Origin Stories

Has anyone seen the movie, Captain Marvel? You know I did. The nostalgia for the music of the mid-1990’s alone was enough to get me in the door. I don’t want to spoil it for those who are waiting for a quiet evening to watch it at home, so I’ll try to speak in general terms. 

The movie opens with an interstellar super soldier named Vers, who is having trouble with memory, but nevertheless goes out on a mission with her team, part of the Kree empire. Throughout the movie, she learns more about where she comes from, and more about the origins of the conflict with the people she thought were her enemies. Once she has come around to a different understanding of who her people are, the personal qualities she has been criticized for are reframed, and she can draw from them as strengths. This revised worldview moves her to an entirely different sense of her mission in life, as well as a different sense of connecting and belonging. 

The paradigm shift that the main character goes through in Captain Marvel reminds me of the paradigm shift that some within U.S. culture could work toward when it comes to observing Indigenous Peoples Day tomorrow. The holiday some still know as Columbus Day told one story of the origins of the United States of America, yet that version of the story is infused with myths and half-truths, and depends on the erasure of the historical and contemporary perspectives of Native Americans, among other groups of people. 

The story of this country or this continent is not a single story, and yet I hope we can use the opportunity of this day to add more truth to our understanding of those stories, our understanding of who we are as the residents of this place. To the extent that we can understand ourselves as a people, or as a coalition of peoples, accurate origin stories help us to live into becoming the people we aspire to be. Knowing truly where we have come from as a country will help us to connect with those who share a home or an identity. We can hope that origin stories rooted in honesty will help us heal some of the harms of the past, or at least help us avoid continuing to make the same mistakes. 

In her book, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz suggests that it is the very foundation of how we learn, teach, and think of our history that must be transformed. She writes:

The history of the United States is a history of settler colonialism—the founding of a state based on the ideology of white supremacy, the widespread practice of African slavery, and a policy of genocide and land theft. Those who seek history with an upbeat ending, a history of redemption and reconciliation, may look around and observe that such a conclusion is not visible, not even in utopian dreams of a better society.

Writing US history from an Indigenous peoples’ perspective requires rethinking the consensual national narrative. That narrative is wrong or deficient, not in its facts, dates, or details but rather in its essence. Inherent in the myth we’ve been taught is an embrace of settler colonialism and genocide. The myth persists, not for a lack of free speech or poverty of information but rather for an absence of motivation to ask questions that challenge the core of the scripted narrative of the origin story.

Dunbar-Ortiz goes on to say:

Origin narratives form the vital core of a people’s unifying identity and of the values that guide them. In the United States, the founding and development of the Anglo-American settler-state involves a narrative about Puritan settlers who had a covenant with God to take the land. (End quote)

Incidentally, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States is this year’s UUA Common Read. A discussion guide is due out later this month for congregations that would like to study it in book groups and other programs. It’s available as an audio book. 

The story of European colonization of the place we now call the United States has been framed in one certain way. The way we tell that story has been reinforced with legislation, with racist criteria in academia and in publishing, and with commercialization of holiday traditions. The values we are supposed to gain from the history of 1492 onward is that hard work and commitment to freedom will be rewarded with an endless upward march of progress. 

When we look more broadly, that progress doesn’t materialize across the board. The commitment to liberty never applied to everyone, despite what the textbooks have been trying to teach; expansion, prosperity, and freedom to roam for people of European descent came at the expense of the lives and liberty of Indigenous people and enslaved people and their descendants, among others. For those of us who are white, even if we and our direct family ancestors never personally abused or exploited anyone, doors were opened to us and closed to others because of this history of settler-colonialism. To repeat from last week, some are guilty, all of us are responsible for making a change. I am curious to find out how we could come into a new spirit and practice of values if we stop propping up a false narrative about our national origins. 

To bring it a little closer to home, let me go back to the second half of that last quote from Dunbar-Ortiz:

In the United States, the founding and development of the Anglo-American settler-state involves a narrative about Puritan settlers who had a covenant with God to take the land. 

With the Puritans involved, now we’re getting closer to the origin stories of our faith movement. In the early 20th century, the history of Unitarianism began to be described as a grand sweep of development propelled by devotion to the values of freedom, reason, and tolerance. Following consolidation in 1961 for the United States incarnations of Universalism and Unitarianism, this rubric of freedom, reason, and tolerance was infused into nostalgia looking back on both sides of our history. 

