Despite America long being majority Christian and an exemplar of the power of confession and atonement, we struggle to walk the talk.
Throughout our history, but particularly since 2016, when Donald Trump first rode down that ill-fated escalator at Trump Tower to announce his presidential candidacy, it has grown ever clearer that Americans have a serious problem with atonement.
We tend to run hellbent away from public accountability.
It’s not just Trump, who is still trying mightily to avoid taking any responsibility for the terrible destruction his narcissistic megalomania wrought, not only on the Republican Party, but on Americans’ trust and confidence in our democratic leaders and essential republican (small “r”) institutions.
An appalling legacy of slavery
Take our sordid history of slavery, for instance.
Sure, there’s the beautiful, awe-inspiring National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, a profound and necessary living monument to Black Americans—indeed, to all citizens—to the unjust servitude of their enslaved ancestors, and to the ways US history has continued to distort and impoverish their lives to this day.
But the museum was largely a Black project, a labor of love and remembrance for the shared, lived experience as African Americans throughout the nation’s history.
White Americans, on the other hand, have been notably less interested in memorializing the republic’s rich African American legacy, or expressing mea culpas for their forebears’ sins—indeed, their own, in contemporary times—against a people who were once irrationally considered sub-human chattel by a large subgroup of the population.
The slave-holding South, the instigator of the U.S. Civil War of 1861-1865, has yet to fully accept accountability for that terrible and bloody conflict, much less atone for it—or for their immoral, slave-owning culture that made the conflict inevitable.
In fact, after race-segregated schools were outlawed under then-new federal civil rights legislation in the three decades between 1940 and 1970 (see Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964), instead of honorably complying with these new legal mandates, many, many Southerners just sent their kids to private, white, Christian schools that allowed them to ignore segregation requirements.
In an online essay on its website, the Southern Education Foundation, which self-identifies as being “committed to advancing equitable education policies and practices that elevate learning for low-income students and students of color in the southern states,” explains:
Private schools in the South were established, expanded, and supported to preserve the Southern tradition of racial segregation in the face of the federal courts’ dismantling of “separate but equal.” White students left public schools in droves to both traditional and newly formed private schools. From 1950 to 1965, private school enrollment grew at unprecedented rates all over the nation, with the South having the largest growth.
The Ku Klux Klan was a reaction to the end of slavery
Lest we forget, let’s also recall the creation of the white supremacist, “Christian” Ku Klux Klan, which formed after the Civil War, using terrorism to intimidate and suppress the agency of newly-enfranchised former slaves in the South and deny them the equality that Reconstruction-era laws bestowed.
Michele Norris, a columnist and consultant for the Washington Post’s Opinion pages and founding director of The Race Card Project, recalls being disappointed after addressing a successful nonprofit about the importance of “candid racial dialogue in politics and in the places we live, work and worship.”
One of the participants asked her an unexpected question about the National Museum of African American History and Culture:
Why, [the questioner] wondered, were all the exhibits that visitors first encounter dedicated to slavery? Among other things, she was referring to a reconstructed cabin built by former slaves from Maryland and a statue of Thomas Jefferson next to a wall with the names of more than 600 people he owned. “Couldn’t the exhibits begin with more uplift?” the woman asked, arguing that Black achievement was more worthy of the spotlight. She suggested that the museum should instead usher visitors toward more positive stories right from the start, so that if someone were tired or short on time, slavery could be optional.
There was no accountability in these instances of disassociation from unpleasant realities. Certainly, no atonement.
Lack of atonement also infects American education
And this collective abrogation of responsibility is even still alive in the American education establishment’s outback, and not just in the South. Due to bogus fears that so-called “critical race theory” might be taught to their children today, many conservative, inevitably Republican state leaders now want to unconscionably dilute the abominable history of U.S. slavery in their schools’ textbooks so white children won’t feel guilty about a practice that ended 157 years ago.
Never mind that slavery’s awful, virulent, enduring effects still infect our republic today.
So America’s atonement, as it were, for its historical slavery and continuing prejudice against Black citizens has been legislation aimed at promoting equality. There have not been reparations, no national holiday in remembrance of those injustices and atrocities (although Martin Luther King Day was positive-spin stab at it), nor any federal apologist monuments to this darkly tainted past.
And this very much seems okay with most of us who don’t, so to speak, have skin in the game.
It’s not as if it’s not doable.
After WWII, Germany accepted responsibility for Holocaust
Germany has done it—in atonement for the Holocaust.
