting to this point wasn't all "rainbows and unicorns", the success that they are achieving as a team working together is historic. That's what we do. We find a way to accomplish the implausible and the impossible. While we learn much about Pluto during this epic flyby, there are clearly some lessons to learn about ourselves as well.
So please go ahead, enjoy the barbeque and the fireworks this 4th of July. Enjoy them with who you love and who you want to hang out with, like you did last year. Drink a toast to those imperfect patriots who set us on this course 240 years ago with their angered armed resistance at Lexington and Concord. Say a prayer for those who gave their lives living their faith in Charleston, and the community that has come together with them. Please be considerate of the veterans in your neighborhood and avoid the surprise fireworks. We're all Americans, like it or not - we all live here, many colors, many faiths, many creeds. The complicated red, white and blue and the rainbow of gray shades interconnecting.