“History is about cause and effect.”
“History is about persuasive writing.”
“History is just gossip about dead people.”
There were a lot of ways I introduced the subject of history when I was a teacher. There are a lot of things history can be. But if I could do it all over again, I would emphasize one point very clearly above all others: History is about identity.
We look to history to know that our principles are bigger than ourselves and that the assumptions we’ve been raised with are legitimate. The past assures us that whatever we’re doing, pursuing, and valuing is more than a personal whim made in isolation, and our lives’ paths have more staying power than JNCOs.
History is about the giants on whose shoulders we stand: our saints. The choice isn’t whether we have saints or not, it’s whether we have clarity about them or confusion. Given recent controversies surrounding Confederate symbolism and Alexander Hamilton’s sudden fashionability, it’s time we learn to speak the language of a redeemed historical consciousness (one’s relationship with the past and how they will be perceived by posterity).
History is about the giants on whose shoulders we stand: our saints. The choice isn’t whether we have saints or not, it’s whether we have clarity about them or confusion.
People tend to think emotionally about historical fact while neglecting the need for meaning. A redeemed historical consciousness offers the exact opposite: identity from a community that stretches from past to future, and the ability to view even the darkest truths clearly. We have confession for the world that needs clear thinking, and saints for the spirit that needs identity as part of a whole.
Confessing the Sins of our Fathers
“I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old, things that we have heard and known, that our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the LORD, and his might, and the wonders that he has done.” -Psalm 78:2-5
Heavy with reality, ecstatic in praise, and courageous in disclosure, Psalm 78 tells of Israel’s historical failures and God’s grace. It’s the model of Christian historical consciousness, standing in vigilant contrast to the Pharisees’ self-assured complacency in Matthew 23:29-31. I used to have these words on the wall of my classroom.
I wanted my students to be able to deal truthfully and courageously with the reality that Christians have done terrible things. Many of those sins have left lasting scars that are still felt today. I wanted them to be forces for reconciliation, to be sensitive to hard realities but not crushed by them, to have sobriety without “white guilt,” and progress without willful ignorance.
This became central for me when I was working on my minor in Jewish Studies. Reading Martin Luther’s 12-step plan for eliminating the Jews in Europe made me set the book down and pray. I’d been able to live on an ideological life raft up until that point, and it was awesome. The Crusades? A Catholic sin. Balkan atrocities? Orthodox. I was Protestant, untarnished by the sins that come with a long history (Lord have mercy!). But at that moment, my life raft sprung a leak. I couldn’t celebrate a man who terrorized a people I loved and respected. No amount of good theology outweighed that. I had to do something with this.
I wanted my students to be able to deal truthfully and courageously with the reality that Christians have done terrible things. I wanted them to be forces for reconciliation, to be sensitive to hard realities but not crushed by them…
As the remnant in Nehemiah 9 confessed the sins of their fathers, I confessed the sin of mine. Martin Luther’s legacy ceased to be as important as the mosaic, millennia-long drama in which we all are unwitting participants. While Hitler himself drew inspiration from Luther, it was ultimately Europe’s reintroduction to the Bible that dampened its anti-Semitic, superstitious accusations of Jewish blood-guilt. Bonhoeffer and Hitler both were alive in Luther’s words and being.
The spiritual reality is that Hitler and Bonhoeffer both live inside me, too. Somehow it’s harder to confess this cosmic complexity in our heroes than in ourselves. Confession divorces our identity from past evils. It allows us to think without emotion and face dark truths. Without it, we will never be able to look at the past objectively or with nuance.
But there must be an aspect of repentance to confession; there has to be something to turn to, and not just away from. As eternal creatures we need a past, present, and future community, and there’s no community to be had if we burn down every legacy touched by sin.
But there must be an aspect of repentance to confession; there has to be something to turn to, and not just away from.
Monotonous Tyrants and Diverse Saints
Though most traditions treat saints as more than mechanisms for historical consciousness, historical consciousness is a basic human need. If we don’t find our eternal community in real saints, we’ll make them up. Robert E. Lee or Hamilton, Reagan or Carter, Martin Luther King or Martin Luther—we’ll find anchors for our values.
