How to Read History Responsibly
This may seem like a strange choice of reading for January, but it’s actually quite relevant. I just finished Robert Tracy McKenzie’s The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History. McKenzie is chair of the Department of History at Wheaton College, and he has important things to say to us at this moment in our life as a people.
Although the main theme is “The First Thanksgiving,” the book is actually a case study in reading history responsibly, or as he says, “Christianly.” Here are a few of his main points:
1. McKenzie warns us not to treat history as “ammunition” — as mere proof-texts to bolster our own political or religious views. He urges us to learn from history — to let it speak to us, teach us, and even question us. We should approach historical characters as human beings, treating them with love and respect (and yes, he uses the word “love”). We should try to understand them as they were, within the context of their own lives, rather than trying to remold them in our own image or use them for our own purposes.
2. We should neither worship nor condemn our forefathers and mothers. They were human beings, and therefore they were fallen, fallible creatures like we are. We must not follow a particular path just because we think it’s what they would’ve wanted. We can have great respect for them and still follow a different path from theirs. But we must also resist the temptation to condemn them. If we think they were racist, for example, because they held slaves, Christian love should encourage us to probe deeper to understand why they tolerated what we now consider intolerable. The study of history will do us no good if we dismiss those who came before us. It can only help us if we seek to learn from it.
3. We should always remember that recorded history is only the tiniest fraction of all that has actually happened (or is happening), and that the vast majority of our story as a people is hidden from us. Therefore, any conclusions we draw from history should be put forward humbly, recognizing that what we don’t know — and indeed, cannot know — far outweighs what we do know.
Why are these such important lessons for us at this moment? Because we, at least here in America, are at each other’s throats right now over the issue of our last presidential election. There really weren’t any good options for us this time around, and there are a lot of quite prominent people saying (on social media and elsewhere) that the wrong choice was made. And there are lots of other people who disagree. More to the point, this is all being said with raised voices and with even higher elevations of blood pressure on all sides.
How can you and I navigate through this crisis responsibly — or as McKenzie would say, “Christianly”? Here’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve been reading history. In particular, I’ve been reading the memoirs of people from the other side, over the past thirty or forty years. I’ve been especially careful to read their spouse’s memoirs, because I know I need help understanding these people, and if their spouses can show me what these historical figures look like through the eyes of love, then that may help me to love them, too.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not ignoring the huge political issues at stake right now. I just realize that I’m so caught up in them that I need to step back. I don’t understand why so many of my fellow countrymen and women see the situation differently. So, appealing to the grace of God, I’m stepping back. I’m listening. I’m trying to understand.
And here’s what I’ve learned so far. This isn’t about who’s president. It’s about us as a people. And it didn’t just happen in 2016; it’s been building for a long, long time. We’ve stopped listening to each other. We watch the cable stations and follow the social media channels that tell us what we want to hear. Or if we do tune in to the other side, we only stay long enough to get ammunition. We don’t listen with the intention of learning from them, or of being challenged by them.
It’s time for all of us to make the effort to listen to the other side — not for ammunition, but to understand. No, we don’t need to agree with them any more than we need to agree with historical figures like the Pilgrims. We should neither worship nor condemn them. (For that matter, we must be open to the faults of leaders on our own side of the spectrum.) And we must always stand up for what we believe is right.
But we must also remember that we see only the tiniest fraction of what is actually going on. Right now, the spotlight is on the president-elect. We must turn away from the spotlight and see one another. We’re coming apart as a people because we’ve stopped listening to one another with compassion.
If this nation comes undone in the weeks and months ahead, it will not be one man’s doing. We’re all in this together. We’ve come to this crisis as a result of all the things we’ve said and done as a people — all of us — even you and me. As a follower of Jesus, I am renewing my efforts at living “Christianly.” And for the sake of this nation, I am saying, in complete honesty, “Lord, have mercy on me, the sinner.”