Facing Our Past, Warts and All

Peter Beck

Facing Our Past, Warts and All

Well, the revisionists are at it again. They're rewriting history to fit their skewed worldviews or political goals. We've seen this tact before. The idea is to deny some historical reality, be it embarassing or inconvenient, in order to advance your agenda or your ideology so that in the future others will begin with your presuppositions. This time it's Bishop Richard Williamson and his denial of the holocaust.

Actually, Williamson isn't denying the holocaust per se. He's just denying that it was as extensive and deadly as historians have mistakenly believed. He contends that there is no evidence to support the commonly held number of 6 million Jewish victims. Regardless of his Catholic roots, Williamson's remarks make him sound remarkably like Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's denial of the holocaust. The key difference is that Williamson doesn't think Christians should evangelize Jews, Ahmadinejad just wants to annihilate them.

Christians are also guilty of selectively reading our history. We ignore facts that are embarassing. We overlook foibles that are regrettable though undeniable. Consider a few examples:

Protestants would love to forget the fact that Martin Luther was antisemitic. Of course, the cultured despisers of Protestantism won't let us. Nor should they. However, we should learn from history. Luther was antisemitic. So were most other Germans. Luther reminds us that good theology doesn't always guarantee good thinking.

Calvinists would love to forget the fact that John Calvin was involved in the execution of Michael Servetus. Of course, the theological haters of all things Calvin won't let it go. Servetus was killed for his heresy. Calvin was involved though he sought a more humane method of execution. But, we need to realize that during the middle 16th century, the church and the state were essentially in bed together. Calvin didn't kill Servetus. The ecclesiastical state did. Thus, we learn, just as the Anabaptists and Roger Williams among others would argue, a state enforced religion can be bad when that religion demands absolute adherence.

Southern Baptists would love to forget the fact that the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention revolved around the issue of slavery. Yes, the theological face of the debate was over missions. Yet, truth be told, the question at hand was the involvement or lack thereof of slaveholders. Moreover, many early SBC leaders owned slaves or were involved in the defense of the institution. Is slavery bad? Yes. Is it an ugly stain on our national and denominational history? Yes. Can we deny it? No. So, let's learn from it.

Southern Baptists would love to forget the fact that the SBC had a less than favorable track record in the area of civil rights in the 1950s and 60s. So, let's admit, learn from it, and never repeat it again.

Southern Baptists would also love to forget the fact that the SBC once espoused a pro-choice position that allowed for abortions in broadly defined circumstances. That position was all the rage early on. We were there too. No longer, praise the Lord. We can't deny it. We can't rewrite. Let's repent and move on to the right position.

History is history. It's in the past. Our selective memory, our political editing, and our wishful rewriting can't change it. But, as bad as some of things are in our individual and collective pasts, we shouldn't want to forget them. To forget is to ignore. We can't afford to ignore the past. We need to learn from it. Change our ways. Make amends. Take steps to prevent it from ever happening again.

I have made mistakes that I hope my children will never have to experience. The way to protect them from my miseries and heartbreaks is not to deny my past or rewrite it in favorable terms. Instead, I can teach them to avoid my pitfalls only when I own them and share them for the purpose of illustrating the dangers of paths better not taken. I'd rather embarass myself than hurt my children. We should feel the same way about our national and denominational pasts as well.

Peter Beck (Ph.D. Southern Seminary) is assistant professor of religion at Charleston Southern University in Charleston, South Carolina and a former Senior Pastor. 

Originally published January 27, 2009.

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