A Better National Story
We human beings create and tell stories about ourselves and the groups to which we belong. Often those stories flatter us and make us feel special. We tend, all of us, to create narratives that have a worm in the apple. That is, they make us different and better than other people.
When someone challenges such a story, when they suggest that the story we are telling is not true or, worse, it’s a pack of lies, we human beings generally react badly. We don’t like having the stories by which we put the world together and justify ourselves challenged.
For Christians this should not come as a surprise. Jesus was killed because he challenged the narrative of specialness, of chosen-ness, of better-than-others-ness of his own people. In his very first sermon in Nazareth he said that God was working in foreigners and outsiders but was unable to get much traction among the self-satisfied elect. The congregation then tried to kill him (see Luke 4).
This is what is happening with Critical Race Theory and the 1619 project. They are challenging our received story, our American sense of goodness, and being better than other people or nations.
While I have some criticisms of CRT and the 1619 project, they are right to insist that our narrative of American exceptionalism and unique goodness are self-serving distortions of a complex reality, and that we must deal with neglected and painful truth about slavery, segregation and race.
But if you just take away people’s story without offering some better replacement, you’re asking for trouble.
That may be where we are now on the American story. For a long time the narrative has been one of exceptionalism, of specialness, of a people and nation who were different, and better, than others. Now, that narrative is being challenged, rightly so. It is being challenged by journalists and writers like Ta-Nehsi Coates and Nicole Hannah-Jones who were recently guests on the Ezra Klein show.
What struck me in listening to Coates and Hannah-Jones was that while each is dedicated to telling truth about the institutions of slavery and segregation, both are also struggling to write a new story. Coates, who has sounded bleak to hopeless in earlier work, said he could imagine a new and better American story.
Here’s an excerpt that begins with Klein querying Coates, followed by Coates speaking of “a beautiful way forward.”
KLEIN: Like you have a story, stories matter because you build upon them, and then what? Are we just changing who the good and bad guys are of the story . . .
TA-NEHISI COATES: No I don’t think so. Remarkably, I actually think there is a way forward. Like there’s a really, I would argue, beautiful way forward.
The story Coates imagines is not about good guys and bad guys, but human beings all of whom are flawed, all of whom have done both good and evil . . . but who are trying to do better. Here’s Coates, then NHJ in a section I found especially moving.
” . . . these are things [some of them evil] that human beings do, and part of your story, part of your story certainly could be — just freestyle, off the top of my head — is we’re trying to do better. We have words that we wrote on paper and we are trying to live up to them. And very often, we do not. Very often in fact, we actually fail.
“Indeed, the very ability to write those words in the first place was founded on a notion that we totally reject. But who amongst us gets to belong to a family where we feel everybody in that family has always been noble at all points in time. Who amongst us gets to honestly strip ourselves naked and look at our own biography and feel like we were always noble and we were always right? There’s a kind of humanness, a kind of grace I would even argue, that can be found if you can submit yourself to the notion that you’re not required to be perfect, you’re not required to be the good guy in the story. That in fact to try to do that is in many ways a rejection of your own humanity.”
“NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: I think that is clearly very true. What I’ve been telling to people who are concerned about these 1619 bans and how do we talk about this history is that it’s complex. And that even at the darkest moments in this country, there was also always a biracial, sometimes a multiracial group of citizens, who are pushing for it . . . to be better. Who were fighting for this country to live up to its highest ideals. And so it’s not simply saying, as those who oppose a more accurate, a more well-rounded understanding of our history say, that they’re teaching kids to hate whiteness or to hate all white people. We don’t get the 13th, 14th or 15th Amendment passed without white people who believed in this as well because Black people could not serve in Congress to pass those laws.
“So we have to have a balance. And I think we can withstand that, and what I’m saying is we can teach our children what George Washington did that was great, and we can also teach our children what George Washington did that was terrible. Because as I told my own daughter, who doesn’t do this anymore but she used to ask me all the time when she was some younger, particularly she went from being born into a country with the first Black president to witnessing Donald Trump, and she would ask me all the time, is that person good or bad momma? Are they good or bad? And I’d say most people are both.
You can’t just put a person in a category as being good or bad, but that’s how we’ve wanted to teach the history of this country, and we have to be more honest. No one is responsible for what our ancestors did before us. We’re not responsible for the good things, so you don’t want to own up to slavery then also you can’t claim the Declaration because you also didn’t sign the Declaration of Independence. None of us are responsible for what our ancestors did. But we are responsible for what we do now.
And we do have the ability to build a country that is different, that is not held hostage to the past. But we won’t do that by denying that upon which we were built. Because that past is shaping us. It is shaping our country, our politics, our culture, our economics, whether we acknowledge it or not. And all I’m saying is let us acknowledge that upon which we were built so that we can try to actually become the country of these majestic ideals. And I do believe the ideals are majestic, we just have failed to live up to them.”
I know that’s a long excerpt and this is a long blog. But it’s important stuff. And hopeful stuff. And as a Christian it is the story we’ve tried to tell. Human beings are flawed. We have all done bad things. But there is a grace in facing the truth, there is a grace, as Coates says, “that can be found if you submit yourself to the notion that you are not required to be perfect, not required to be the good guy in the story.”
Can we write a better national narrative? Can we not?