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Don’t Confuse Me with the Facts

February 12th, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments

It’s rare that any US politician dares to talk about US history with anything remotely approaching objectivity for the reason demonstrated by the reaction to President Obama’s speech on February 5, 2015 at the National Prayer breakfast. By suggesting that Christians in general and American Christians in particular have been guilty in the past of atrocities the President stirred up a hornet’s nest of controversy. It is interesting that in the reaction one finds utter nonsense portrayed as historical fact, with a militant audience eager to shout their “Amen!”

Americans in general don’t think history is very important. Because, until the last several years, America’s destiny lay in the future. Mexican essayist Octavio Paz wrote in comparing US attitudes toward history with Mexicans: “Americans looks to the future with hope. Mexicans look to the past with regret.” The statement demonstrates a dysfunction in relation to history in both societies: one which cannot acknowledge the importance of history, and the other trapped by it. But it illustrates the point that for North Americans the objective study of history is perceived to be of little value.

It’s not that Americans don’t know history. It is that Americans want history to be clean and uncomplicated. In a nation that reduces the aspirations of 300 million people to two political positions, a complex and nuanced view of history is inconceivable. The extent of what most people know about history is at the level of Columbus sailed the ocean blue in fourteen hundred and ninety-two, and that was a good thing because he found America, and if he didn’t find America there could not be a United States, and the United States is the best thing that has ever happened to the world.

For many, this is not just a civic proposition; for them the United States is in fact an instrument of God. In this telling Columbus was fulfilling God’s will when he accidentally bumped into what was to become America. Never mind that the progress of events that would eventually lead to the founding of the United States was an unmitigated disaster for millions of people over several centuries. At some deep level we know this, but it is easier just to not mention it. It doesn’t fit in our story line.

So it’s not surprising that both the American mainstream church and the collective memory of the people assume the roles respectively of cheerleader and interpretive justification for American exceptionalism. The only thing we want to know about history is how it portrays the inevitable advance of what Reagan called the “shining city on a hill.” Local school districts intervene in the presentation of history to children to ensure that no “liberal revisionists” commit the heresy of pointing out the fantasies we teach ignore great injustices. For Americans, when you talk about history you can say almost anything, but it always has to end with, “and they lived happily ever after” along with some acknowledgement of God and Old Glory.

In fact, history is messy. History is complex. For every great triumph and victory there is a caveat. For every heroic act there is a corresponding act of selfishness, greed, malevolence, or stupidity. As a Christian I have no problem locating this. It originates in Eden. Though the world still reflects the imago dei, the Image of God, the absolute goodness of creation, it is only a corrupted shadow. No matter how good, how inspiring, how heroic something may be, it is always marred by imperfection. Until it can be redeemed by God.

In contrast to the Enlightenment metanarrative that portrays history as a relentless march from darkness and superstition to liberation and enlightenment, history is a record of the tragic consequences of Eden playing out in the lives of flawed people. That’s why when someone speaks objectively about history one is compelled to notice that even in the midst of the most sublime human accomplishment there is an underlying tendency toward chaos and evil. While no evil may be permanent, neither is any man-made good.

Americans in general don’t want to acknowledge this. It’s uncomfortable. So when it comes to history we content ourselves with the recitation of fairy tales instead of an objective look at who we are and how we came to be. The resulting ocean of ignorance ensures that every current event is interpreted through the skewed lens of a false history. We cannot respond appropriately to the challenges facing us because we can’t understand them, so we stumble from tragedy to tragedy.

A realistic assessment of the past doesn’t make us worse than we are. It gives us the opportunity to become better. Let’s honestly acknowledge our collective sins to each other and to God. It is only in the painful truth of our brokenness that we may become open to redemption.

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