by ProfDave, ©2021
(Oct. 18, 2021) — Brothers and sisters, our nation is broken and insane. How can we deal with our past without facing our own condition? Tearing down monuments is the height of hypocrisy. Do we really think Robert E Lee was more racist than you and I? Do we really think that burning our history will make us better? Has there ever been a generation more hypocritical than our own? Is there anyone more racist than those who cry “racist?” More hateful than those who cry “hater?” More sexist than those who cry “sexist?” More un-liberating than those who cry “liberation?” More elitist than those who cry “elitism?” More phobic than those who cry “homophobia?”
Hypocrisy has been elevated to a political art form.
The Judeo-Christian ethic holds every human being equally sacred and morally responsible, even though fallen. We see our own brokenness. The planets revolve around the Almighty whose nature is holy love. By rejecting this God, His nature and His definition of our condition we have defaulted to an Us vs Them ethic. We deny reality and our own wickedness. All our talk of “equality” is smoke and mirrors. The planets revolve around us, our rights and our gratification. We are the subject and everyone else is an object for our use or abuse. We are good and everyone different is stupid and evil. This is the heart of hatred, racism, sexism and all the rest. There is nothing good down this path. Duh!
The healing of our past depends on facing the reality of the human condition – and that it applies to us. 1) By our humanity and by Judeo-Christian revelation we recognize ideals that are in conflict with “nature red in tooth and claw” and the survival of the fittest. 2) With any modicum of introspection and honesty we recognize that we do not live up to those ideals. 3) We are no different from our parents. 4) With a modicum of historical knowledge, we can know that the application of those universal ideals has shifted in response to the conditions of life. We expected to be treated much better than the serfs, servants and “savages” of centuries ago. And 5) if we examine history with any modicum of objectivity, we will find that our heroes had faults and made mistakes and that those we remember for their failures and misdeeds also held high ideals. “There is so much bad in the best of us and so much good in the worst of us that it behooves the most of us to say nothing about the rest of us.” We must remember both the good and the bad to learn from our past.
How to we heal from our past? Does history teach? Does the recovery process teach? Does the Judeo-Christian worldview, now fallen out of favor, teach? Is there a Higher Power who can restore us to sanity (Step 2)? Not without Step 1. Ah, there’s the rub! We are stuck in denial.
In our “post-modern” society, have we ceased to ask how the world (or ourselves) really is? We ask instead for how we can imagine it (and ourselves). Even science is contaminated. Instead of actual findings, we are entertained by elaborate speculations/theories (could, might, must), simulations and video representations of things that clearly cannot be seen or happened where and when there were no cameras handy. Social science and even medicine is being trimmed to fit our narratives. News is generated and selected to fit our narratives – fiction, really – left or right. Just choose your lies. We don’t want the world as it is! We can’t handle the truth!
In my quiet time this morning the biblical words popped into my consciousness unbidden: “powerful delusion.” I checked my old concordance, and they appear just once, in II Thessalonians 2. Check it out. The prophecy floored me. This is God’s Word for this day, not my words.
“The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with the work of Satan displayed in all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders, and in every sort of evil that deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason, God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness.” II Thessalonians 2:9-12, NIV.
Someone in the last century said, “Those who refuse to believe in the truth do not believe in nothing; they believe in anything.” Do you love the truth? Or do you want it your way?
What if we faced our past and ourselves without the delusions? What if we took care of the log in our own eyes before extracting the speck from the eyes of our ancestors? For one thing, we would be able to learn from our ancestors and apply those lessons to ourselves.
Identifying “bad” people in the past is no use in making “good” people in the present. It just gives us ammunition to assault each other. For one thing, there are no good people compared with God. What we really need to know is what conditions and human frailties made them do the wrong thing so that we can be on our guard against similar things in our own inherited nature. Duh. Making demonic stick figures of them or defacing their portraits does not help at all. Not to mention that we could learn from what, despite their faults and disadvantages, they did right. A little humility, perhaps?
Take George Washington, rightfully called the father of our country. His sterling character enabled him to steer the revolution through the narrow channel between bloody chaos (like the French Revolution of the same period) and corrupt despotism (like Napoleon). We should be asking how he did it. Yes, we need to ask why he – and several of our founding fathers – rationalized slave holding. Why did they not see it as the great wrong we see? Are there great wrongs we are not seeing in our own day? Do we recognize the full humanity of the losers, the menials, the unwanted, the sex-objects of the 21st century? Perhaps we would come a little closer to the creed those founding fathers articulated for America but did not quite fulfill: “that all [human beings] are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
To deal with our past in any constructive manner, we must face ourselves honestly. The human condition is ambivalent – and so are we. Every man and woman has intrinsic worth – something noble and idealistic about them that cannot be explained by animal instinct. Even Hitler loved his dog and endorsed Volkswagen. But every man and woman also has a fatal flaw that betrays those ideals and is far worse than instincts. The Bible had words for these: the image of God and original sin respectively. We are morally broken people living in a broken world.
So, when we look at a monument to some historical character, what do we see? Do we uncritically make them scapegoats for the evils of their day or uncritically whitewash their memory? No. We recognize that we are no better than our ancestors, we are inspired by their heroism, and we are warned by their failures. But how do we know which is which? The sliding scale of “socially accepted/politically correct?” That scale once made infanticide, slavery and antisemitism perfectly OK. Or is there an objective standard of right and wrong, a moral law that applies to all persons in all times and places (as the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials ruled)?
Are we right in memorializing Confederate veterans? To the victors go the laurels, to be sure. They lost. But they, too, were men (with women and children) like you and I. They fought with courage and skill for their homes and families against the odds. They suffered terribly in a devastating war. We modern “Yankees” claim the moral high ground of abolitionism. Most Yankees were not strong abolitionists. Most Confederates were not slaveholders, but they accepted slave labor as legal, constitutional, handed down from ancient times and essential to large scale agriculture. Today we know they were wrong. The Dred Scott decision of the Supreme Court was wrong. But will our descendants one day see that something we and our courts held to be legal, constitutional and essential was morally wrong? Maybe we need to visit those graves and remember the price they paid – the price our nation paid – for being wrong?
Will what is right today be wrong tomorrow? Was slavery right in 1859 but wrong in 2019? Yes, if right and wrong is determined by culture and society or by the Supreme Court. Under culture-morality we have no right to judge the past or other cultures. Hitler and Stalin were right in their own time and place? A thousand times no! There is a moral law built into the cosmos and given by our Creator that determines right and wrong. Conditions and institutions change, but the Eternal and the value He places on human dignity does not.
Could we have a little cultural humility here?
David W. Heughins (“ProfDave”) is Adjunct Professor of History at Nazarene Bible College. He holds a BA from Eastern Nazarene College and a PhD in history from the University of Minnesota. He is the author of Holiness in 12 Steps (2020). He is a Vietnam veteran and is retired, living with his daughter and three grandchildren in Connecticut.