History is NOW!
Featured History is NOW!
This week, I began my tenure as General Secretary of the General Commission on Archives and History of The United Methodist Church. It was a week that witnessed a record- and heart-breaking number of COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations. At that same time, Stacey Abrams, a Black United Methodist woman and daughter of two United Methodist preachers, saw her efforts to overturn voter suppression in Georgia lived out. It seemed only hours later that the United States Capitol was overtaken by white-supremacist insurrectionists who brandished both Confederate flags and "Jesus Saves" flags. This was a week where history was made.
History is not a thing of the past. History is now. It's happening all around us. Archives are not fortresses where our sacred memories reside in genteel quiescence. Instead, they exist as vitally accessible tools to help us respond better to each other, to current events, and to current tragedies. In the past few years, too often, historians have been asked why certain tragedies keep happening. The simple and yet oh so complex answer is that they keep happening because we refuse to acknowledge the historic roots that lead to current tragedies. But simply acknowledging this history also isn't enough. Reading history isn't enough. Thoughts and prayers aren't enough. The systemic effects of past decisions affect the lives of all of us, but they affect the lives of BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ persons in intentionally unjustifiable and egregious ways. Where there is harm, there must also be intentional remedial action asserted with an eye to both the past and future. The job of a historian is, in part, to ensure that our current and future actions do not repeat the mistakes of our past. The way to do this is to use the past to envision and enact a more equitable future, one that calls out, acknowledges, and seeks to remedy past injustices. In this particular moment, we all need a history lesson. But not just any history lesson. We need one that is hard to endure because it forces us to confront how Christianity and, yes, how Methodism has operated in such a way to support unjust, white-supremacist, patriarchal, and heterosexist institutions, theologies, and systems. In order to follow Wesley's mandate to "do good," we must first acknowledge our historical and current failings which do active harm. This is not easy work, and it shouldn't be easy work.
In her book, The Light of Truth: Writings of an Anti-Lynching Crusader, Ida Barnett Wells said, "The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them." Wells was a Black female Methodist who challenged white women, Christians, and politicians to acknowledge the lynching and murder of African Americans at the turn of the twentieth century. During this time, Black men and women were physically assaulted and murdered for attempting to exercise their right to vote. In her efforts to shine the light of truth upon these sins, she appealed to fellow suffragist and Methodist, Frances Willard. Wells asked Willard to use her privilege as a white woman and president of the largest woman's organization of the nineteenth-century, the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, as a platform from which to denounce white supremacy and the senseless murder of Black people. Due to fear of upsetting her followers, Willard refused. Willard refused to make people uncomfortable with their privilege. She knew the historical injustices of her fellow women and in particular those of African American women, but she refused to put that historical knowledge to use, to enact change that had the potential to create a more equitable future for all.
Today, we cannot refuse. We have to acknowledge the white-supremacist underpinnings of the events of January 6, 2021 in the District of Columbia. We have to admit that if the insurrectionists were not white, they would've been immediately physically harmed, incarcerated, or worse. As United Methodists, we have to use our platform to call out racism and white-supremacy, especially when it is staring us in the face. In this effort, we need to embrace and support the work of our General Agencies in their programmatic efforts to dismantle racism in the United States and around the globe. We have to acknowledge the efforts of fellow United Methodists like Stacey Abrams and others who constantly seek to ensure that all persons have the ability to exercise their basic rights and freedoms, to ensure that democracy works as it is supposed to. We have to acknowledge that as a denomination, we too often praise persons like Willard as heroes or mothers of Methodism without acknowledging their racist remarks and actions. We also have to intentionally uplift persons like Wells, Abrams, and other (United) Methodists, those who put their bodies on the line in order to live into the Methodist mandate to "Do no harm." We have to be willing to critically examine our histories, to shine the light of truth upon them, and to acknowledge our participation in various forms of injustice if we are to ever overcome them.
GCAH will continue to be a resource available to all persons. We will continue to celebrate and acknowledge the historic and contemporary work that Methodists have done in order to ensure a more equitable world. In this moment, we also need more overt efforts to acknowledge some of the darker moments in our past that have abetted some of our current injustices. Join GCAH and me on this journey. Use the resources that GCAH will produce in the forthcoming years for your local congregations, your Sunday Schools, your classrooms, your book studies. Support our work by donating to GCAH or remembering us when you plan your estate and will. The funds we currently receive are not sufficient to support the programs that I hope to create, and we need your financial help in order to do this necessary work. Methodism is a complex tradition with multiple histories, multiple theologies, multiple heroes and heroines. None of them are perfect, but we, as Wesleyans, must strive for Christian perfection. This means that we must acknowledge our historical sins, confront our current institutional sins, and seek to eradicate them in order to fully embody Christ.
Shalom to you,
Dr. Ashley Boggan Dreff
General Commission on Archives and History
The United Methodist Church