While they may seem extraneous, saints function like rear-view mirrors. Without them, we either careen ahead thoughtlessly with no regard for our natural blind spots, or we’re so distracted by what’s behind us that we’re unable to move forward. We’re either insensitive for the sake of progress, or lost trying to find ourselves in a sea of information. The Western impulse is to pick up books and arm ourselves with information, but decontextualized facts in the fist of an insecure soul often obscure the truth more than they reveal it. What we need is a relationship with the past that heals.
The Church didn’t forget what happened to the Samaritan woman at the well. She turned from adultery, became a leader of the early Church known by the title Photina, “The Enlightened,” died a martyr, and to this day tells us how far we can become transformed. It has remembered many others who give us encouragement and precedent.
Saints give us that sense of place, that sense of meaning and challenging historical perspective without the tedium of scholarship. The saints’ sayings, feast days, and other celebrations are accessible, social, and often quite entertaining. Anyone can benefit from these traditions because their purpose isn’t to impart information, it’s to impart the kaleidoscope of truth about God revealed throughout all time in humanity.
The Church didn’t forget what happened to the Samaritan woman at the well. She turned from adultery, became a leader of the early Church known by the title Photina, “The Enlightened,” died a martyr, and to this day tells us how far we can become transformed.
As C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, “How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been; how gloriously different are the saints.”
The tyrant shapes historical identity into a snare. The Church shapes history into a portrait of diversity. The saints are warriors and pacifists, kings and beggars, men and women, scholars and farmers, of every race and time period. It’s a picture of plurality of vocation with singularity of purpose. Rather than an identity built around perceived similarities in skin color, values, or shared narrative, the saints have almost nothing in common besides Christ. They offer a model for being whatever it is we’re to be, bound to God with the invisible substance of Christ’s presence.
The Church shapes history into a portrait of diversity. The saints are warriors and pacifists, kings and beggars, men and women, scholars and farmers, of every race and time period.
We will always look to saints in one form or another, but we must choose wisely. A good saint confesses their sin for all the world to see; a bad saint peddles their own virtue. A good saint reminds you that there are other, very different saints out there; a bad saint presents himself as savior. A good saint speaks ecstatically about the holiness and goodness of God; a bad saint focuses on the evils of humanity.
When it comes to peace-making, a redeemed historical consciousness is a new language of listening. It’s about listening for role models instead of facts.
I fear especially for those with an intellectual bent, who will pursue fact at the expense of Truth. Academia taught me that our world is the culmination of beautiful ideas that resulted in bloodshed, Golden Ages built on the bones of the vulnerable, and that without those Golden Ages our life expectancy would be cut in half. True heroes go unsung, many monsters are trauma victims, and there are worse things than dictatorship. Future historians will think us simple, our greatest achievements will be forgotten, and we will all be judged by moral standards that don’t exist yet. For most of history, there were no tomatoes in Italian food. Basically, Ecclesiastes is real.
I don’t know how much hope or direction history really offers. I’ve lost the drive to share proper historical analysis. It’s depressing, and not particularly interesting.
I want people to know Perpetua and Felicity, master- and slave-turned-peers who were martyred hand-in-hand before an audience of perplexed, class-conscious Romans. I want them to know Saint Ambrose, who compelled an emperor to do public penance for his draconian excesses, or Saint Herman of Alaska and Bartolome de Las Casas who defended indigenous Americans from Russian and Spanish colonialism, or the Holy Fool Basil, who had a ministry of shoplifting and pulled a public bait-and-switch rebuke on Ivan the Terrible.
The bravery, loyalty, and dignity of Robert E. Lee can be found in their number, as well as the egalitarian message of Hamilton.
I want people to know Saint Herman of Alaska and Bartolome de Las Casas who defended indigenous Americans from Russian and Spanish colonialism…
“He chose David his servant and took him from the sheepfolds; from following the nursing ewes he brought him to shepherd Jacob his people, Israel his inheritance. With upright heart he shepherded them and guided them with his skillful hand.” -Psalm 78:70-72
Blue collar, rustic “shepherd” is an odd title for a monarch in an age where rulers fashioned heroic or divine origin stories for themselves, but of all the titles David could have taken, he chose this. And it’s perhaps by this, with both slain Goliath and Uriah in mind, that we should define ourselves: equal parts darkness and a shepherd, the complicated and the redeemed.