During Black History Month, re-learn our past in order to understand today’s issues
Winston Churchill said, “the farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.” As a student of history Churchill had a uncanny ability to understand his society and foretell many historical events during his lifetime.
Russ Gregg, the founder of Hope Academy in Minneapolis, a Christian school lifting some of the highest risk children out of educational poverty says, “to solve a difficult problem you must deeply understand the problem.”
We need to dig deep into our history, and dig deep into the details of complex issues in order to discover solutions.
February is Black History month in America. It’s an important time to remind ourselves – and sometimes learn anew – our country’s 400 year history of enslavement, oppression and discrimination towards African Americans.
Like many Minnesotans I grew up in an almost-exclusively white context with barely any awareness of the lingering destruction caused by centuries of racism. Like many white Minnesotans I assumed that the 1960’s civil rights victories resolved the problems of racism.
But that wasn’t the case because healthy families, communities, institutions and societies are formed over generations. The truth is in Minnesota we have one of the greatest achievement gaps between white students and students of color. Incarceration rates of Black men are much higher than the general population. Health disparities between Blacks and whites in Minnesota are shocking.
While slavery and Jim Crow laws have ended, U.S. society still lives with the painful, long-term effects of discrimination, which deprived many Americans the opportunity to flourish. America’s racist segregation throughout much of the 20th century oppressed African Americans, denying them economic opportunity and educational advancement. Decades of overt racism—like the kind portrayed in the story of Jackie Robinson in the movie 42—trapped, damaged and broke down the very fabric of many African American communities.
Let the church lead again
It is also good to remind ourselves that the origins of the Abolitionist Movement – begun in England – drew its energy and inspiration from the Christian faith of people like William Wilberforce, John Netwon and Hannah More.
18th century British society was amazingly immoral, cruel and irreligious, yet a coalition of devout Christians committed their lives to reforming the country’s values and changing laws, most significantly, ending the slave trade. A byproduct of this Christian renewal was the Victorian era and its cultural proprieties and the modern missionary movement of the 19th century.
Wilberforce, a natural-born leader and politician who lived a comfortable, merchant-class life free from any moral conscious, upon discovering personal faith in Jesus Christ, devoted his political career to “abolishing the slave trade and the reformation of manners”. At the end of his life he was so highly respected that the leading members of parliament requested to be his casket bearers.
We need to know this to be reminded of the impact that our faith in Jesus Christ can and should have when we align ourselves against the injustices of the world.
While we as a nation—and particularly those who follow Christ—repent of the sins of our forefathers and reject the practices and beliefs of racial segregation in the past, today the Church must continue with the faithful struggle of the
Abolitionists. We must continue the work of the Gospel, which at its core is a force for reconciliation, restoration and renewal.
I believe real reconciliation and societal renewal requires the Church and the Gospel of Jesus, but we must look back and know our history, and we must deeply understand today’s problems and their sources in order to overcome the deep and painful wounds caused by centuries of racism.
Join me during Black History month to read the histories and watch the documentaries retelling our painful past, and seek to understand the complex realities of racial disparities and ethnic division that wound our society today. And commit with me that as a follower of Jesus you will continue the Gospel work of reconciliation, restoration and renewal.
By Carl Nelson, originally published in the Minnesota Christian Examiner, February 2014