This idea that the Pilgrims were an advance team into this continent, divinely ordained to bring religious freedom to these shores, fits right into the Unitarian narrative of freedom, reason, and tolerance. Unitarians in America in the 1800s were direct descendants of Puritans, in church organization and often in family lineage. In telling the story of the Puritans, the themes of violence, stealing, and broken treaties that characterized their presence on this side of the ocean are de-emphasized. Through this silence, the theft of land and liberty is tacitly approved. Crimes against Indigenous people are not supposed to matter if they are part of the project of allowing people of European descent to worship in a way that allows “complete mental freedom in religion.” (This quote is from Earl Morse Wilbur, the early 20th century scholar who is credited with coining freedom, reason, and tolerance as a framework for Unitarian history.)

When we put together the pieces, uncover the horrors that have been papered over, and review the whole history of Unitarianism and Universalism in America, we come to understand that the destructive path of settler-colonialism is tangled into the roots of our faith. Knowing that, we can go back and re-evaluate what our central values really mean to us, and try to imagine how to actually live them in a way that Unitarians and Universalists of the past may have missed. 

For many of us, particularly those of us who are white, reconciling the whole story of the United States versus the version of history we were taught is a spiritual and emotional challenge, but one that I believe we are up to. It is a reckoning that I believe we must engage with if we are to be authentic in our faith. When we come to terms with the understanding that this country has not upheld the values we said it did, we may wonder how to move forward. What do we do when the country whose values we hold dear has not yet existed? How do we become the people we want to become when we realize the foundations we build on are not what they were proclaimed to be? Communities that have always been in the margins have wisdom here, if we are willing to listen and to center their experience. 

In her article for The 1619 Project by the New York Times, Nikole Hannah-Jones reflects on the American flag that her father flew in front of their home, and how she felt about that flag growing up as an African-American in a country brimming with racism. She writes: 

Our corner lot, which had been redlined by the federal government, was along the river that divided the black side from the white side of our Iowa town. At the edge of our lawn, high on an aluminum pole, soared the flag, which my dad would replace as soon as it showed the slightest tatter … 

My father knew exactly what he was doing when he raised that flag. He knew that our people’s contributions to building the richest and most powerful nation in the world were indelible, that the United States simply would not exist without us ….

Toward the end of the article, she reflects:

No one cherishes freedom more than those who have not had it. And to this day, black Americans, more than any other group, embrace the democratic ideals of a common good …. 

The truth is that as much democracy as this nation has today, it has been borne on the backs of black resistance. Our founding fathers may not have actually believed in the ideals they espoused, but black people did … For generations, we have believed in this country with a faith it did not deserve. Black people have seen the worst of America, yet, somehow, we still believe in its best. (End quote)

What I hear in Nikole Hannah-Jones’ article is affirmation that we do not need to be deluded in order to work toward the future of democracy. We can work toward the idea of the common good, a society that includes and cares for all, a democracy where the most vulnerable have a seat at the table of power. A nation of truth and justice and opportunity is not yet who we are; we can get closer than we are now. 

On the other hand, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz writes: Those who seek history with an upbeat ending, a history of redemption and reconciliation, may look around and observe that such a conclusion is not visible, not even in utopian dreams of a better society.

We might not get to a perfect story arc with a satisfying resolution. If what we’re seeking is redemption for the atrocities of the founders of the United States, that may not happen. If we stop focusing on the reputation or the feelings of people who have historically had power, and focus instead on being authentic and justice-oriented, we may begin to open up space for something better than what has come before. 

Life and history are never as neat and tidy as they are in the movies. We don’t always see the hero prevail. Sometimes we don’t even have a hero. Yet sometimes there are deeper truths, even if the story did not happen exactly that way. In Captain Marvel, it caused a crisis of faith and identity for the main character to learn hidden origin stories, yet bringing together the multiple truths led to finding new strengths. Studying actual history that is outside the approved narrative can change lives and societies. It won’t be comfortable for some, it won’t be easy for anyone. Moving into a future of justice and authenticity will require courage and commitment. May we awaken to the possibilities of truth. 

So be it. Blessed be. Amen.