And Germans have atoned in massive fashion over the many decades since the end of World War II and the death of Nazi strongman Adolf Hitler, whose rabid anti-Semitism unleashed a massive pogrom to exterminate Jews (and other ostensible “defectives,” like gays, communists and Roma). In the end, the Holocaust murdered an estimated 6 million Jews, plus 5 million prisoners of war and countless assorted others.
In a respectful nod to Germany, Norris wrote:
[T]oday, less than 100 years after the rise of Adolf Hitler, Germany has made a prodigious effort to come to terms with its past with regularized rituals of repentance and understanding. … This collective culture of atonement is captured in the eight syllables and 26 letters that comprise the German word Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung. It’s a mouthful that translates loosely to “working off the past.”
Among Germany’s “rituals of repentance and understanding” in taking accountability for the Holocaust are many physical “Monuments to the Unthinkable,” the title of a recent essay in The Atlantic about Germany’s expansive mea culpas to Holocaust victims and their survivors and how it contrasts with America’s lack of accountability for its own historical atrocities.
The subhead of the essay—”America still can’t figure out how to memorialize the sins of our history. What can we learn from Germany?”—summarizes the gist of the piece.
In Germany, the government has turned former Nazi extermination camps into permanent museums that hundreds of thousands of citizens and international tourists flock to annually to learn exactly what horrors occurred in there.
At one such camp, the infamous Dachau, atonement began early. American soldiers who liberated the camp at the end of World War II forced German inhabitants of the nearby town and local farms to bury the 5,000 corpses they found there—in effect, forcing citizens to take account.
Atonement plaques along the tracks
A particular ritual of atonement continuing today is the embedding of steel plates along the railroad tracks on which Jews were deported to Nazi concentration camps from Berlin to Auschwitz, but one of countless other death routes. Each plate—there are 186 in all—noted the number of persons in each train that made that journey. They totaled nearly 50,000 during the war.
Today, trees grow from within the tracks, a silent reminder that the tracks aren’t used for such purposes anymore.
Another such material atonement is the placing next to old homes of gold-hued concrete blocks called Stolperstein (stepping stones), a brass plate attached to each with the hand-etched names, birthplaces and final fate of each banished Jew who used to live there before the Holocaust unraveled. Some 90,000 such blocks have been placed around Berlin.
So far, Germany has also paid more than $90 billion in reparations to descendants of Holocaust victims and to the Jewish-majority state of Israel, to which many Holocaust survivors immigrated. However, the process of establishing eligibility for funds is not perfect, proving torturous for many applicants.
Atom bombs turned Japan into a pacifist state
Conversely, even the term “reparations” is loaded in the US when it pertains to any proposed U.S. atonement for the nation’s centuries of accommodating slavery.
Many, if not most, Americans simply seem to want to move on from that dark chapter.
We’ve even been outclassed by the Japanese in response to history’s first atomic bombs dropped there by American planes in the late summer of 1945. The cataclysmic blasts, which, combined, killed tens of thousands of Japanese instantly and many more afterward. Overall, an estimated 70,000 to 135,000 perished in Hiroshima and 60,000 to 80,000 in Nagasaki from “acute exposure to the blasts and from the long-term side effects of radiation.”
The bombings were arguably among the worst acts of military brutality in history (albeit executed to save potentially a million American lives if an anticipated war-ending invasion of the Japanese homeland had been necessary; after the bombs, it wasn’t).
Rather than officially atone for the dual attack, America formally continues to defend it as necessary to protect American lives near the war’s end.
However, is it not possible to defend an atrocity on “just war theory” grounds while simultaneously atoning for the inevitable human suffering it has inflicted on innocents?
Today, due to those two catastrophic events, the Japanese have formally become a pacifist nation fervently opposed to the use of nuclear weapons.
Fewer but more destructive nuclear weapons
The US and other nuclear-armed nations, while reducing their “nuke” stockpiles in the international Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), continue to enhance each weapon’s destructiveness. Whereas tens of thousands of nuclear weapons existed internationally by the mid-1980s, through the NPT, the numbers have plummeted to about 12,700, 90% owned by the US and Russia. But that’s still more than enough to plunge the planet into a devastating “nuclear winter.”
So, Germany implemented concrete atonements for its role in appalling crimes against humanity during World War II, while the US hasn’t for it’s A-bomb aggressions or, earlier, its long, unconscionable complicity in or active furtherance of the “peculiar institution” of slavery.
It’s well past time to take a knee.