Communal Guilt, Justice, and Grace

Mary Volmer
Equality Includes You
5 min readJun 24, 2021

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by Mary Volmer

A friend of mine, a white Christian woman, like me, posted this meme on Facebook. It was meant to end any discussion of white America’s legacy of racial violence and to silence calls for social justice. Cute little innocent girl, says the meme. The implication: poor little innocent me. Leave the past to the past. Leave me be.

My friend is right. The bombing of Pearl Harbor is not the fault of Japanese infants any more than she or I are at fault for dropping two atomic bombs on the ancestors of Japanese infants. And, yet, my friend and I are responsible for those acts, and for any acts committed by our country in our names. We are responsible, too, for the ongoing legacy of oppression and racial violence in this country. And if you are a white American, you are too.

Please, let me explain.

Communal guilt, like trauma, is passed down through generations and within communities. Unacknowledged guilt, like trauma, shackles individuals within those communities, and indeed whole countries, to exploitative and destructive patterns of belief and behavior so prevalent that we think of them as normal, if we recognize them at all. I’m a historical novelist, a student of human behavior, and have become aware of these patterns as the echoes of generations speaking through me. My ancestors are within me. I carry their gifts but also bear their sins. I am them. They are me. When I say that I am sorry for our part in the legacy of oppression and racial violence in this country, I speak on behalf of us. When I fail to acknowledge the need, I fail my son, who will be forced to carry the responsibility forward.

I’m aware as I write these words that atonement is impossible. My apology cannot restore justice. The truth is that I hear — in that meme above and in countless other interactions with white Christian brothers and sisters — an unspoken fear of justice. Noble ideals aside, white America’s history is one of conquest and slavery and environmental degradation. It is bloody and ignoble and exists even if we pretend it does not. We sanctioned the genocide and displacement and continue the cultural annihilation of native people. Under the guise of manifest destiny, we exploited and continue to exploit natural resources and poison the earth. We continue to support…

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Mary Volmer
Equality Includes You

Author of novels Crown of Dust (2010) and Reliance, Illinois (2016), professor, avid reader, mom, has-been athlete… www.maryvolmer.com