What's in a Name?

No one really knows what a Hoosier is.

One old poet claimed that someone walked into a tavern after a particularly vicious fight and saw a bloody trophy on the ground.

“Whose ear?” he yelled.

I doubt the owner heard him.

In 1924, citizens of Indiana elected an open member of the KKK to be governor of the state. It has been estimated that nearly one in three Hoosiers was a Klan member during the 1920s.

In 1930, a mob ripped two black men from a public jail in Marion. Their bones were broken. They were beaten and hung from trees. The images are sickening not only because of their graphic nature, but even more so for the hatred that created them.

These are far from the only sins that stain our state. The very name "Indiana" reveals that the land was torn from those that lived on it first. Our state's first constitution forbade blacks from settling in its borders.

Hoosier hospitality, indeed.

They tell of a canal being dug outside of Louisville. A contractor by the name of Hoosier would only hire workers from Indiana. He wasn’t interested in outsiders.

Hoosier’s men, they called them.

For most of our state's history, "Hoosier" meant "white;" how is a person of color supposed to reconcile their identity with that name?

These racial injustices form horrible collective memories, but what can we possibly do about it now? I doubt anyone reading this post was alive to see those events, much less to bear personal responsibility for them. How can white Christians make sense of any of this?

I have no fixes for you here. If there is a balm in Gilead, I haven’t found it yet. I can only offer up the very old story of a very old man with a very broken heart.

The old man was a great man.

He was a powerful ruler. He was a visionary leader. He was one of the bravest men who ever lived. His wisdom was profound. He had even seen the future.

One day, he sat in his room reading an old scroll. It told of judgment for his home town. He had not seen that city in decades. He was just a boy when he was taken from it. His hands hadn't committed the ancient sins for which it suffered.

But tears dripped down his cheeks, and he began to pray and confess his own sins:

“We have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from your commandments and rules. We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes, and our fathers, and to all the people of the land.”

On and on he went. Ten different times he said “we” when describing atrocities that happened long before he was born. He wept and mourned and fasted and owned the fact that the same sin that lived in his father and his father’s father lived in his heart. It didn’t matter that he never killed a prophet or bowed to an idol or oppressed a foreigner or a widow. He was as guilty as any one of his people before him.

Then a visitor came. A messenger from another kingdom, who said, “Oh, Daniel. God loves you so very much.” The visitor proceeded to unravel all of time and eternity to the old man, and revealed all that was to come and all that would be possible for God to do to heal and restore Daniel’s broken homeland.

No one wanted to be caught on the prairie in a winter storm. It was certain death. Fortunately for weary travelers, the people of Indiana were so hospitable it was said all you had to do was knock loud on any door in the state, and they’d shout back at you, “Who’s ‘ere?”

They would take in any stranger and give them shelter and rest.

Friends, we are no better than our fathers. We aren’t even better than the fathers who weren’t our fathers. The same sickness and hatred that infected their hearts lives in ours. Moreover, wickedness isn’t limited by race. I’ve known people from every corner of the world with every shade of skin, and the one thing we all have in common is profound and irrevocable brokenness.

I can’t account for the actions of every one of my forefathers, and there isn’t any point in trying. If there is one thing I know about myself, it’s that I'm not innocent. There is at least as much blood on my hands as there is on anyone else’s.

The idea of corporate guilt offends us Americans on a visceral level. We love the verses that declare that “each man will die for his own sins."

But come to that, no. I won’t die for my own sins. Someone else already took responsibility for them. Someone - who didn’t commit them - owned them and suffered for them to make all things new.

Because he did, I believe that even a a land polluted with the blood of God’s children shed in racial hate can be made new. I believe that the name "Hoosier" can come to mean something bigger and more beautiful than it did in the days of my great-grandfathers.

I believe that if we bring our sin and guilt to God instead of hiding it under a false history or denying our share in it or pretending that everyone ought to just “get over it," the heavens can open and we can catch a glimpse of how it all ought to be.

Once there was an old preacher man by the name of Black Harry Hosier who escaped the slave chains and preached spiritual freedom and the abolition of slavery to poor Methodists. Many took his name and the gospel he preached with them as they settled down together in a new land, fresh with hope and promise.

Indiana, it was called.

Hoosiers, they were called.

No one really knows where the name Hoosier come from. All it means, all it’s ever meant as near as I can tell, is “someone from Indiana."

What being “a real Hoosier” meant in 1816 or 1916 doesn’t have to be what being “a real Hoosier” means in 2016.

The name, the common identity we all share, can grow. It can expand to include people that it once excluded. It can expand to be large enough to account for new people with new experiences.

It doesn’t have to mean violence or exclusion or hospitality or even hysteria.

It can just mean “one of us.”

Image: Thomas Hart Benton