In 1969, when I was 8 years old, my parents took me to see President Eisenhower’s funeral train. The train car that carried President Eisenhower’s body had an American flag on the side. Driving home, Dad told me how Ike helped America win World War II.
Soon after seeing Eisenhower’s funeral train, I got chicken pox and went to see our family doctor Dr. Province. He asked me about school, but I wanted to talk about seeing President Eisenhower’s funeral train.
Dr. Province surprised me by saying, “I knew President Eisenhower. I was on his medical staff in England during the war when he was General Eisenhower.”
“Yes, really. I was one of his doctors. We even played bridge together.”
I was wondering what bridge was when Dr. Province turned to Dad and said, “People wonder if Ike had an affair. He did. Everyone on his staff knew about it, but we were all smart enough to keep quiet.”
Years later, I read about Captain Kay Summersby, Ike’s beautiful, married English chauffeur. After Eisenhower’s death as Summersby was dying of cancer, she wrote a memoir confirming their rumored affair.
But driving home that day, I didn’t know any of that when I asked Dad, “What’s an affair?” I don’t remember what Dad said, but I’ve always remembered what Dr. Province said. I didn’t know what an affair was, but I could tell then that it wasn’t good. Looking back on that conversation, I guess that was the first time I realized that great men could do bad things.
Right now our nation is coming to terms with that realization, too. As Confederate monuments continue to come down, we are realizing that secessionists aren’t the only pro-slavery heroes who we’ve put on pedestals. Thomas Jefferson, who wrote in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” and who owned 300 human beings, has a big monument in Washington, D. C. So does George Washington, who also owned slaves. Twelve Presidents were slave masters.
American history is a story about democracy and liberty; about a shining city on a hill. But it’s also a story of how life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness unfolded in a nation that exterminated one race to take its land and enslaved another race to work it.
I love our family farm, but it is land that was stolen from the Miami nation that was forcibly removed from it. Like five generations before me, I continue to profit from that crime. I love America. I’m proud that our nation stood against the evil of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan to save the world. But I also lament that in so doing 120,000 loyal Japanese-Americans were forced into internment camps.
If we’re honest, we have to confess that America has done great good – and great harm. Some tell us that American history contains no crimes. But we all know in our heart of hearts that that’s not right. Others tell us that American history contains nothing good. But we all know that’s not correct either.
If we’re honest enough to confess that we aren’t wholly innocent – and if we are wise enough to recognize that we aren’t wholly evil, then what we will discover is the truth: That our leaders were and are capable of good and bad – as are we – and that our nation has been and is capable of noble deeds and dark deeds – as all nations are.
This shouldn’t surprise us if we read our Bibles. None of the heroes in the Bible are perfect. Abraham sent his slave Hagar and his son Ishmael off into the desert with nothing to die. Moses, the bringer of the law, was a murderer. David, Israel’s greatest king, committed adultery and then murder to cover up his crime.
The Hebrews as a people both honored and dishonored God. Israel as a nation both obeyed and disobeyed God. Why should we expect to be any different? Aren’t we mature enough to admit that we aren’t perfect? Aren’t we humble enough to confess what we’ve done wrong? Aren’t we good enough to make those wrongs right?
Ronald Reagan was. When he signed legislation providing reparations for the loss of property of Japanese internees, Ronald Reagan courageously, rightly said, “No payment can make up for those lost years. So, what’s most important in this bill has less to do with property than with honor. For here we admit a wrong; here we reaffirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law.”
The Bible tells us the truth: There is right and there is wrong. No one is perfect. Not one – except our Savior. No nation is without sin. There are consequences for sin. But there is also the possibility of repentance and renewal.
There are only two nations that have faced the whole truth of their history: South Africa and Germany. Thank God, the evil of apartheid and Adolph Hitler is honestly named and rightly rejected. While acknowledging and repenting of their sins was hard, the result for South Africa and Germany has been a blessing. As we follow their example and as we look to God by coming to terms with our history, we will form a more perfect union for our children, for the future, and for the world.
So, let us embrace the truth which shall set us free. Let us honor God who calls us to love kindness and do justice and walk humbly with our God. As we do, God will bless America.