America has come a long way since 1619, but we still have a long way to go.
The history of America is a mosaic of good and evil. It is evident that God has providentially blessed America to become the world’s superpower. Its prosperity, technological advancements, and military might have been a force for good in the world. At the same time, there remains a gaping wound that has been medicated and bandaged but refuses to heal. This paradox remains America’s festering problem.
How could a nation help to defeat Hitler, spread democracy across the globe, and promote Christianity; yet enslave other Americans for 250 years and oppress them for another 100 years through Jim Crow laws? This is the American story—a story of triumph and travesty.
There are those who argue that we should stop focusing on the past, and that we should not hold them responsible for the atrocities committed by their forefathers. Scripture certainly instructs us not to punish the children for the sins of their parents, nor punish the parents for the sins of their children (Ezek. 18:20). But the thrust of the passage is that each person will be judged on the merits of his or her own actions.
So the question we must ask is, how do you treat your fellow Americans? Now, the problem with slavery and Jim Crow is the fundamental paradigm that sits beneath those despicable periods: white supremacy. When we understand that “white supremacy” is a human construct used as a backdrop for imperialism, it sheds light on the disparities we see in America and throughout the world. According to Philip Jenkins:
Racism was at the heart of North American slavery and the colonization and empire-building activities of western Europeans, especially in the 18th century. The idea of race was invented to magnify the differences between people of European origin and those of African descent whose ancestors had been involuntarily enslaved and transported to the Americas. By characterizing Africans and their African American descendants as lesser human beings, the proponents of slavery attempted to justify and maintain the system of exploitation.
That system continues to this day, and the descendants of the colonizers continue to benefit from it, as the descendants of the colonized continue to suffer from it. Thus, it becomes difficult to disassociate the sins of the fathers from the prosperity of their descendants when the very system that we all rightly decry still benefits the children of the colonizers and oppresses the children of the colonized.
Yet, there is a biblical response to the oppression and exploitation of our fellow citizens. In Nehemiah’s day, the rich and powerful oppressed their Jewish brothers and sisters, and it displeased the Lord. Nehemiah sought to do something about it, so he confronted the oppressors and challenged them to change their ways.
I said to them, “We according to our ability have redeemed our Jewish brothers who were sold to the nations; now would you even sell your brothers that they may be sold to us?” Then they were silent and could not find a word to say. Again I said, “The thing which you are doing is not good; should you not walk in the fear of our God because of the reproach of the nations, our enemies?” (Neh. 5:8-9)
There are some who say, “I am not oppressing or discriminating against anyone.” But are you sure? When you look at your company, how many African Americans have you appointed to leadership positions? When you review the pastoral staff of your church, how many board members and associate pastors are Black? When a Black family moves into your neighborhood, do you gladly welcome them with open arms?
These examples reflect the subtitles of the vestiges of colonization that some people refer to as unconscious bias. Most of us probably do have a genuine desire to judge people by the content of their character and not the color of their skin. But when it comes to the distribution of money and power, our biases come to the surface. Patronizing a Black restaurant or hiring a black plumber does not challenge the authenticity of our racial paradigm. What does challenge it is when we have the ability to control power and resources and how inclusive we are in allocating them.
Nehemiah challenged his countrymen to do what is good by living in reverence to God, because of their witness to the surrounding nations. In other words, we have to do more than deny the horrid history of our past but also do good by embracing and including our brothers and sisters in the acquisition and administration of the nation’s power and wealth—whether that is in our companies, churches, or neighborhoods. And, no, this is not a call for the redistribution of wealth. It is about our shared prosperity that will speak to the discontinuity with our past—a prosperity that is earned and allowed.
There are those who argue for individual responsibility, and we all have personal obligations for our own futures. But we also recognize that the culture of the Bible is a culture of community. A culture built around the themes of family, the human body, and oneness. Individualism comes out of a Western ethos that forgets this important aspect of life. Thus, America is a nation of individuals and families, and is itself a family.
Thus, as we seek to spread democracy and freedom across the world, let us remember to follow Nehemiah’s challenge to Judah and lead by example. We have made tremendous gains since 1619—slavery has been abolished, Jim Crow has been outlawed, and we elected a Black man as president of our great nation. But there is still more work to do, more battles to be won, and more progress to be made for truly becoming one nation under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all. In other words, the fight continues.
Rev. Isaac Hayes is the founder of Healing of the Soul Ministries and author of Men After God’s Heart: 10 Principles of Brotherly Love. He is also an Assistant Pastor at the Apostolic Church of God in Chicago, Illinois, and a doctoral student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Follow Rev. Hayes on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at @RevIsaacHayes.