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The idea that corporate sin transcends time and generation is not limited to the Old Testament. “This generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world,” Jesus told the Pharisees (Luke 11:50–51). “Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all.” And few listening to Peter preach about “Jesus, whom you crucified” (Acts 2) had been present at Golgotha. Indeed, the “you” included “Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome [and] Cretans and Arabs.”

Nehemiah was never personally present for the sins of idolatry and oppression that he confessed. And yet he knew for the sake of his people, public acknowledgement of sin was required.

Leroy Barber was with me on the visit to EJI. The prominent black minister and writer often speaks about racial issues in the church. For him, the soil collection project and the proposed memorial were honoring, healing, and intensely personal. “My mother was born just south of Montgomery in a little place called Monroeville,” Barber told me. “So when I was there, looking at the maps of all the lynchings, I counted around seven or eight in the tiny town where my mom was born. And it was surreal. There was a deep sadness over the realities that my family lived through.”

For people like Barber, creating memorials and monuments in places like Montgomery is not just about corporate confession and repentance, although he believes those are important. He finds a strong biblical precedent for the importance of telling history well. “In Deuteronomy it says, ‘tell these stories, teach them to your children,’ so your children don’t forget, so your children know where they come from. This is a Christian position,” he said. “Bryan’s work is vital, in that it will free up a lot of people of color to tell their stories, to recreate the narrative for their children and grandchildren.”

Barber’s word reminded me of when I visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, many years ago and was struck by Deuteronomy 4:9, displayed in large lettering in the Hall of Remembrance: “Only guard yourself and guard your soul carefully, lest you forget the things your eyes saw, and lest these things depart your heart all the days of your life, and you shall make them known to your children, and your children’s children.”

I had never thought about the importance of these verses, so integral to the people of God maintaining their faith and traditions, an admonition in the biblical context to remember God’s covenants as well as the dire consequences of breaking those covenants. It has become a common thread in any country or community that has experienced racial or ethnic violence. Remember, remember—so you do not forget and commit the same atrocities again.

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Christianity Today
Cover Story: Facing Our Legacy of Lynching