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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Writing History To Rationalize Anything

While celebrating our 28th wedding anniversary in Boston, MA., history became a topic often discussed. This was due in part to the land and sea Duck Tour we took along with walking the Freedom Trail. And one of the lessons we learned was that those who report the news have something in common with those who write history, both can have agendas.

Two such historical events that illustrate this point are Paul Revere's Ride and the Boston Massacre (its site is pictured on the left). We learned that Paul Revere's Ride was not as dramatic as Longfellow's poem would have us to believe. When challenged on the historical accuracy of his poem, Longfellow replied that he was a poet, not a historian. Similarly, the name "the Boston Massacre" implies that more people were killed than the five who lost their lives. But both events were hyped with the latter being used by some colonists to inflame passions against the British.

But not all of our history has been exaggerated. While walking the Freedom Trail, we visited the U.S.S. Constitution (pictured below). Multiple tour guides were quick to describe the ship as Boston's only undefeated team (33-0). With its sides being made from Georgian oak, cannonballs either bounced off or got stuck in the hull limiting damage to the ship during battle. As the ship's reputation grew, would be opponents would sometimes forfeit, that is surrender before the fight began, in order not to become another victim.



Another piece of history that was more honestly reported was what was said about the Puritans. The Puritans came to this country seeking religious freedom. Unfortunately, they didn't practice the Golden Rule in this manner as evidenced by how they treated Quakers. In fact, the Puritans could also exhibit a high degree of intolerance against their own who were seen as religious slackers.

But there is another kind of history. It consists of under or unreported stories from the past. I noticed on Boston's Duck Tour that little to nothing was said about the plight of the indigenous peoples, who witnessed the landings of the Pilgrims, and for good reason. Our forefathers ethnically cleansed the land of these Indians. The attacks on the native population in New England were often done in the name of God as the Puritans saw themselves as the New Israel who were to take possession of Americas as their own Promised Land while regarding the Indians as the early Israelites did the Canaanites. Neglect in reporting this history also shows an agenda.

But why would those having an agenda use history? It is because history plays a significant role in how people live in community. History can give us reasons for either hanging together during tough times or making joint sacrifices to meet challenges. And history can obligate us to continue what was started by others. In any case, a certain level of conformity and following orders are necessary and history can justify such obedience. This means that a favorable history would be binding on individuals and groups in contrast to a troubled one.

Thus, we see why those who are more patriotic want to idealize our past. For the more exceptional our Founding Fathers are perceived to be and the more we think they have given us, the more obligated we are to follow their lead. We can also see why an honest reporting of facts would be threatening to those who are patriotic. In fact, troubling past actions are rarely acknowledged unless one is under duress. We only need remember how German civilians who lived through WWII never fully admitted what their country had done to the Jews and others until invading armies made them visit the extermination camps. Perhaps this can explain why we still show a serious disconnect with our nation's treatment of the American Indians since we were never forced to face our atrocities against them.

The history of provision is important in the covenants described in the Bible. Adam was told of the Garden of Eden before God commanded him not to eat the forbidden fruit. God told Abraham how he brought him out of the land of Ur and gave land to him and his descendants as the reason for why he should obey God. The Ten Commandments start with God having brought the Israelites out of the land of Egypt and slavery as the reason why they should obey the Commandments. And in Romans 12, Paul tells us that it is the mercies of God that obligates us to offer ourselves as sacrifices.

The question that American Christians must face is whether attributing our freedoms to the Founding Fathers borders on idolatry. For the higher the regard we have for our nation's Founding Fathers, the more their perceived provision obligates us to follow them. And the more we feel indebted to them, the more our loyalty is divided between honoring them and worshiping and following Jesus.  Some attempt to resolve this conflict by making the story and message of our Founding Fathers an extension to the Gospel. But in so doing, not only must they depend on a strongly filtered history of our nation's founders, they must change the Gospel message to make it conform to our nation's founding documents.

But there is one more point at which an inflated esteem for the Founding Fathers could conflict with Christianity. The more we admire the Founding Fathers, the greater difficulty we will have in fully acknowledging their sins.  And difficulty in recognizing their sins can become a refusal to confess our own. It is here that our admiration for the Founding Fathers and our reluctance to admit sin will allow us to continue doing wrong including those sins that have caused the most destruction.

The inflated self-esteem of those who settled this country gave them permission to visit atrocity after atrocity on America's indigenous peoples. The idea that we are a city on the hill allowed our nation's first European residents to live and grow rich off the backbreaking labor of Black slaves. And when we buy their view of themselves, we continue in committing their atrocities. We invade country after country or overthrow one government after another or install and support harsh dictator after harsh dictator because we feel entitled to exert our will over any country we can. As one friend so callously put it without reflection, it is what America does. So while we rightly condemn governments like Syria's for its deadly attacks on dissidents, we remain silent on the government of Bahrain and its suppression of dissidents because its present government is useful in meeting our strategic goals. And the first reason we assume that we have the right to rule the world is idea that we have a unique history that puts us above all other nations. But the irony is that as our perceived uniqueness moves us to imitate so many examples of history's past empires.





6 comments:

TheCapitalist said...

Speaking for myself, I am afraid you would consider me one of those attribute too much to our Founding Fathers. I beg you to see that we have God to thank for our freedoms; many of the laws in early America can be traced back through English Common Law, as espoused by men such as Blackstone, all the way back to King Alfred the Great, who based the English law system on the Ten Commandments and other Mosaic law. The freedoms of early America go back through the Puritans to men such as Calvin and Luther, who proclaimed the need for separation of church and state (in its original sense) and religious freedom.

