A Complicated History by Elise M. Edwards


Elise EdwardsIn my previous post, I wrote about my participation in planning a memorial event for the lynching of a man named Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas one hundred years ago. It prompted me to reflect on the challenge of faithfully remembering a conflicted past.  It’s important that we don’t just remember past events, but that we remember them appropriately.

I’m convinced that when we remember the past, we must avoid oversimplifying the stories of what occurred to suit our present day agendas and sensibilities.  We have to acknowledge the complexity, tension and conflict in what occurred, and perhaps even our own guilt and complicity in what is still occurring.  As a black feminist Christian ethicist, I face this challenge when one aspect of my identity seeks to address a particular issue through a narrative that implicates or denigrates another aspect of my identity. Uncomfortable as it is, I recognize Christianity’s complicity in its defenses of chattel slavery.  I recognize women’s support of patriarchy.

I went to a lecture a few weeks ago by Walter Brueggemann, a well-respected Old Testament theologian, titled “The Risks of Nostalgia.” Brueggemann warned us of the dangers of mis-remembering the past.  Pointing to texts from the prophets and Psalms, he demonstrated how the people of Israel remembered a past before exile without remembering the difficulties, the exploitative conditions, and the tensions of that time.  Excluding these harsher realities allowed them to gloss over the differences among them to unite in hatred and distrust in a common enemy—the one responsible of their present situation.  By misremembering, they lamented a version of past that didn’t belong to all of them because it didn’t include their diverse histories.  But the singular narrative served a purpose—it furthered their cause, their yearning and motivation to return to the way things were before.  Did this cause really serve all those who were yearning for it? It’s a question that comes to mind when I hear women yearn for a pre-feminist era or Christians yearn for an era of Christendom.

Like the Old Testament people of exile, we are in moral danger when we remember the past with a nostalgia that sweeps over the real stories of what happened in the past.  We risk buying into a narrative that harms us in its oversimplifcation.  A simple solution will suffice if we believe we have a simple problem.

Lynching was not a simplistic problem and the Waco Horror is not a simplistic story.  A black man was lynched for raping and murdering a white woman named Lucy Fryer.  I’ll admit it. The realities of the story make me uneasy. Jesse Washington confessed to a crime and was found guilty in the court proceedings that preceded his murder.  It makes sense to question whether the criminal proceedings were biased and whether his confession was coerced or illegitimate in some other manner.  But even if we question his confession or conviction, we shouldn’t gloss over them as if they never occurred. To present him as a purely innocent victim would be to distort the past to serve a cause – and even a cause as noble as community unity or racial justice should not be attained through lies.  People of integrity must guard against distorting the past for “the good” because the distortions themselves cause pain and harm.

Fryer’s family is still experiencing pain over her murder which precipitated the lynching.  Sadly, their pain is made worse by the remembrances of Jesse Washington.  Their pain does not mean we should not remember, but it does mean we cannot, as people of good conscience, romanticize violence or idealize its victims.  Some people might make Washington out to be a hero or a martyr, but the organizers of the memorial service didn’t remember him that way.  We didn’t cast him as a blameless victim.  But we remembered him as a victim, nonetheless.

We didn’t romanticize the lynching crowds and their pursuit of justice, either. Washington was brutally tortured and killed before a crowd of thousands.  If Christians are a people who embrace the love and mercy of a God who forgives the worst of sinners, they have to condemn even those crimes committed in the name of justice; crimes committed against criminals.

Noble causes, if they are just, must stand in the truth – the messy, complicated truth that resists casting all our heroes as saints, all our villains as irredeemable sinners.  Real humans aren’t characters who wear the white hats and black hats of the old Westerns (or even the white hats of Olivia Pope & Associates on ABC’s Scandal).

When we resist remembering simplistic, nostalgic stories, we can begin to grapple with the reality of how difficult it really is to achieve justice.  We can see humankind for who we really are. And maybe then we can ask for help.

We can ask victims to help us heal the wounds that persist.  We need their help to understand their pain and the underlying causes we seek to solve.

We can ask for the help of those who study the various aspects of our world and culture—the economists, the sociologists, the historians, the artists, the theologians and ethicists, the criminologists, and the scientists. We can be humble enough to learn what we don’t know about what’s really going on.

