Keeping the Painful Parts of Our History

It’s said that history is written by the winners. At least the most widely-accepted histories are.

But all of us—winners and losers—have a responsibility to tell the truth.

In this era of Holocaust deniers, Internet hoaxes, and fake news stories, it’s vital to tell the whole story, and not leave parts out, no matter how painful they are or the negative light they may cast on a people, party, or group.

Civil War reenactments are a case in point. Whether it’s the Battle of Gettysburg or Antietam, or any other, Josephine Sedgwick, a descendant of Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick of the Union Army, writes about a recent trend among reenactors to leave out slavery, or at least to depict the war as not really being about slavery. (See her New York Times “Race/Related” piece from this past July.)

Mention of “the S-word” is felt by many reenactors as “too political.”

They want to preserve this history, they say, and mention of things like slavery at a living history event like a reenactment turns people off. The belief is that the War was “about so much more than that,” which to me feels a lot like the stories we tell in our families that leave out mention of Uncle Jack’s alcoholism or Cousin Millie’s rape by him, simply because it’s painful.

Another example: Like many churches, the one I pastor here in Minnesota spent the last several years confronting and repairing relationships from a church fight that split the congregation. And you might be surprised to hear that this particular dustup was not the only one in our history as a local church. Such is the case with countless churches.

But to submerge these painful parts of our past in the cellar of silence creates layers of emotion and dysfunction, both in families and extended families such as faith communities and nations.

Family therapy and the recovery movement have done much to make it safe to bring painful parts of our family pasts to light, in service of healing and wholeness. But somehow, right now, we have a blind spot about our history of race—and voices on one side are saying, “Stop being political!” while others are saying, “We can’t heal the past if we don’t tell the truth.”

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