Christianity and Active History

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By Andrew Nurse

More often then not, Christianity does not enjoy a positive public image. Canadians may be willing to select Tommy Douglas as the “Greatest Canadian,” but one suspects that this had more to do with medicare than his evangelical background. Interestingly, Christianity’s PR problems have a lot to do with history. It seems to me that there are three orders of problems. First, what Christians have done in the past, say residential schools, has often been not simply problematic but horrific. Second, Christianity’s ambiguous attitudes to world history, particularly (but, not exclusively) Biblical literalists who purport intelligent design and build museums of creation does not show Christians in a particularly good light. Third, Christian approaches to historical change and the willingness of, let’s call them, “traditionalists” to use God and/or The Bible as a justification for prejudices (same sex marriage is but the most recent example) often seems to put Christians on the wrong side of history.

As a Christian – and, an evangelical one at that! – historical discussions that touch on these subjects make me feel a bit like Marxists called to account for the Soviet Union. When confronted with this history and these issues, what do I (a historian) say? I can mumble something like “but, that’s not me” (which is about as convincing as the Trotskyist trying to explain the aberrations of Leninism to those raised with a Cold War anti-commie mentality). I can ignore the question and try to not-so-subtly shift the conversation to another topic that might throw Christianity in a better light (“so, my church is raising money for an orphanage in Rwanda, would you be willing to contribute?”). I can rely on the standard Canadian “Oh, those are American evangelicals,” knowing that this (a) gets me off the hook most of the time but (b) is not really true. Or, I can just complain to myself (as I did when a colleague compared my twelve-year old’s prayer group to the Spanish Inquisition – and not the Monty Python’s version!).

Here is what I should have said. Churches are painfully interested in history and those of us who are interested in history – in all its facets – could do a lot worse then looking at how Christians grapple with the past, its legacies, knowledge and use of it, and its applications. Indeed, the only reason Christians debate intelligent design and build creation museums is because they think the past matters. For Christians, the past is a vital key to their lives, how they understand the world, and where they think they are going in the future. For those of us interested in an active history, we could do a lot worse. Christians are one group of people (there are others, to be sure) who do not need to be convinced that the past is important. That argument has already been won with them (and, of their own accord) and so we can proceed to the next step. Let me say this a different way: we might not agree with what Christians think of as history, but we don’t have to worry about convincing them of its importance. We can skip this first step and move on to a different conversation.

I’d also suggest that we breeze over what is usually the second step in any discussion about Christianity and the past: the veracity of The Bible. Here is something to remember: very few of the people who discuss The Bible do so in more then the most superficial of ways because they have little knowledge of either Biblical criticism or Biblical history. A quick example: an agnostic friend of mine once told me that “none of the books of the New Testament were written less then 200 years after Jesus’ death.” I asked: “what of Paul’s epistles?” His response: “pardon me?” In other words, when it comes to criticism of The Bible many of the things that we would do for any of field of historical enquiry get thrown out the window. If we investigate, say, a strike in 1890, gender relations in the American west, early modern material culture, etc., we take a very careful approach. We read secondary literature, study comparative cases, evaluation our research methods, spend years reviewing primary documents and artifacts, present tentative conclusions at conferences, and only at that point to we venture conclusions – careful and contextualized. My point is this (and this is why I think we should breeze over the second step): let us not abandon our methods of investigation simply because we are talking about religion.  History is a good discipline if practiced right. Why would we suddenly decide to practice it wrong because we are involved in a conversation about The Bible?

The third step is where we should begin to think about Christianity and history and where and how it could become part of an active history. It seems to me that the third step is thinking about the past and its uses and implications. This step is interesting because here we find that there is no one singular Christian approach to history. My experience is that individual congregations contain a potentially broad range of views. Space does not permit me to develop these views but let me note three interesting examples of historical thinking at my Church, Middle Sackville Baptist, or more generally among Christians in Canada.

The first example relates to residential schools, the legacies of the past, and their resolution (or, one supposes, the question of whether or not resolution is possible). My colleague Bart Vautour introduced me to the concept of “ethical decay.” Bart studies Canadian literature relating to the Spanish Civil War. As I understand it, “ethical decay” relates to how we approach politically and morally charged texts from the past. As he puts it with regard to activist pro-Republican writing, no matter what we do, we cannot win the Spanish Civil War; we cannot even fight it. Texts designed to encourage support for the Republicans, therefore, must necessarily have a different ethics for us then they did for their authors and audiences at the time of their production. The concept of ethical decay is about how we grapple with this changed ethical context.

