What we remember and how we remember matters. I struggle with the concept of commemorating an assassination. As I write this, today, April 4, 2018, is an ugly anniversary. This day 50 years ago Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in Memphis Tennessee. There is great evidence that we still have a long way to go in realizing his dream and the fulfillment of this nation’s promise that all are created equal (I would add - in the image of our Creator).
Through Racial Justice training that the Connecticut Conference initiated, and spread to the Massachusetts Conference, our mission is to move from tolerance to unity as well as to unmask, dismantle and eradicate racism. As I have experienced it, a huge part of Racial Justice training is learning and helping others to see. In this context we are teaching and learning to see the world as God sees it. The practice of seeing and remembering is steeped in our Christian faith.
Recently, I was meeting with leaders of one of the churches I serve. A large anniversary of the church’s founding looms and they asked me – what best practices have I witnessed around celebrating anniversaries? I noted that connecting history to the present day and its issues has been a most effective commemoration.
My Pastor, Dan Smith, is on sabbatical wrestling with a racist past of First Church in Cambridge, a focus on memory and reparations. First Church, dating back to 1636, had 39 slaves who were members of the church over the period of time that slavery was still legal in Massachusetts. Hidden histories such as this leave us blind to the legacies that persist in our institutions. Surfacing the stories and how they connect to present day systems is foundational to the work of unmasking racism and any injustice.
Memory has an influence on what we see and do. In an interview on CBS Sunday morning Bryan Stevenson stated that as a nation we have not confronted the narrative of white supremacy. He said, “the true evil (of the era of slavery) was not the forced labor, it was the ideology of white supremacy- the notion that black people are not as good as white people – that has endured.”
Our nation can learn from other nations and how they have handled their own foul pasts. In my paternal ancestral hometown of Nijkerk, Netherlands, my distant cousin was involved in a project that installed brass commemorative markers in front of the dwelling places where each Jew who was taken from their home to concentration camps lived. These markers preach – “never forget” and certainly, “never repeat.”
Where other formerly communist nations took great delight in smashing the idols and statues of a brutal regime, in Budapest, Hungary they gathered all those statues into one remote park. Meant to stand in contrast to the authoritarianism that created the idols of tyranny they preserved the history as a key element of embracing democracy. The architect of the park stated, “Democracy is the only regime that is prepared to accept that our past with all the dead ends is still ours; we should get to know it, analyze it and think about it!”
This day I do not commemorate the death of Martin Luther King Jr. but commit anew to be steeped in his enduring radical vision of God’s world. May the history we are doomed to repeat be our best history risen from a repentant wrestling with our ugliest legacies.
Rev. Wendy Vander Hart is an Associate Conference Minister for the Massachusetts Conference, UCC.
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