Ethical Reflections: Telling the story of a complex past

Ethical Reflections: Telling the story of a complex past
The Rev. Ian Markham (Photo/Virginia Theological Seminary)

By Rev. Ian Markham

One crucial debate that hovers over American public life is the challenge of telling our story that recognizes the complexity of the past. Two narratives are proposed: one stresses achievement and the other stresses sin. The achievement narrative takes the following
form. The founding fathers created a U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights that laid the basis for a free, democratic society. On this foundation, the United States became a beacon of extraordinary energy that created the world’s most successful economy and military power. Although there were the sins of slavery and segregation, these sins were recognized and, thanks to the Civil Rights movement, have been overcome.

The sin narrative starts in a different place. It points out that slavery and segregation are not footnotes to the American story but central to the narrative. Slavery was deeply cruel and abusive; human lives were torn from their families, placed in captivity, often killed and injured in transit and then people lived lives of exploitation where every single day there was the possibility of injury or death.

Upon this exploited, enslaved labor, American wealth was created. And the exploitation never stopped. Post-Civil War freedom was soon replaced by segregation. Redlining, mass incarceration and other forms of economic and social oppression then replaced segregation. And so, the narrative continues into the present.

At Virginia Theological Seminary, we are close to marking 200 years since our founding in 1823. Enslaved labor built many of the buildings. The prosperity of the place owes much to en- slaved people who did everything; they kept the farms, washed the clothes, prepared the meals, cared for the grounds and cleaned the houses.

At the same time, we have become the strongest seminary in the Anglican Communion, which is the third largest denomination in Christendom, after the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox churches. We founded the Anglican Church in Japan and Brazil. We have provided the primates for many countries in Africa. And today, we provide more than a quarter of the clergy for the Episcopal Church. Our problem in telling our story is similar to the problem facing America.

Sometimes when we face a difficult problem, the answer is not a lecture or a verbal dis- course or even a well-formulated argument. The answer needs to be more multilayered and have more texture. So, we have commissioned a play called “Dust.” We approached a Welsh playwright, Non Vaughan O’Hagan, who wrote the adaptation for the theater of “I, Dido,” which appeared in London’s West End. We also managed to persuade Ryan Rilette, the artistic director of the Round House in Washington, D.C., to be the director of the play. Exceptional actors have been recruited to perform. The goal is to tell the complete story of the seminary’s past – both the flaws and the faithfulness, both the sin and the grace.

These two conflicting narratives about our identity as a country are at the heart of our deeply divided political discourse. It is shattering our educational system and creating deep anger and enmity between people. Letting the playwrights – and not only play- wrights but artists, poets and performers – speak to us just might help us find a way forward between these two conflicting narratives.

For those interested in attending “Dust,” the world premiere is Oct. 15 and the show runs for four nights. It will be performed at 7 p.m. in the Chapel Garden, with the rain venue being the Lettie Pate Evans Auditorium. The seminary’s pub, “1823,” will be open prior to all performances. Those in attendance will be able to get dinner and a show for less than $40.

The writer is dean of Virginia Theological Seminary.