August 16, 2010
Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Hebrews 12:1a, 2
We tend to think of our national parks in terms of gorgeous scenery and wide-open spaces filled with rarely seen wildlife. Of course, many do fit that description.
We go to them for rest, relaxation and renewal, to get away from our overcrowded, overscheduled, busy lives. A good idea, generally.
But our national park system ultimately is about more than those things. All together each unit represents not only our land, but our history as well. We celebrate our freedom at the Statue of Liberty and the Liberty Bell. We applaud our fighting spirit and honor heroes at places like Bunker Hill and Gettysburg.
But sometimes our past is not glorious. Civil rights sites, such as Little Rock Central High School and Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Sites, serve as reminders of times when our country wasn’t at its best.
I’ve been reading about another National Historic Site, one I never knew existed until recently, a place that explores a period of great shame for our nation. Ironically, it came into existence at a time when we pulled together as never before—except, of course, for those unfortunate enough to be the scapegoats.
In 1942, the U.S. government ordered almost 120,000 men, women and children out of their homes and businesses, and into military-style camps. Manzanar, located at the foot of the beautiful Sierra Nevada range in eastern California’s Owens Valley, was one of ten war relocation centers where Japanese American citizens and resident Japanese aliens spent the duration of World War II (German and Italian Americans also were affected by unjust internment, but their numbers weren’t nearly as large).
The valley used to be home to Paiute Indians, before miners, ranchers and the military moved in (another less than honorable part of American history…but that’s for another day). The town of Manzanar developed into an agricultural community at the beginning of the 20th century (Manzanar is the Spanish word for “apple orchard”). The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power slowly accumulated all the water rights in the valley and built an aqueduct, and eventually the town was abandoned. Then the federal government swooped in and leased 6,200 acres to establish its detainment camp.
Today at Manzanar, you can take an auto tour and see remnants of orchards (you can even pick some apples), building foundations (only 3 out of 800 structures remain intact) and the camp cemetery. Extensive exhibits detail the detainees’ experiences.
My dictionary defines shame as “a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming or impropriety,” “a condition of humiliating disgrace or disrepute,” and “something that brings censure or reproach.” Manzanar embodies all that—guilt over our government’s actions following Pearl Harbor (easier to feel, perhaps, for those of us who weren’t alive during the war), plus humiliation and even ruin for Americans who looked like the enemy.
We all know those agonizing sensations to some degree or other. Whether it’s from something we did or was done to us, most of us can still recall the instances with a flushed face, clenched fists or deep sorrow. I dare say shame and guilt are the foundation of many of the problems, hurts and unhappiness we’ve ever experienced. And they can literally dog us to death.
But the lesson from Manzanar is that we can learn from our past. “It’s a measure of a nation’s maturity when it can admit such mistakes,” says Ken Burns, the filmmaker behind the national parks documentary, America’s Best Idea.
The life of Jesus and the words of Scripture, of course, offer the best antidote. The author of Hebrews says Jesus scorned the shame of death on a cross because He knew joy would be the end result. He suffered through the most degrading way to die in Roman society, and turned it instead into the greatest sacrifice ever made. He took all of our sin, shame and guilt—past, present and future—with Him to the cross, then overcame that tremendous burden by coming back to life and triumphantly returning to heaven.
The message of Jesus’ life and death is that we don’t have to be all tangled up with shame and regret. They’re already taken care of. When we’re ready to throw off the heavy weight of our sin, He’s there to catch it. “The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in love…He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities…As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:8, 10, 12).
Give God all the agony over wrong things you’ve said, done or thought, the things no one else knows about, the ones everybody knows about. I hate those feelings as much as you do, Jesus seems to be saying. Just keep your eyes on Me. I’ve dealt with them already. They’re over, past, done with, gone, defeated. I’ll bring good out of your suffering (Romans 8:28), like I did on the cross.
Let me assure you that I’m talking to myself as much as to you.
The thing is—do we believe Him?
Will we take Him up on His offer?