The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture opens on September 24th. The exhibit moves “chronologically rather than thematically” as it tells the story of African-Americans. As a national museum, though, it is also telling the story of the United States. It attempts to both “memorializing suffering” and “imagine the strength” of those who changed the course of U.S. history. Thus, the museum has:
- Ku Klux Klan Garments
- Artifacts from the slave trade
- Harriet Tubman’s shawl and hymnal
- Nat Turner’s Bible
- Frederick Douglass’ cane
- The names of over 2,200 people who were lynched
- Rosa Parks’ dress
During their time, these people who we find memorialized in the museum worked against racism and so were abused and killed, arrested and persecuted. Now, though, we remember them, honor them, and hold them up as figures who called us to live up to the rights and liberties for which our country stands. With the National Museum of African American History and Culture, we now rightly praise those African-Americans who, like the ancient prophets, called the country “to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God.”
Yet, the museum should also speak to us today where violence against Muslims has increased 78% over the last year, the highest since 9/11/2001 and police and law enforcement official have worked to manage over 260 attacks that have included “arsons at mosques, assaults, shootings and threats of violence.” Even in the wake of another domestic terrorist attack with bombs in New York and New Jersey, we should be a society that lives up to its ideals, deals with these threats through good policing, and does not use them as a justification for a Ku Klux Klan “justice” that is in reality just prejudice, fear, and intimidation.
As Christians, we should hear the sting of Jesus’ words, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the memorials of the righteous, and you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have joined them in shedding the prophets’ blood.’” (Matthew 23:29-30) Let us listen to those–like Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Rosa Parks–who cried out for justice and so saved lives and the country. Let us strive such that, in 100 years, the National Museum of Muslim Americans does not remind us of how those who spoke out against prejudice were mistreated. Let us not be guilty of building tombs for the prophets.
I started writing this post last Saturday when I read the news about the increased violence against Muslims. It is now Wednesday, and we’re hearing of the shooting of Terence Crutcher who was shot in the back by a police officer as he walked to his car with his hands in the air. If the National Museum of African American History and Culture is not to be a tomb for the prophets, we need not only to stop persecuting Muslims but also stop the killing of African-Americans.