In a moving part of Goddess and God in the World, the book Judith Plaskow and I are writing together, Judith describes how the Sabra and Shatila massacre forced her to confront the fact that “her people” are just as capable of perpetrating evil as any other group. Growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust and the pogroms that had scattered her people across the world, Judith was taught to think of the Jewish people as the victims of history rather than as the perpetrators of evil. The willingness of the Israeli army to countenance the outright massacre of up to 3500 people told another story: when in power, Jews too were capable of great evil.
I tell this story because I believe the lesson Judith learned is a lesson that Americans as a group still need to learn. I am thinking about this in the days following the heated debate that led to the removal of the Confederate flag from the Capitol of North Carolina.
In a brave and impassioned speech, Jenny Horne explained that though she is a descendant of Jefferson Davis, she was speaking against the display of the Confederate flag because it is a symbol of the harm that has been done and continues to be done to slaves and descendants of slaves in her state. Jenny Horne was rejecting the story she had been told about what it is to be an American in South Carolina.
Jenny Horne and other Southerners are not the only ones who need to revise the stories they have learned about what it means to be American. All of us have been told that we are the inheritors of a tradition of “freedom and justice for all”—a tradition forged in the Revolutionary War. Many of us were also taught that the tradition of freedom and justice for all was reaffirmed in the Civil War and in the struggles of former slaves (male and female) and women (of all races) for equal rights.
In part, this story is a re-telling of the narrative of the heroes of war: the heroes of war fight for a noble cause and are remembered forever. In another part, this story is about the struggle for freedom and justice for all, said to be the most noble of all noble causes.
In the US South, a counter story is told. In this version, the Revolutionary War remains foundational, establishing the American people as the defenders of freedom and justice. With regard to the Civil War, the story changes: the North is portrayed as the usurping the freedom of the Southern states to determine their own way of life, with the Confederate soldiers valiantly fighting for “freedom and justice” for the South.
It is easy for those of us who are not from the South to feel horrified by the Southern telling of the American story. It would be tempting to conclude that the South needs to accept the Northern version of the American story. Moreover, it might be added, the South needs to repent of the sin of slavery.
It will not be lost on the readers of this blog that this “solution” leaves several elements of the American story intact. It does not question the narrative of the heroes of war. Rather it states that the category of heroes of war does not include the Confederate soldiers. Nor does it question the narrative that our people (properly defined to exclude the slave-holding Confederacy) are always on the side of freedom and justice for all.
For many of us who grew up during the Vietnam War, these two narratives were already shattered. We came to understand that our people were engaged in an unjust war, and we refused to celebrate the soldiers who fought in an unjust war as the heroes of war.
As students of American history are well aware, conflicting versions of the American story continue to shape the political landscape. While those on the left question the justice of American wars, others consider it treasonous to express anything other than total loyalty for our troops and the justice of the battles they fight.
I could stop here, but I won’t, because it is important also to question the notion that slavery and its on-going legacy is a Southern problem. The reason that slavery was outlawed in the Northern states is that slaves were held in them. All of the American people may not have held slaves (a fact that is true in both the North and the South), but all Americans not descended from slaves benefited from slavery.
The factories of the North processed cotton grown on slave plantations. Northerners produced the manacles that held the slaves in the holds of the slave ships and the cannons and cannon balls that were fired to protect slave ships. And so on. Because of on-going segregation and injustice, white people, including immigrant groups that came to the United States after the Civil War, were able to access jobs, education, home mortgages, and a variety of other benefits that were denied to the descendants of slaves.
It is high time that Americans give up the story that “we” have always been on the side of “the good.” The history of every people contains a mixture of good and evil. This does not mean that the responsibility for evil is equally shared. But is does mean that no group is all good, or conversely, all bad.
It is particularly dangerous when the powerful maintain the illusion that they and their people are always good. It is high time to change the American story once and for all.
Carol P. Christ leads the life-transforming Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete (facebook and twitter). Carol’s books include She Who Changes and and Rebirth of the Goddess; with Judith Plaskow, the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions and forthcoming in 2016, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology. Explore Carol’s writing. Photo of Carol: Maureen Murdock.