Ah, but there’s the rub. I can’t even push the syllables out of my mouth without the word “heritage” leaving a sickly aftertaste. While I extol the beauty of my home state, I must also contend with bumper stickers emblazoned with the Confederate flag and the haunting words, “heritage, not hate.”
What exactly does “heritage” mean? Dictionary.com defines it as “something that is handed down from the past,” or “an inherited lot.” Yet the Heritage Foundation, the well-heeled Religious Right bulwark, was born out of racism. The May 13th removal of a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville provoked one protestor to exclaim, “We're not white supremacists…we are simply just white people that love our heritage.” If that were true, however, then why defend a General who fought to destroy the US and to oppress black people? The abuse of the “h” word has led law professor Garrett Epps, a Richmond native, to conclude, “The neo-Confederate faith is not a heritage; it is a political program.”
The 2016 Presidential Election has painfully revealed that our country is in the midst of an identity crisis. It’s no coincidence that we are fighting over the direction of our future when we cannot agree on the significance of our past. We must first clarify the heritage of our country: what was handed down to us? What is our inherited lot?
Almost two thousand years ago, two Middle Eastern students found themselves facing a similar identity crisis. As they headed to a small village called Emmaus, an unknown traveler joined them on the journey. After the traveler asked what they were discussing, they were shocked that he hadn’t heard the news of the day; everyone was talking about the execution of their beloved teacher, Jesus Christ. Jesus had not only been their teacher, but had also been a prophet and their hope for Israel’s freedom. Some women, however, had just gone to Christ’s tomb and found it empty. The students didn’t know what to think.
The stranger surely stunned the students when he chided them for their lack of understanding. He then offered his own interpretation of history, stretching back centuries to the days of Moses until their present day. The students and stranger soon arrived at Emmaus, which meant a potential parting of ways. They could bid the stranger farewell as he continued his journey, or invite him into their homes for more conversation.
We too need a history lesson. We can either believe the white supremacist Alt-Knights, or leaders like New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who cast a more diverse vision of his beloved city. Does the mimosa in Georgia hide my home state’s past horrors, or celebrate hospitality? Just like the students at Emmaus, we have a choice; do we welcome in the stranger? Or do we dismiss the other because of challenges to our long-held beliefs? Mr. Epps asks his native Richmond to be honest about its history so it can be wise in determining his future. A stranger in Emmaus asks the same of us.