Curt Day said...

I think that the Quakers would disagree with your assessment that our religious freedoms came from the Puritans as would the Jews and Catholics concerning Luther and Servetus and others regarding Calvin. The reason is that unless a right is guaranteed to all, especially those you disagree with the most, it isn't right and, instead of freedom, you have privilege.

There is no separation between Church & State when society is called on to be an addition disciplinary arm of the Church. Here is some simple political math:

Liberty - equality = privilege

But something else, the basic difference between us is that as an authoritarian conservative, your highest allegiance is to specific groups while, as a one who favors a combination of anarchism and socialism, my highest allegiance is to principle. So for me, Principle is that two edged sword that cuts to pieces all groups.

TheCapitalist said...

Mr. Day,
You are misinterpreting my statement about the Puritans and Calvin. Both had truly brilliant ideas on religious freedom, but neither did well in carrying them out, at least for a time. The Puritans came over here from England. In England, they had been persecuted heavily, and some of them, such as Samuel Rutherford, John Locke, and Algernon Sidney wrote some amazing books on freedom. Samuel Rutherford wrote Lex Rex (The Law is King), and John Locke wrote the constitution of the Carolina colony, one of the first with explicit conscience protections. Unfortunately, when the Puritans came to America and had the chance to rule themselves, many forgot this, resulting in persecution of groups such as the Quakers. Also, not all New England was like this; Massachusetts had little religious freedom, but colonies such as Rhode Island and Connecticut were more tolerant (in the old sense of the word).

The really good ideas of the Puritans were finally put fully into practice with the founding of the United States. The Founding Fathers were well-versed in men such as I mentioned earlier.

I do not understand your last paragraph very well. My 'highest allegiance' is not to specific groups in the way you mean. Look at it this way: in the very early history of the church, Christians debated how the Trinity worked, especially with regard to Christ. Many men, well learned in the Bible, went to councils such as those held at Nicea, and reached the conclusion about the Trinity that orthodox Christians still hold to today. My 'highest allegiance' is not to these men: many of them promoted the Greek theory of form and matter, adopted to Christianity; I am strongly against this. But I agree with these men on the issue of the Trinity. My thinking on the Puritans is similar; I disagree with how they acted on religious freedom, and I am sure they have other actions or ideas I would disagree with, but I stand strongly with them on their idea of religious freedom, and how it was later used in the founding of our country.

Curt Day said...

To my capitalist friend,
No, I understood you perfectly. The question is did you understand what I wrote. I wrote that my arguments center on principle while yours are on people or groups. I wrote that because I find your approach to be common in those who adopt authoritarian viewpoints.

Why? It is because authoritarians put more weight on the credentials of a source than on the logic and facts being espoused. As a result, accepted authoritarian figures must be promoted, defended or explained while non-acceptable figures must never see enough of the light of day to gain credibility. Because if they were to gain credibility, what some of what they say will cause too much dissonance with what is already accepted.

The real test of anyone who claims to promote and defend religious freedom is do they defend those with whom they disagree the most. If not, the problem is more than just one not walking the talk, it is a definition problem. And the definition they are struggling with the most is freedom.

BTW, you will find that rationalists provided a great deal of, if not the majority of, foundational material for the definition of religious freedom that our society adheres to today.

Killing people because of their religion (Calvin and the Puritans) or advocating that nonbelievers be driven out of the country (Luther) are more than mere inconsistencies. These actions refute freedom. There is no other way around that.

TheCapitalist said...

Mr. Day,
I support your entrance into the public forum the way you are because, in order to support religious freedom, we must have a level field. In a level field, all have a say, but Truth will win out. Does it not make sense to you to put weight on credentials? You do so every time you put money in a bank or vote for a candidate. It would be impossible to trace absolutely everything, to see it all with your own eyes. I cannot trace everything to its source, and so I must trust credentials. If it can be proved that the logic and facts behind them are wrong, then I will cease to trust those credentials.

About your 'Real test': Thomas Jefferson, who denied the deity of Christ, fought for the religious freedom of the Baptists and Presbyterians. John Adams acted as lawyer for the solders involved in the Boston Massacre (I agree with you in condemning the name). Samuel Adams, a Massachusetts Puritan, moved that an Anglican preacher open in prayer at the Continental Congress.

I agree with your last statement. It must be recognized, however, that we all have problems, huge problems, with matching our actions to our words. In the time of all three groups, religious freedom was an entirely new thing, and while they all had ideas on it, few were able to apply these ideas to actions that were completely against the "status quo", which is not surprising considering it had been the status quo for millenia. Also, unlike Luther and Calvin, the Puritans were not a single being. They had differing ideas and differing ways of applying them.

Curt Day said...

But putting money in a bank is not the same as listening to arguments and philosophies. Certainly, in order to make listening manageable, we all filter according to credentials. However, in the end, we must follow the argument made according to facts and form rather than accept what authority figures say. To do the latter changes us into Stepford believers.

And, by putting too great a reliance on credentials, we might be silencing somebody God is speaking through. Think about the OT and NT examples of God's messengers. Not all, came with sparkling credentials. In fact, most came with no credentials according to the status quo of the day.

Finally, things that are new and valid are more readily accepted by those listening to God than those who are satisfied with what has been accepted and rejected before.