The neighborhoods and parks of New Orleans are filled with oak trees like I have never seen. Twisted, hulking, green giants that block the hot sun and create whimsical tunnels through which to drive and walk. Some of them are thought to be more than 500 years old. Maybe it’s just us, since we haven’t seen big trees in about two years, but we found ourselves mesmerized by these oaks. I couldn’t stop taking pictures of them, and I can’t stop thinking about them.
The character of New Orleans is a lot like these trees. It’s a unique, compelling, beautiful, and old place that draws one in. The tree lined boulevards. The stately houses with stained glass windows, giant porches, and picturesque gardens. The people, with their southern drawl and cheerful hospitality. The spicy, saucy, flavorful, and abundant food. Heavenly beignets, fluffy as a pillow on the inside and delightfully crispy on the outside, covered in powdered sugar that leaves itself on your face and shirt. The music is loud, brassy, joyful, and seemingly everywhere. This is a place with character. A charming, interesting place where it’s a pleasure to spend time. This city is hypnotizing and beautiful, just like the oak trees.
But these trees did not become what they are overnight, or without pain. Hot summers and cold winters sped and slowed growth. Windstorms caused branches to snap and twist. Erosion and floods caused roots to move, and trunks to stand crooked. Lightning strikes or fires may have stunted growth. To ignore the trauma is to not fully appreciate what these trees are.
In the same way, there is much about this city that cannot be disregarded or painted over. Slavery and cotton were king here, providing the wealth that built the houses. Jim Crow ruled long and strong. Poverty and inequality remain common. Streets and buildings are scarred from hurricanes more than a decade gone. There are people without homes, and people being forced from their homes by the persistent march of gentrification. Bourbon Street, that dream destination of many a gleeful college student, strikes me as a brightly colored and foul smelling retreat for the broken. There is pain here. A past and present that are troubled.
America is a lot like New Orleans. Our past and present are full of ugly things, many of which those of us in positions of privilege would like to ignore. It’s easy enough for me to treat colonialism, slavery, and the genocide of native people groups like the unpleasant chapters of a story book that is not terribly relevant to me. They happened a long time ago, and I was no part of it. But these things, awful as they are, remain inextricable chapters in the history of this country. If I choose to own this country as my own (which I do) I must choose to own the sins of our past.
This can be hard for us white people to do. It’s so easy for us to state that we never owned a slave, or stole land from another people group, or voted for laws that denied others their basic rights, and then just go back to our lives. And we would be telling the truth. We are not personally culpable for the sins of our forebears. We do, however, sit atop the mountain of privilege that their misdeeds constructed for us, and we benefit from what they did. We live in the house they built, and we are now responsible for it. We also bear witness to the echoes of their sins, as so many of the struggles we face as a nation today are rooted in the decisions of the past. The Bible talks about God punishing children for the sins of their fathers, to the third and fourth generation. Many read this as the outworking of petulant anger by a small and vindictive God. I’ve come to see it differently. I think the writers of Scripture understood that the societal sins of one generation don’t just melt into history. When you cut down all the trees your kids won’t have any soil in which to grow their food. When you dump toxic waste into the soil your grand kids will get sick. When you choose to enslave an entire race, your great grand kids will die in a Civil War, and their great grand kids (and the great grand kids of the people you enslaved) will still struggle to mend the inequality that you planted. Actions have consequences, across time and across generations. God is not being vindictive. He is explaining the consequences of the choices that we make.
What am I to make of this world when my ancestors have hashed it up so badly? Again I return to these trees. Hundreds of years ago someone saw that there was a street or a path in this city, and they planted a row of acorns, and they tended to the saplings. Their forethought and work has given me a shaded place to walk, a home for birds, and a brilliant display of beauty. They didn’t benefit from these trees, but centuries later I do. The beautiful thing about the world is that sins are not all that echo across time. Good deeds do as well. Amazing things can happen when we choose to break the cycle of destruction, in big ways and small. We plant trees. We play music. We mentor children. We build useful things that will outlast us. We cannot undo the darkness in our past, but by acknowledging it and planting for tomorrow perhaps we can see to it that our kids, and their kids, inherit something better.
New Orleans, home of the blues, a glorious American art form that brings the joy of music together with the frustrating realities of life, is a place where we see all of this. The unhealed wounds of the past are on full display, as is an infectious atmosphere of joy and celebration in the present. May that joy in the present ease the pain of the past, and move us toward a green, tree shaded future full of music, friends, and amazing pastry.