In 1976, my parents took me and my brother to the Freedom Train. Amtrak, to celebrate the nation’s bicentennial, launched a rolling museum filled with memorabilia of our nation’s history. I was seven, so I don’t remember a lot of details, except for a lot of red, white, and blue. I remember there were old things, which have always captured my imagination. But mostly I remember feeling patriotic. I remember believing that we, in becoming a nation, in staying together those two hundred years, had done good.
Of course, I got older. I learned things. I found out about slavery, and not just that it ended. I found out that people lived here before us – a lot of people – and they weren’t necessarily happy about our arrival. I learned that women had just seized the right to vote some fifty-odd years before the Freedom Train rolled. I learned that, in so many ways, we have not done good at all.
I think my cynicism served me for a while, ironically, in part because it had a backstop. Where we had not done good, I still believed in our foundational ideals to pull us back on course, to eventually arrive at our lofty destination. My cynicism needed to know that there was a process and an ethic for critiquing what we had so that we could become what we might.
When we talked on Sunday, my comments were animated by that healthy tension. We asked questions about our national myths. Are we a nation of freedom and opportunity for all? Or are we the nation that has consistently failed to live up to those ideals?
The family separations and child detentions on the border the last couple of weeks inspired both sides of that debate. There were some who said this is not who we are. John McCain called this policy “an affront to the decency of the American people, and contrary to principles and values upon which our nation was founded.” Yes, John McCain, I think that is true.
But others, primarily non-white people, responded that this is indeed who we are. We separated Native American families to erase their culture from the memories of their children. We separated black families under chattel slavery to sever the family bond that might inspire the hope and courage for escape. We separated families in Japanese internment camps; I’m honestly not sure why except to continue our streak of cruelty. We separate black families now through the War on Drugs and mass incarceration. There are legislative committees in several states that would take children from their same-sex parents. This cruelty and abuse is a part of the DNA of the USA.
And yet, on Sunday, I believed we could live into the hope of our ideals. This administration is a setback, the death spasms of an old order. If we’re patient and strategic and civil, we can get back on the Freedom Train. Now, just two days later, my hope is waning.
We have an administration with a clear desire for tyranny. It is filled with white supremacists and opportunistic liars. So far, the legislature has done nothing to hold them in check. There is occasional tepid criticism, but as long as they get to gut our civil infrastructure and enrich the people who give them power, they will do nothing to curb the administration’s worst urges. So that left the courts, but we are racking up a string of decisions that show that their hearts are open to tyranny and bigotry. This is not who we are; this is exactly who we are.
When I first thought of studying the Minor Prophets, my guiding principle was that they regularly recalibrate our moral compass so that we can seek justice. Embedded in that was the belief that we have the means to affect that seeking, so that ultimately we will find ourselves in the full light of our promise. I was prepared to extol the virtue of prophecy, to proclaim that the Word of God brings judgment, but also the opportunity for repentance. But now I’m reminded that Israel almost never repents. They continue on their corrupt path until they are destroyed. Is that who we are? It might be exactly who we are.