History is Happening: What Part Do You Want to Play?
It’s Not a Rhetorical Question
By Aana Marie Vigen, Ph.D.
Heated debates about civility and moral witness; continuing trauma of separated children and parents; momentous 5-4 Supreme Court rulings on abortion, the travel ban, and unions; Justice Kennedy retiring at the worst possible moment—and that was only 3 days of the news cycle this week! It leaves out so much, such as the most recent example of white police killing an unarmed black youth—Antwon Rose—and of Scott Pruitt’s egregious lack of integrity at the EPA. As I write, news is just breaking of another mass shooting, this time at a newspaper office in Maryland. I need to take a breath.
Flashback: In 1982, I was a white, Lutheran 8th grader in a small town in South Dakota who loved horses and who didn’t yet know she was gay. I was interested in current events, but history seemed tedious. Then came Social Studies with Mrs. Roth.
She exposed me to the unthinkable, yet actual violence committed by white, predominately Christian, people against others—indigenous Americans, descendants of Africans, Jews, and Black Americans in the 18-20th centuries. We learned about the brutalizing economics of slavery. We read Night by Elie Wiesel. We watched documentaries about death camps. And we walked through the litany of lies, broken treaties, dirty tricks and massacres enacted against native peoples. My gut wrenched when I first realized that I was living on land from which the Lakota had been forcibly removed.
I asked my 13 year-old self: “If I had been a white Christian living in the Dakotas in the 1800s, or in 1930’s Germany—or anywhere in the United States before 1865 or during Jim Crow or in the 1960’s—what would I have done? Would I have feared and hated Indians? Would I have been an abolitionist or an apologist? Would have I resisted fascism or fallen in line? Would I have marched or stayed home?”
Mrs. Roth showed me that simmering hatred and full-on evil spread not so much because of the twisted vision of a few demagogic masterminds, but because of the willful complicity—and even greater complacency—of the many.
I wondered what it would have been like to have lived in a pivotal, epoch-defining moment. I wistfully longed to time travel so that I could prove my mettle and live a more interesting life. The 1980’s seemed dull and uneventful by comparison (of course, they were not). I have since learned to be careful what I wish for.
The thing about history is that we are always living it. And wow, are we making it on steroids now!
Half way into 2018, it feels as if we are on a runaway train—careening into uncharted territory that is both profoundly volatile and violent. And yet, it is rather familiar when I remember 8th grade Social Studies: rising white nationalism; brazen aggression against and callous disregard for “outsiders” (refugees, immigrants, Muslims, gay and transgendered persons); escalating economic and trade tensions; bald-faced, yet infectious lies spread by people in power; venom for facts and a free press.
So in our history, it is time for us—across political, social and religious affiliations—to ask: What role do I want to play? My 8th grade hypothetical question is now painfully concrete: What actions and values will I model for my 11 year-old son?
I don’t want to go down in history as a bewildered person who wrung her hands, posted angry laments on Facebook, and who watched Seth Meyers, Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers, Samantha Bee, and Queer Eye in order to feel an addictive mix of righteous indignation and comfort that comes with escaping into screens. That much I know.
Dahlia Lithwick recently called out the danger of going numb and falling complacent (the whole article is a must-read along with her earlier piece on coping). Democracy doesn’t work on auto-pilot. Are we content to witness its demise or are we willing to perform CPR? Saving it will take all of us—people of faith and of none, farmers, teachers, blue-collar workers, parents, students, business leaders, citizens, professionals, immigrants. And white people—I am looking squarely at you fellow Christians—given our major part in creating this mess—we have a special obligation to contribute meaningfully, no matter our political sensibility. Prominent, dyed-in-the-wool conservatives such as David Brooks and George F. Will are choosing fidelity to democracy over loyalty to party. Simply put, regardless of our 2016 vote (or absence of it), now is the time to stand up to bullies.
For now, I have job security, good medical insurance, a family that is safe, a vibrant church and strong support networks. I am a citizen. I can vote. I can donate a few dollars to RAICES, the ACLU, the SPLC, The Union of Concerned Scientists, the NRDC.
Most of all, this white, gay, Christian can speak out, show up and organize with and for others who live on the front lives of our collective peril. Marches are happening across the nation this Saturday. This is my—our—moment. Make a legacy.
Aana Marie Vigen, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Christian Social Ethics at Loyola University Chicago and a Public Voices Fellow https://www.