Today I want to continue to think about how we view history as a Christian. Last time I wrote about the idea that we are called to love the dead. In other words when we study people of the past we are called to study them with love in our hearts towards them. Each and every person who has ever lived was created in the image of God. When Jesus says to love our neighbor that includes everyone. It includes our enemy. It includes every person in history. Basically the idea is that the dead are our neighbors and we should treat them as such.
That alone is a major game changer. It means that I don’t get to sit in some sort of superior, self righteous place as I judge the people of the past. It means we should not act as if we are better, smarter or somehow more morally superior to those in the past. Because quite clearly we are not. Any fair reading of history along with any fair assessment of our own culture will tell you this. And that goes for all cultures.
This leads me to my second thought on how we should view history from a Christian worldview. This is also going to be uncomfortable by the way. Here it is. We should read history as if we are the perpetrators.
Most of the time when we study history, or talk about it, we see ourselves as identifying with the “good guys” and not the “bad guys”. We somehow think that we would be the abolitionist not the slave owner. We think that we would be part of the resistance and not a Nazi. We think that we have stood up and not just stood by when the Soviets arrested and killed millions. We would never have been on the side committing genocide. We think we would have been a dissenter. We would not have gone along with whatever bad thing we are talking about. Or maybe, and I mean maybe, we identify with the victims but most often we identify with the “good guys”.
But there are several problems with this. It’s bad history, sociologically improbable and theologically terrible. Here’s the deal. You, and I, would have most likely been the perpetrators. If you lived in Germany in the 20’s and 30’s you would have been a Nazi. If you had lived in the Soviet Union you would have gone along with Stalin. If you lived in the South in the 1800’s you would have fought for the confederacy and if you could have you would have owned slaves. And by the way this if irregardless of what your ethnicity is now. Pick whatever part of history you want, if you would have sat where they sat, you most likely would have been part of the perpetrators.
Now to be clear, this does not in any way make you a perpetrator of that particular action. That’s not the point at all. This isn’t about self flagellation. I’m not asking us to see ourselves as guilty of things of the past. Each of us has enough sin to be responsible for without taking on someone else’s. There are times where corporate sin requires a corporate repentance. But that’s not my point here and overall I don’t see it being that helpful on an individual basis.
The point is to recognize that you are not better than those people.
There are lots of reasons this matters and frankly I think it’s a game changer. If we taught history like this in our schools it would have a huge impact.
First of all, theologically, I am a sinner. I am created in God’s image but I am not who God created me to be. Now if I am with Jesus then I am becoming who God created me to be but that’s a journey. I should not look at someone else, even someone in history as if I could never fall into what they fell into. By viewing ourselves through the lens of the perpetrator we end up in a place of humility. That might be a great overall point here. View history with some humility.
I am capable of great evil and so are you. I should know this theologically as a Christian because I should know that minus the grace of God I am capable of incredible sin. There is no place in the Christian worldview for self righteousness.
But even setting theology aside viewing history as if we would have been the perpetrator is important. The reason is that if we do not, it becomes extremely more likely that I could become the perpetrator of the present.
If I identify myself only with the “heroes” in history I fail to see how I may capable now of some of the same things the “bad guys” did then. It also gives us a false view of history where we view everyone as purely good or bad. We end up lionizing or demonizing people instead of seeing them as the humans that they were. This leads us to doing the same thing with people of the present. Basically it leads to ideology and ideology is dangerous. It’s easier. It makes my side right and the other side evil. But it’s when we see the world that way that we become the perpetrators ourselves.
I’d add this. If I see myself only as the victim of the perpetrators of history that also leads to a bad place. It leads to its own kind of self righteousness. It ignores the fact that given the opportunity the oppressed would have been the oppressor. And that is also dangerous because throughout history that often happens. I need to identify myself as capable of being the oppressor.
When I view history as a Christian I need to avoid the trap of identifying myself only with the heroes or the victims. I need to be able to identify myself as the perpetrator. Then hopefully, with humility, as well as with the grace of God, I can avoid actually being the perpetrator now.