I’ll never forget a couple years ago when my son, CJ, came home from kindergarten before Thanksgiving. His class had been learning about Thanksgiving and he came home wearing a paper pilgrim hat he’d made. And as I saw pictures appear on Facebook of his classmates wearing paper headdresses and talking about how the Indians and the Pilgrims had become such good friends, it dawned on me that this is how it happens. With construction paper and glue, Thanksgiving themed snacks and outdated coloring sheets, my sweet little boy and his friends were being taught stories about America that help keep the culture of white supremacy in place.
The holiday observed on this weekend in October for over a century tells another such story. Columbus Day was created by President Benjamin Harrison to legitimize immigration from Europe over and above immigration from other parts of the world. As University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill professor, Malinda Maynor Lowery, has said, “… in the scheme of emerging anti-immigrant sentiment, it was widely popular to think about celebrating a European who played this important role in the establishment of Europe’s relationship with the United States.”
But this isn’t just history. This telling of Columbus, of the descendents of immigrants who benefitted from his voyages, continues to shape how many Americans understand their heritage, how they understand who they are, today. Years ago in Boston I overheard a neighbor whose family lived in Little Italy complain bitterly about the move to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day instead. “How dare they take this holiday away from us?” she said. “My grandparents were discriminated against when they moved here. How dare they make me feel bad about my heritage?” And yet, the Columbus Day version of the Columbus story never includes the harm he and his men did to the people they encountered, or the centuries of genocide and enslavement that followed in his wake.
It’s often said that history is written by the winners, and that has certainly been true in this country. The birth of the United States is usually framed in terms of colonist heroes who wanted to avoid paying taxes to England and created a new country where people without noble titles could become powerful and wealthy. The colonist’s role in exterminating the peoples who lived all over this continent long before they got here, the brutal treatment of enslaved Africans brought here against their wills whose labor and suffering built our country’s economy, if those truths even make it into the story they are framed as unfortunate but necessary parts of a glorious history, as sad chapters that made possible an otherwise great nation.
This is why noticing how stories are told, which people have been made main characters and which people are given only supporting roles, is such an important spiritual practice. It’s also why holidays like Indigenous People’s Day and months like Black History and LGBTQ Pride and Womens’ History Month are so important. They offer us a chance to think about history from different points of view than te white supremacy version presents it to us. They offer us a chance to place different people and experiences at the center of our shared stories and understanding.
A few months ago I came across a piece of art that drove home this idea in a visual way. It’s a painting by Titus Kaphar, winner of a MacArthur Foundation’s “Genius Grant” in 2018. Kaphar took a painting that used to hang on the wall of Yale’s Corporation room, a painting that featured Eliyu Yale and two other rich white men with an enslaved black child in the background. This painting is remarkable because Kaphar took the original picture and flipped its focus. In the new picture, the enslaved boy is in the center of the picture frame and the canvass with the rich white enslavers on it is crumbled up around the frame. The painting is titled “Enough About You.”
I wonder how much we could learn by placing different people in the picture frames of history’s most famous works of art? I wonder what those different perspectives might teach us about our past, about our present, about ourselves?
This practice of de-centering the usual main characters in a story and instead centering the poor, the enslaved, the oppressed, this is an old tradition, one with roots in many religious traditions. In the Buddhist tradition it was only when the Buddha turned away from his wealthy and privileged life to embrace the suffering of those around him that he found enlightenment. The Hebrew Bible and Christian Scriptures are full of stories where people with little or no power in their societies accomplish amazing things.
After all, it was Moses, the son of enslaved Hebrews, who delivered his people out of bondage. It was Esther, who risked her life to save the Jewish people from annihilation. It was Jesus, whose parents had to flee across a border to protect their son from the Emperor’s wrath, who offered healing and good news to his oppressed people.
In the last century, a few Catholic theologians started calling this theme in the Bible “God’s preferential option for the poor” which really just means that in their view, God always sides with the underdog. In other words, God is closest to the Resistance, not the Empire, though even Darth Vadar isn’t far gone enough to be unredeemable, because the love that never lets us go won’t give up on anyone.
Society’s usual winners aren’t the main characters for people of faith and conscience. The person who was just evicted is. The person whose vote won’t be counted because they don’t have a physical address is. The black man shot by police after trying to help protect someone who was being attacked, he’s the main character. The child whose parents both work during the day and can’t get the free lunch from school they depend on is.
Elie Wiesel, a Jew who survived concentration camps and went on to work for human rights around the world, has said that “Wherever [people] are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.” Perhaps our work as people of faith is to make those who are suffering right now the main characters of the stories we tell about Silver Spring and Hyattsville, about Washington, DC and Baltimore.
As poet Jan Richardson writes: “I live constantly with the awareness that there are no maps for what I am doing; that I am making the path as I go. Yet… even as I move across what seems like uncharted territory, there is a way that lies beneath the way that I am going. We are all creating the road as we go. Yet beneath this, undergirding this, is a path carved by those who have traveled here before us.”
This is what our religious stories and traditions offer us. We may not believe everything our parents or grandparents or other ancestors did. We may not embrace the theology we inherited. But there are many stories from across our faith’s Six Sources that offer wisdom about how to keep on keeping on when things are hard, when injustice rules the day, when our society’s heroes are not heroes in our lives. If we learn how to center different characters in these stories, and if we tell and retell them enough, we just might learn how to center others in real time in our lives, too. This is the power of spiritual practice.
All of us here today are sharing the same experience in worship, and yet all of us will have a unique experience of this service. Different things will stand out to each of us, inspire us, maybe even annoy and challenge us. The Spirit will move in each of us in its own way. And each person’s perspective and struggle, each person’s experience of blessing and transformation matters.
May we all know the blessing of hearing old stories told with new main characters, seeing old paintings with new people in the frames, understanding ancient history from the viewpoint of those whom the winners would have us ignore. May we cherish the questions these blessings raise in our hearts and minds. And as we seek to answer these questions in new ways, may we be the blessing we wish to see in our broken yet beautiful world. Amen.