Lament: Grappling with a Legacy of Shame

– by Bill Rowley

Challenge

Growing up, I knew of only one illustrious ancestor, a general in the Continental Army during the Revolution. One year, our vacation happened to take us near his home, which still stands in New Hampshire. As it happened, the owner saw us looking at the house and gave us a tour of the grounds. What sticks out most to me about the experience was when he pointed out the location of the shed where his slaves were kept. Up to that moment, I’d not known that anyone in our family had directly participated in slavery. 

I felt then, and still feel, ashamed of my ancestor’s actions. I’ve had family members protest that his actions are his own, that we can’t share his guilt – after all, it’s been three hundred years. But shame is unlike guilt, which, arguably, only applies to the individual responsible for his or her own actions. However, philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah points out in his book, The Honor Code, that, unlike individual merit and guilt, honor and shame apply to all members of a group, even those innocent of the actual action – arguing that shame has been a driving force in a variety of moral revolutions: ending foot-binding in China, ending dueling in Europe and America, and in ending slavery in the UK. Unlike individual guilt, which only clings to the actor, shame may apply to every member of a group whose member does something shameful. So, if my brother commits a crime, even though I had no role in the crime, I may feel shame.

But in Appiah’s discussion of honor and shame, the focus is on how honor and shame can effect present change – and feeling shame about American race-based slavery seems like it is over 150 years too late to do any good. So, what good is this in a lament?

Reflection

If it is just that I feel shame for the actions of my ancestor, is it also just that Americans feel shame for the sin of slavery? Perhaps the test to determine it is this: honor and shame are a package deal, if you feel pride for things you didn’t do yourself, you should be willing to feel shame. If we have pride in the history of our country because our history contains honorable achievements, then consistency demands that we have shame for our country’s shameful deeds. And slavery is America’s original sin (or one of two original sins – if we add injustice to Indigenous Americans, which my ancestor also contributed to) – predating our founding and providing much of the economic basis of our nation’s later successes. Nor does our subsequent treatment of Black Americans cover us with honor. How can we not be ashamed of the continued subjugation of Black Americans following our botched Reconstruction? While most Americans living today may not share the guilt of Jim Crow, we should feel ashamed that America ever treated its own citizens that way.

The shame is not solely historical. We can trace injustices against Black people (and other people of color) right to the present day – from police violence against and harassment of innocent Black people to the underfunding of schools that serve communities of color (locally, see the differences in funding in Newhallville versus East Rock). This is present shame for Americans. And, this shame should prompt us to act. And, it’s worth noting, given that we’ve shifted focus to the present rather than the distant past, we may also bear guilt for our own share in subtle (and not-so-subtle) ways in which we perpetuate racism.

Americans (especially white ones) do need to appreciate American shame as well as American honor. Our education systems should reflect this. There is presently a controversy over how we should teach American history, pitting the 1619 Project against what the Administration calls “Pro-American curriculum.” As followers of Jesus, our allegiance must be with the truth: we must look with clear eyes on American history. It is a mixture of honor and shame, no less tainted by sin than any other nation.

Action

Shame is rather useless if it does not prompt a response. As Christians, what is the appropriate response?  I think that lament is a uniquely appropriate response to American shame. We celebrate what is great and honorable about our country on July 4. Perhaps a Christian observation of lament for the history of American racism is in order – similar to the national day of lament for the deaths of Covid-19 proposed by the National Council of Churches. 

But what can American Christians do now about the shame of slavery and the history of racism? Education wouldn’t hurt. Many of us learned history influenced by the Lost Cause myth. Learning the truth about slavery by reading the memoirs of slaves like Solomon Northrup or Frederick Douglass may help. Likewise, it may be beneficial to learn about the Black American experience after the Civil War from W.E.B. Dubois’s The Souls of Black Folk. This blog also has a bibliography of fantastic anti-racism sources. Perhaps most importantly, we can listen to what our Black brothers and sisters have to say about the America they have experienced.

But education is relatively easy – and inside the comfort zone of a church with a high population of academics. How can we make strides today? This needs to continue to be a topic of conversation at St. John’s. Can we help with tutoring students from under-served schools? How can we partner with and support the work already underway by historically Black churches in our area, like Varick Memorial AME Zion Church? 

Additionally, we can make use of one of America’s most honorable institutions: we can vote. Even in down-ballot races, who is actually committed to ending police violence against innocent Black people? Who actually appreciates the need for change? It only takes a little while to become an informed voter: let’s begin an era of race-relations in American history our children won’t be ashamed of.

Prayer

Prayer for the human family from The Book of Common Prayer:

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us
through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole
human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which
infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us;
unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and
confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in
your good time, all nations and races may serve you in
harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ
our Lord. Amen.

For the Road

The prophet Ezekiel gave this message of hope to the people of Israel in exile to put behind them the sins of their ancestors:

The son will not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son’s iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself… “Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, each according to his conduct,” declares the Lord GOD. “Repent and turn away from all your transgressions, so that iniquity may not become a stumbling block to you.  Cast away from you all your transgressions which you have committed and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! For why will you die, O house of Israel?  For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies,” declares the Lord GOD. “Therefore, repent and live.”

Ezekiel 18:20 & 30-32 (NASB)

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