One of the “memorable” quotes we’ve heard from Donald Trump recently is that liberals are teaching our children to “hate America”, speaking of course about the protests ignited by the George Floyd killing and the demands that our nation recognize and repair the injustices in our society. Certainly over the years one of the disagreements between myself and conservative friends and family members have been over this issue. Any criticism of our history sets the average conservative on edge, whereas most educated left-of-center citizens have read and largely agree with Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States”.
So who’s right? Those who cry “my country, right or wrong”, or those who feel America must recognize and repair her sins to be truly great?
One man who has the chops to discuss this issue is the American civil justice lawyer Bryan Stevenson. No one has sacrificed more or worked harder to bring justice to our least fortunate citizens. He has with great justification been called ‘America’s Nelson Mandela’. Perhaps you saw the movie based on his memoir that came out late last year titled ‘Just Mercy’ or have read the memoir itself by the same name, which recounts the true story of how he saved an innocent man from the electric chair.
Bryan Stevenson sat down with Ezra Klein last week for a discussion on this topic (you already know I’m a fan of Klein’s podcast). I’d definitely recommend this one, to hear the thoughts of one of the most compassionate and significant Americans of our day.
The following is from the introduction to the podcast: “This conversation is about truth and reconciliation in America — and about whether truth would actually lead to reconciliation in America. It’s about what the process of reckoning with our past sins and present wounds would look and feel and sound like.”
One nation he cites as an example for America to follow is Germany. I have admired Germany for many years for the reasons that Stevenson cites: They are maybe the first nation in the history of the world that faced up to the horrible atrocities committed in their name and admitted their guilt.
I remember being amused many years ago by an American neo- Nazi from northern Idaho (is there something in the water up there?) who traveled to Germany to speak to a small gathering of ‘skin-heads’ – only to be arrested at the airport and put on a plane back home.
He strenuously protested, “What about my right to freedom of speech?” Well, dude, that ain’t America, and modern Germany has criminalized and punishes any attempts to glorify the Nazis or minimize how truly evil their actions were.
We Americans stick our noses in the air whenever we see a World War II documentary and ponder how the Germans could have been so evil – but such sanctimoniousness ignores the genocide (and no, that word is not too strong) of Native American peoples by invading Europeans, the horrible evils of slavery, and our own version of imperialism during the early 20th century, not to mention the continued struggles of African Americans and other minorities. How is it that a sitting Senator in 2020, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, can describe slavery as ‘a necessary evil’ in founding our country?
Forgive me for referencing my Master on this subject, but it’s clear from the New Testament that to Jesus, the truly wicked were not the harlots and publicans, but the haughty, nationalistic Jewish authorities who refused to repent. As with individuals, truly great nations, especially ones with as lofty a creed as ours, need to repent when necessary. That’s not a sign of weakness or self-hatred, but of strength and self-confidence.
The words of Bryan Stevenson are greatly inspiring; I am excited to take my place on Utah’s Capitol Hill and do my small part in bringing justice to the poor and less fortunate, and hopefully get us closer to our creed.