On Getting Stuck in our Origin Stories

Last month I accompanied a group of students and another faculty member to Amsterdam and Italy as part of a theological anthropology class. These destinations–one in northern, Protestant Europe and the other in southern, Catholic Europe–provided thought-provoking theological and cultural counterpoints to each other.

Having been raised conservative Anabaptist, I brought with me my own culture’s origin story in Europe where our ancestors were persecuted and martyred by Catholics and Lutherans during the Reformation. The Martyr’s Mirror, a tome filled with illustrated, detailed narratives of Anabaptist martyrdom was a standard feature of my childhood home. (Later this suspicion of all things Catholic would be further cultivated by the lurid illustrations of Jack Chick tracts, Baptist publications that used a popular comic book style to present evangelical fundamentalist propaganda to unsuspecting sinners and bored conservative youth.)

Of course, in the Europe I visited last month, this martyrdom was never mentioned on the tours or in the museums and monuments. Instead, in Amsterdam we heard about Catholics who worshiped in secret when Protestants came to power and in Rome we heard about the persecutions early Christians endured at the hands of the Roman emperors. As we toured the crypt beneath St. Peters, the freshness of that persecution was palpable in the tour guide’s narrative, implicitly framing the opulence of St. Peter’s above as a triumph against all odds. The underdogs finally got their due.

As others have eloquently pointed out, Anabaptists today are no less likely than Catholics to downplay their current privileged status, preferring to overwrite it with their origin story of martyrdom.

And as this NPR story documents, Americans as a whole are no different. Our white-dominated culture cries “Freedom!” from the tyranny of taxes and government without representation all the while conveniently ignoring how our entire culture and economy was built on the enslaved backs of others. We pat ourselves on our backs for “defending freedom” while ignoring all the innocent civilians we kill to do it. We pride ourselves for our advanced culture, while ignoring the millions of bodies chewed up by the machinations of colonization and globalization that funded it.

This happens on an individual level too when a person gets stuck thinking of him- or herself as they were when they were a helpless, impressionable child and continuing to engage with the world as if they were still that helpless impressionable child and not a capable adult. How many bullies are inwardly punching up at a bigger bully as they beat up on defenseless, less-powerful bodies in front of them? How many relationally aggressive people see themselves as just getting their long-deferred due as they ruthlessly exclude and marginalize lower status people around them?

But just because we can slide so easily between the roles of the oppressed and the oppressor doesn’t mean these roles are meaningless or that they are inevitable. Once we know better, we can do better.

As a teacher quoted in the NPR story points out, those of us living today are not at fault for the systemic racism our predecessors passed down to us, but we will be at fault twenty years from now if we don’t do something about it.

Being free from blame doesn’t free us from responsibility.

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