Thursday, June 25, 2015

Tainted Histories

In the New Testament, Hebrews 11 lists people and deeds from the Old Testament that demonstrated great faith in God. In the Old Testament, we read some other things about many of those same people:

Noah, following deliverance from the flood, became drunk with a tragic result.

Abraham lied about his relationship to his wife, putting her in a dangerous and compromising position.

Sarah laughed at God's promise.

Isaac was a weak man who ignored God's instruction and was manipulated by his wife and son.

Jacob was a cheater.

Moses was a murderer.

Gideon doubted God's promises. Samson's sins are too many to list. Jephthah made a rash vow regarding his daughter. David committed adultery and tried to cover it up with murder.

Do we see a sad pattern here?

The point of this is not to tear down men and women who are regarded as great, though one might be better off regarding them as ordinary men and women (people like us) delivered by a great and gracious God. 

More to my present point, we see in this something from the Old Testament that makes it remarkably different from the histories produced by most ancient cultures. Those other cultures -- almost universally -- scrubbed their histories of failures and crimes, making their renowned leaders look pristine and great. In the Old Testament, God's people told the truth about their historic figures, for good and for ill.

Given the strength of the Bible, which Christians regard as the Word of God, in such honesty, it is sadly ironic that God's people, in the past and at present, seem to struggle with it so. It is hard to see in our heritage both good and evil. My own denomination provides an example of this. The Presbyterian Church in America was primarily formed as a southern Presbyterian response to theological liberalism -- our founders were concerned about doctrinal orthodoxy, and for that I am grateful and rejoice. Some among them also were interested in resistance to the civil rights movement, and for that I am saddened and shamed. However, it must be acknowledged as true.

Some Americans who are both southern and Christian seem to be struggling with this of late. They will talk about the antebellum period and the "war between the states" as though their "peculiar institution" was not even of tangential significance as a cause of war. They will gloss over the cruelty of Jim Crow. They will forget that the Stars and Bars mostly disappeared for nearly 100 years before reappearing as a symbol of protest -- not against northern aggression -- against civil rights for blacks.

The southern United States through much of our history was not a land of liberty or opportunity -- certainly not if one was black.

These are hard truths. Acknowledging them means admitting that those we admire were tainted by evil. What does it say about our heritage?

The Old Testament would remind us that honesty will reveal that our triumphs are often mingled with tragedy. For Christians, it is a reminder of the danger that even the best among us may be blinded by sin and stand in need of the grace of God.

Unfortunately, a refusal  to face history often results in a failure to understand the present, and those whitewashing the past will provide aid and comfort to those who continue to harbor sin and ill will in the present. For that reason, honesty -- even when painful -- about our past is something that we should all value.

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