I read recently where the Episcopal Church has issued an apology for its “involvement in the slave trade.” This has caused a reaction of many types across our land, so much so that I gave some thought to the issue and how we handle it as a nation.
For more information, visit Episcopal Church to apologize for slavery – USATODAY.com.
One of the most defiant challenges to such an act has come from some on the “conservative” side, offering that we were not alive during slavery nor are any slaves alive and therefore do not owe anyone an apology. It is not difficult to see their point, there are no slaves currently alive in the literal sense of the word in the United States, nor are there any slave holders still living in the literal sense of the word. Therefore, who owes who what?
What isn’t being seen is that such an apology is not personal, it does not come bleeding from your heart onto our collective Main Street. What it does is address a very dark time in our history, possibly one of our darkest periods in the human cause, in a way that should be constructive for all involved. Our collective bodies apologize to a collective group of people still haunted by the institution of slavery, and along with that sincere gesture of regret comes a promise that we will not stand by and allow it to happen again.
I also read discussions that mention that slavery is “in our past”, and should be left there. True enough, slavery is in our past, but it is also true that the remnants of slavery still exist in the consciousness of some Americans – on both sides. In a society that often dwells on its past, whether it be honoring our war veterans on Memorial Day (a day named in the practice of remembering the past), or on honoring some of our best leaders with special days, Americans tend to dwell on history. American History is taught in our schools, and in those lessons we are taught such things as the the Declaration of Independence, where it clearly states that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” So yes, we as a collective certainly identify with the glorious triumphs of World War II, the resiliency of Valley Forge, and the bravery of Normandy; so should identify with the darker sides of our history. Just as will memorialize our greatness, we should seek redemption in our failures. Just as we learn from our moments of glory, we should learn from our moments of inhumanity. And just as we offer thanks to those who made us great, we should offer condolences to those who suffered under our flawed character.
Similarly, just as we do not pay a stipend to those whose ancestors died and stood steadfast on Bunker Hill, we do not offer reparations to those whose ancestors died and stood helpless under the whip of American ignorance. Yet we do not hide our head in shame because of such actions, for both the payment and the shame attest to a complicity not ours to endure. Rather, we simply say we are sorry, and vow to all who grace our land with their existence, that we will live and die to ensure their security under such a premise:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.“
It shall surely be in the present that we find such greatness, not in the past, nor in the future. It is how we hold to such ideal now that make us who and what we are. Those words should guide our collective actions, and hide our individual bias. Those words are the Testament to the American soul, the sentence that states clearly the cause of American greatness. It was not a single person who made us great, nor was it a single political party, or a single ideology, it was the equality we gave to all, the rights we saw as not ours to give or interfere with. It was not the description of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that made us who we were, but the allowance of the individual to create and explore his own definition.
We were great because we just allowed greatness to happen. To lose such a thing is to lose who we are, and to lose who we are is simply to no longer be great.