I want you to invite you to use your imagination and come with me to the edge of the Jordan River, in the territory of Moab in the area where the Jordan flows into the Dead Sea (Deuteronomy 1:5). The book of Deuteronomy records Moses’ final speech/sermon to the people of Israel before he turns over leadership to Joshua and right before Joshua leads the people into the Promise Land. The people of God stand right on the edge of what they have always hoped for. This is it, they are thinking. This is the moment we have all been waiting for. This is the moment that our parents told us about, this is what God has always promised: a land of our own, safety and protection from enemies, the chance to purify and secure the future of our ethnic identity. And finally, it was time.
In Deuteronomy, we get to listen in on the conversation between God and God’s people via Moses as they stand right on the verge of this cataclysmic and life-altering event. The theme of the entire 34 chapters is a call to remember.
Moses spends the entire sermon remembering (aloud) the story of Israel. If you remember the story over the previous forty plus years, there are some good moments but there are also, and perhaps mostly, moments of colossal failure. All of Chapter 9 and 10 record the specific atrocities of the golden calf worship and the stone tablets, as if they had just happened. God reminds them that Moses was so angry that he wanted to destroy the people. (9:13-15) The nation of Israel was commanded by God to tell these failure stories and not to allow a glossy finish to begin to settle over their history. God wants the history of their disobedience told over and over again. I can’t help but wonder why.
The key to changing the future is remembering the past.
Image: Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash
Moses’ call to remember in Deuteronomy provides a helpful commentary on dealing with our own past (and present) failures. One such area is racism in America today.
When it comes to racism in America, I want to invite us to remember the distant and recent realities such as:
The countless numbers of humans, black men women and children sold into slavery from the auction block.
The message from these two current events is clear from white America. “We don’t want to remember.” Remembering our history and our colossal failures is not pleasant. It makes us uncomfortable. We fight the urge to turn away, to quickly move on and to cover the eyes and ears of our children from atrocities like slavery and white privilege (or get someone fired).
Can you imagine an Israelite interrupting Moses’s speech to explain to Moses that all of this past history was unpleasant to remember and furthermore it was “not his fault.” Maybe an Israelite listening to Moses got tired of hearing Moses go on and on and on about all the graphic disobedience of their ancestors, the golden calf worship, the time that the people didn’t trust God to provide food, the time where Moses smashed the ten commandments and had to go back and get new ones. Maybe he even thought, “I am not to blame for all of that history. Can’t we just move on!?” Or maybe he thought, “I wasn’t event there.” Or “I wasn’t even born. Why am I to blame?” What if the Israelite decided to not tell his children about it. It is too violent, it is too sad and they are too young, they might have reasoned. This would have been an act of disobedience because God commands remembrance.
And yet, this is exactly what we do when we:
Insist that racism is a thing of the past and does not exist in our country/city/church/organization/school.
Tell black people to “get over it” or “move on” when discussing slavery and racism today.
Choose to “protect” our children over educating them on the atrocities of slavery, the reality of white privilege and the systematic racism that plagues our world.
Claim, naively, our own “color-blindness,” abdicating our own responsibility to fight racism.
Just as idolatry and pride continued to dwell in the heart of Israel long after their entry into the Promise Land, racism still dwells in the heart of America today.
In order to change these present realities and our future, we must start with remembering our past. We must remember that this country was built on the broken backs of black slaves sold and exploited for free labor. We must remember the cries of black children being ripped from the arms of their mothers at the auction block. We must remember their blood spilled from lynchings, beatings, hangings and other forms of violent abuse. We must remember their spilled blood and their broken bodies. During this Black History Month, it’s time to stop turning away and moving on. It’s time to stop getting people fired for discussing American history and present racist realities with children. It is time to remember.