Knowing History

Many are familiar with the well-worn adage that those ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it. It seems almost trite, but it bears investigation in a day when memories are often no longer than the latest news cycle. This short-term memory contributes to duplicity in our social interactions and public policy. Politicians blatantly contradict themselves from moment to moment in ways that defy intelligence. But what if we could use history to understand these contradictions, to see the patterns and learn from them? Interpersonal relationships also contain contradictions that slide from accountability and investigation with the blithe use of gaslighting and vituperative denial. But what if we could use history to navigate these complexities, to learn from the mistakes of the past?  

Historian Joseph J. Ellis advocates the study and use of history.[1] He notes that reading history is like expanding one’s memory further back in time; the more history one learns, the larger the memory bank one draws on when facing the unfamiliar. For Ellis, history is an ongoing conversation between the past and the present from which we all have much to learn.

The idea that there is wisdom rooted in the study of history is part of the reason we give such reverence to the study of the Bible as followers of Jesus. Reading of the successes and failures of David, Moses, Ruth, Naomi, Abraham, Hagar, Isaiah, and Elijah, or the victimization of Tamar, Bathsheba, Esther, or the daughters of Lot helps us grieve, raise our awareness of injustice, bolster our courage to confess our wrongdoing, and give us hope for redemption and healing.

Ellis’ book on the history of America’s founding and its lessons for the present is filled with wisdom applied to the present. One of the many lessons I gleaned from its pages is the need for humility and the willingness to have my assumptions and convictions challenged with alternative points of view. Ellis discusses four primary topics relevant to today’s public debates: race, equality, law, and foreign policy. He describes the debates the founders had among themselves on how these topics should be handled; our founders were not at all on the same page on these. He describes the awareness they had of their contradictions, e.g., declaring that all men are created equal while possessing slaves and relegating women to little more than chattel.

The United States’ founders were secular and biblical history students. Their conversations helped them clarify their views and see more clearly where their perspectives were flawed. I admire their ability to articulate disagreement and a learning posture. I long for a similar experience.  Ellis reminds us that questions posed of the past are inevitably consciously or unconsciously shaped by the historical context in which they are asked. We acknowledge this in our technical hermeneutics of scripture but often fail in our use of hermeneutics. We fall prey to the temptation to generate evidence supporting our preferred outcomes and ideological prejudice.  I contend that the awareness of our context and the questions we are asking of history and the scripture helps us generate a hermeneutical humility and, hence, a learning posture rather than simply bolstering our ammunition to condemn a perceived opponent.   

As we enter another election cycle, I aim to be part of the church in action by thinking and reflecting on public policy and its tertiary elements. Simplistic ideological formulas, regardless of their origin, are destructive in their impact. They result in toxic public policy, the consequences of which cost lives, as is being seen in ideologically moribund laws regarding abortion—the larger health consequences are ignored. As a follower of Christ, I understand that the gospel will not domesticate to my preferences but will challenge me in the most profound ways. It may be easier to ignore that challenge, but ignoring it won’t lead me, or those I influence, toward a deeper intimacy with Christ. Instead, avoiding the challenge of Jesus would set me firmly on the broad path of destruction. Church let’s do the work of being history and scripture students. Let’s grapple with the complexities and contradictions inherent in public policy. Let’s exercise grace and humility as students of Jesus. Let us abandon the idea of culture wars and hostility, not so we can be wishy-washy reflections of culture but as catalysts of cultural transformation.

[1] Joseph J. Ellis. (2018) American Dialogue: The Founders and Us. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

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