I saw recently come across my Facebook timeline that someone was interested in going to an event. This was an event put on as a fundraiser for a local high school affiliated group. They were hosting a fitness run of about 14 miles. What caught my attention was that it was titled the 1st Annual Bataan Death March. This is beyond the pale inappropriate based on the historical awfulness of this event. Now it’s not that the organizers of this event intended any offense or are miscreants. It’s just that they clearly lack historical perspective, understanding and knowledge.
All of this got me thinking of the nature of history as a Christian ministry. It seems odd at first blush to consider history as something Christians should focus on. After all is there a more forward looking perspective than the Christian one? We look forward to the end of the age, the end of our lives and beyond. We look forward to the end of time itself. How does this perspective fit with the Christian faith?
Three reasons, I think. Why three? Because of the Trinity, that’s why. First, we have a unique ability as humans to “do history”. No other species on Earth can review its past in so comprehensive a way as humanity can. It is one of the hallmarks of our God-given humanity that we can engage in such an intellectual exercise. Additionally history is not just a recitation of the past but the reflection on the unfolding power of God’s creation. It is literally HIS story. To have greater understanding as to how and why we got to where we are is to pay homage and worship to the one who created all that we are and have and who sustains us every moment of every day. History then becomes not simply an academic exercise but a form of worship.
Second, history can make us wise and judicious. While history never exactly repeats itself there are enough similarities between historical epochs that we can learn a great deal about the human condition. This, if done right, can only help us make better decisions. If, for instance, we see a government making claims about some perceived “existential” threat, we can go back and see all the times that governments have done this and all the time governments have been lying about it and come to the conclusion that perhaps we should not wholly endorse a governmental policy based on these claims. To not have to relearn everything every generation has been a blessing to humanity since we have been able to write. This is only enhanced by greater and more comprehensive historical understanding.
It is the ability to control the historical narrative which is so misused by the powerful. They create false narratives and outright lies and a mythology that ignores the true story of our past and twists history for present day purposes which serves the needs of the powerful at the expense of the rest of society. We are wiser by far if we do not let those in positions of power control history. The truth, even and especially historical truth, can only set us free. Which is why the powerful so want to control it and so fear its unleashing.
The final reason why Christians should embrace history as a ministry is, I think, the most important one. It give us the opportunity to engage in a fundamental Christian activity; giving voice to the voiceless. We all understand how important this is; to reach out and embrace the Other and the Stranger among us. We are to strive for justice in all that we do in the public arena. Toward that end I would submit that there is no greater group of voiceless among us than history’s victims. To give voice to their suffering should be a crucial part of our Witness.
The ability to tell the story of past sufferings and injustices visited upon the powerless and the outcast throughout history and to willingly do so only enhances our humanity and moves us closer to living the fully human lives that God intends for us to live. I don’t mean to suggest that history is only a collection of stories of suffering and misery. There have been great accomplishments in the human story. Countless stories of faithful lives spent building up all that we take for granted. These should be rightly celebrated with great thanks as a part of any Christian historical ministry.
We are, however, called to give special care and concern for those on the margins of human society. This must drive us toward clarity in the stories of injustice and violence that permeate our past. Human history is the final court of human justice. It is our final chance in our Earthly sojourn to effect some kind of justice for history’s victims. It is our final chance to get it right. I am not so naïve to think that we can, after all these years or indeed centuries offer any real comfort of succor to history’s victims. We can, however, elocute to the truth. We owe them that much at least.
It has been attributed by some to Lord Acton, (who is famous for saying that “power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely”) that the muse of history, from Greek mythology should not be Clio but Rhadamanthus. Clio can be seen holding her quill and scroll and writing down the events of history. This strikes me as a sterile view of history. I would agree, with whoever suggested it, that Rhadamanthus is a far better muse of history; for he was the avenger of innocent blood. This is a view of history that we as Christians can get behind as we give thanks to all that God has given us.
Praise Be to God