And I hope we also ask for divine assistance.  Despite their own complicated histories, wrongs, and imperfections, our faith traditions can enable us to do more than merely rightly remember, consider, and observe the problems in the world. They can embolden us with the courage of Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Ida B. Wells-Barnett to speak a complicated truth and yet still dare to fight to make this a better world.

Elise M. Edwards, PhD is a Lecturer in Christian Ethics at Baylor University and a graduate of Claremont Graduate University. She is also a registered architect in the State of Florida. Her interdisciplinary work examines issues of civic engagement and how beliefs and commitments are expressed publicly. As a black feminist, she primarily focuses on cultural expressions by, for, and about women and marginalized communities. Follow her on twitter, google+ or academia.edu.

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Categories: Academy, Activism, American History, Black Feminism, Christianity, civil rights, Community, Death, Ethics, Faith, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Human Rights, Justice, Racism, Rape, Resistance, Ritual, Social Justice, Violence, women of color, Women's Rights

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14 replies

  1. Elie Wiesel wrote that the annual re-enactment of the Passion Play was followed by violence against Jews in his community. Recently I read a headline stating that annual visits to the Holocaust museum (or memorial?) spark hatred in Israel. How do we remember the wrong that was done without inciting the desire to wrong others? Thanks for reflecting on this so openly with all of us.

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    • Thank you for your support, Carol. I think we have to make spaces for the grief to be expressed and worked through. I know that’s a tall order, but I think too often grief merges with rage, which then finds its expression in horrific forms of violence.

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  2. Excellent and thought-provoking essay, Elise.I write mostly fiction, but I’ve begun writing personal essays. Your caution about memory, about glossing over or reducing complicated issues, about putting folks into “good” and “bad” camps, is so valuable. Thank you for this reminder to aim for the truth.

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  3. And we need to talk more about the concept of how we can gift others — that is, the practice of radically generous acts — also Environmentalism, caring about the well-being of other creatures, and in fact all life on our planet. Also it seems to me it always helps to think positively if we want to bring good things into being.

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  4. This part resonates strongly with me, a powerful reminder in our troubled times: “Like the Old Testament people of exile, we are in moral danger when we remember the past with a nostalgia that sweeps over the real stories of what happened in the past. We risk buying into a narrative that harms us in it oversimplifcation. A simple solution will suffice if we believe we have a simple problem.”

    Gratitude and Blessings to you.

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  5. Very thought-provoking post! We do indeed need to, as you so wisely say, “avoid oversimplifying the stories of what occurred to suit our present day agendas and sensibilities. We have to acknowledge the complexity, tension and conflict in what occurred, and perhaps even our own guilt and complicity in what is still occurring.”

    I think this oversimplification is endemic today, especially among what I call the Trumpercrowd. The Donald seems to want to take us back either to the 1890s (when then Robber Barons ruled the land) or the 1950s (HUAC, Sen. Joe McCarthy, black lists, extreme prejudice). How do we persuade people to think? Really think? We don’t have any simple problems.

    Thanks for writing this post.

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    • Thank you, Barbara. I suppose it’s easier (and more comforting) to appeal to a romanticized past than to face an uncertain future where difficult problems must be confronted. I think many politicians know that a simple message/solution will sell in a sound-bite era. I think spiritual and religious communities have a role to play in giving a counter-narrative to their oversimplified one. Expose the political lie and false hope for what it is, but cultivate a true hope grounded in serious attention to the problems and divine guidance. I’m sure my view comes across as naive to some, but at least it involves a willingness to address issues instead of seeking to return to a time before they ever appeared (which likely didn’t exist anyway and had its own problems.)

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  6. This is one of the most balanced and valuable posts I’ve seen in a long time. It addresses the human tendency to rewrite the past, whether it be distant history or an argument we had yesterday, so that it casts us in a good light and “other” in a poor light. Our brains have a seemingly endless capacity to make us right and others wrong.

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  7. Beautiful reflection.

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  8. Thank you for this! I have had conversations about the importance of remembering the past accurately with with many of my peers, however I’ve struggled to voice my point of view as eloquently as you have here. Perhaps it is partially human nature to want to remember the past through rose-tinted glasses or in a way that serves our own agenda, but as you said, twisting the past can be harmful to others and to our own future. As the saying goes; “Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” I think its worth adding that those who do not remember the past AS IT WAS, are doomed to repeat it. Thanks for a wonderful post!

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