Saturday, June 2, 2007

Dismantling the Myth of American Heroes

I recently finished reading Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. I loved it. Now, I must point out, to anyone who doesn't know me, I'm not an expert historian. In fact, this is the first comprehensive history of the United States I've read since a High School textbook. Perhaps that is part of the reason why I liked it so much. Much of Zinn's argument confronts the romanticized version of American History that indoctrinates the youth of this country into thinking they live in the greatest country on earth. A history full of hero's and heroines that fought for what was right. Zinn, admittedly has his own perspective. He writes, "The historian's distortion is more than technical, it is ideological; it is released into a world of contending interests, wehre any chosen emphasis supports . . . some kind of interest, whether economic or political or racial or national or sexual" (8). What is Zinn's distortion? To tell the story of the United States through the eyes of those disenfranchised by American capitalism, racism and warmongering (i.e. Native Americans, African Americans, women, the poor, immigrants etc.). Yeah, it's pretty scathing.

As an American, Zinn's history is sobering. As a Christian its a reminder that even though my life isn't that hard, there are people right here in America (not just Africa and the third world) who are hurting and being exploited socially and economically. As a Pacifist, I found Zinn's work refreshingly honest about the realities and motivations of war (Zinn is also a pacifist, though not a Christian so his pacifism is notably different than mine). His chapters on WWI, WWII and Vietnam were particularly interesting. One of Zinn's arguments is that war has been consistently used by "the Establishment" (as he calls it) as a means to distract and control the public from the failings of the American Democratic system to meet the needs of the people.

While there is definitely more identification with some of the ideals of the democratic party Zinn vehemently criticizes both parties of the American system (consider especially chapter 24 "The Clinton Presidency"). Both democrats and republicans are at fault. Both parties are basically a part of a system that in Zinn's estimation protects the rich and powerful and exploits the poor and powerless. He writes, "The American system is the most ingenious system of control in world history. With a country so rich in natural resources, talent, and labor power the system can afford to distribute just enough wealth to just enough people to limit discontent to a troublesome minority" (632). With a system so broken by greed what is the way forward for Americans?

Part of my problem with Zinn's work is his response to the problems. Now, let me say that I don't think that it is necessarily the work of the historian to point the way forward, but Zinn clearly makes an attempt to (especially chapter 23 "The Coming Revolt of the Guards"). Zinn's Utopian dream is a social solution to a problem that goes deeper than society. Essentially, Zinn is trying to recreate the world by trying harder. Zinn wants humanity to pull itself up by its own bootstraps. I think Zinn sees many of the problems clearly enough (though not all). I don't think he sees that the problems of American democracy are problems with humanity. We are broken creatures that require transformation and recreation. Maybe America can't be fixed (I somehow doubt it can) but thank God America is not the answer. What the world needs is not American foreign policy to suddenly start caring about the children of Iraq and Afghanistan like the children of Illinois and Arizona. What the world needs is the Gospel. At risk of sounding like I don't care about social problems I think must say the Gospel is all that will save this world, only the redeeming work of God.

What are your thoughts? What does America need? What does the world need? What as Christians ought we do in the eschatological already and not yet? What do we do as Americans and Christians to meet the social and spiritual (which is really a false dichotomy) of people all over the world, including here in America?

1 comment:

michael defazio said...

Great thoughts, friend, and great questions. I had a similar experience reading Zinn. Even some of my objections - such as his obvious 'slant' - merely reinforced the overall impact of his work, namely, that he is not the only spinster on the stage of American historians.

I think one of your phrases would make a great essay (or sermon): "Thank God, America is Not the Answer." (I added a comma for effect :) )

I wish I had more to say in terms providing a way forward, but all I have at this point is agreement that separating spiritual and social will only more more of a mess. One of the things I think about is what virtues we are encouraging in our churches - not necessarily vocal and from the stage, but by the way our community life is patterned - and, more over, what concept of virtue we are offering. For example, are we encouraging peace? And if so, what type of peace are we building - peace that is merely an inward reassurance that in spite of this dangerous world we will be okay in the end (certainly a vital concept), or also peace that critiques the dominant propensity to violence we see in our culture. I don't know my example makes sense of my initial point, but you get what I mean. Let's be intentional about which virtues we are building into people, and let's think long and hard about how we are defining those virtues.

This way, we still uphold transformation as the heart of it all - rather than getting people to sign up for this or that charity effort or event. (I should merely getting people to participate in such activities, for of course such participation is integral to developing the virtues with which people would do more of such activities (phew!).) Anyway, I believe those were my thoughts. I hope I've crystallized them for you.