For Christians today a key – and deeply troubling – legacy of the past is residential schools. Christians are not alone responsible for these but a variety of different denominations and Christians leaders have, in my view rightly, decided not to become involved in some sort of legalistic mediation of responsibility (others, of course, unfortunately have). Instead, they have looked to find ways of addressing the trauma caused by Christians. There is an element of ethical decay here that is important to consider. Whatever I do, I cannot change the past. I cannot stop the abuse of children, I cannot recreate lost languages, I cannot return sons and daughters to despondent parents. What Christians have done is both to try to recognize this and to search in dialogue with Original Peoples for ways that can bring some resolution to the victims and communities that suffered horrendous violence.

I do not want to claim that Christians are special. Others have grappled with precisely this same issue in post-World War II Germany, post-apartheid South Africa, and in democratizing states in Latin America (to give three examples). This is precisely my point. The issue Christians need to address with regard to residential schools opens a space for a broader discussion about the legacies of the past, ethical decay, and how we find ways to acknowledge, respond to, and address a past for which we ourselves may not have been individually responsible. And, how do we do this in a way that can – hopefully – forge a new relationship between different communities with clearly unequal power relations.

The second example relates to how we understand human actions and values in the past. Again, I might point out that – grâce à their on-going reading of The Bible – Christians are one group of people who think about this issue on an on-going basis. I am no expert in this field and so let me report what I see in my own church. I see a body of people who try to walk a thin historical line. For churchgoers at Middle Sackville Baptist Church, the past is not a “foreign country.” Context and culture are important. They do not assume that Jesus’ era was a mirror of today. The values, ideas, social organization, gender relations (all things discussed in church) were different. But, neither were the people who lived them completely alien. In particular, they suffered from the same foibles that we do. They were overly proud, mean, bitter, prejudiced, licentious, greedy. Said differently, the culture was different but “human nature” (a term also used in church) was not. This very human lesson is one of the great lessons Christians take out of the past. Over time and space, cultures change, but human beings in their own lives wrestle with many of the same problems and aspirations.

Nor should one human being’s obligations to others change. We can – and should – recognize that Christian ethics have been (and continue to be) far too often honoured in breach. But, for the members of Middle Sackville Baptist Church, the idea that the obligations people had in the past (say, a duty of care as per the well-known parable) remain the same. History becomes, then, both a story of change and continuity. Our cultures change; the demons with which we struggle and our obligations to others do not. History shows us how we can engage that struggle and enact those obligations on a personal level.

Finally, Christians are deeply concerned about contemporary history and how we respond to it. “Post-modern” theorists may be a bit out of vogue in the academy, but the idea of an historic culture shift is a matter of pressing concern among Christians. I hazard a guess that I’ve had more discussions about post-modernism, Michel Foucault, and Richard Rorty at church over the last five years then I have at my job. One might agree or disagree with the general tenor of Christian views on contemporary culture. That is a matter for discussion. What interests me is how Christians try to think about contemporary cultural change and whether or not it is producing a historically different era. My own view is that Christians do not always get their thinking right on this subject. Some members of my Church have an interesting tendency to see themselves as an embattled minority, when demographically (at least) this is not the case. But, what I find exciting is a willingness to discuss this issue (what makes for change? what are the continuities in the midst of change? what are its roots? What of the past is worth defending?) and to consider how people can act to direct history. How should we respond to poverty? What are our obligations to other religions in a demographically diverse society? what are the proper boundaries of church, state, and civil society? History, in this sense, emerges as a continuum. It is both structured and something on which one can act. What is more, there is an obligation to act on history, to be involved in its building.

There is much more to be said on this subject. I’ll say again that I’m no expert. I have committed, as it were, the sin I earlier accused others of committing. I am no expert on Christian historiography, history or ethics. Also and again, my defense is that I am not looking to say the final word on this subject, to even partially begin to construe a new orthodoxy. Instead, I am looking to contribute to building a space of conversation. I an not trying to set up my words as the first and last on the subject but to suggest that for those interested in active history, there is room for conversation. I strongly suspect that Christian approaches to history are like secular approaches; that is: they are far from singular. Good enough and would we expect anything else?

I’ve not even touched 0n a number of important subjects: opposition to historical change, metaphysics, secularization, the oppression of women. This blog is not a limit to conversation but an invitation to at least two different groups of people. For reasons of space I have not explained this at length but I am inviting Christian to be willing to engage history with historians and those interested in active history. After all, if one is interested in history … why not talk to historians? And, I am asking historians (particularly those who are not Christians) to talk to Christians about history and its philosophy. They might find a surprisingly complex perspective and people interested  in what they have to say.

Andrew Nurse is the Coordinator of for the Canadian Studies Program at Mount Allison University.

2 thoughts on “Christianity and Active History

  1. Daniel Macfarlane

    An insightful post that makes a number of great points about a complex and charged subject. Indeed, historians and social justice activists make a grave error when they ignore, mischaracterize, or misunderstand Christianity – in the past and the present – and turn a blind eye (out of ignorance or ideology) to what it has to offer. Thanks Andrew!

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