History (and by “history” I mean the accounting of things past) is always with us. In the U.S. this is now perhaps nowhere more apparent than in ongoing argument about race and especially about African-Americans and their place in society. Renewed, in popular discourse, are the arguments that the Civil War was not really about slavery. The Civil War, is is said (and said again) was really not even the Civil War—it was actually the War of Northern Aggression. Recently a protestor despicably waved a Confederate flag in front of the White House occupying our first black President.
This has all set me thinking about the things we do with history. There are probably numberless ways we abuse history and use it in fallacious ways. For now, I can think of at least the following.
1. We use history as a scorecard. In this fallacy it is assumed that history proves some or other party (and it’s usually one we belong to) right and on the side of the angels. The weight of history, then, is thrown to our own causes, endeavors, and pet projects. Thus history “proves” that our religious or political group should now win current, ongoing debates on the economy, on immigration arguments, on voting rights, and so forth. The problem with this approach is that history, thickly considered, does not neatly divide into two sides, the “right” and the “wrong.” There is often plenty of blame to go around.
2. We see history as static. This fallacy does not account for the ongoing current of change that courses through history. Here I’m a MacIntyrean: a tradition is a “socially embodied argument” and in many ways the argument never stops. Tradition (as an element of history) is open to ongoing change. This fallacy is most often used to stop innovations, as is the case with the struggle for civil rights for LGBTs.
3. We see history as the engine of relentless, underlying philosophical/economic principles. Here I have in my sights the accounts of history provided by Hegel, Marx, and their followers. The great instantiation of these arguments was of course Communism, and the halting of its great world projects puts the lie to the theories.
4. We see history as a succession of great men (sic). This theory sees history determined by a succession of outstanding individuals. And that is exactly its weakness. It does not take account of broad (and narrow) social elements and movements. It does not consider corporate (national, religious, and otherwise) infrastructures that enable “great men” to act and do their monumental deeds. It hides and obfuscates, too, the role of women and racial minorities as real actors and makers of history.
5. We see history as a repository of moralizing and therapeutic principles. Here the thick and varied elements of history are elided and history becomes a blur from which we draw sentimental principles. We see such at work in accounts of the first Thanksgiving that make it into “we can all sweetly get along” and forget about early and ongoing conflicts between Native Americans and empire America. Christians are also prone to resort to this “theory” of history in our Bible reading. Instead of close attention the the biblical text and its contexts, we then get sermons that draw reassuring principles from the Bible. Lost is the way in which the Bible (and its history and other genres) can confront and challenge us, and remind us that our biblical heroes were themselves human beings with clay feet.
What, then, is the right way to “use” history? I don’t have a neat theory to state. It’s much easier to point out fallacious theories. I do think history needs to be treated as a complicating factor. It does not, as I said above, neatly divide into the right and the wrong, the good and bad; and when we find it doing that, that should be a signal for us to dig for more examples, pay closer attention, and listen to a wider variety of stories from the past.
I also think history is something we should never forget, but constantly examine and re-examine. For example, I’m bothered by calls in our current milieu that claim we live in a “post-racial” world and use this to argue that we needn’t study anymore about slavery. This is the case because we don’t actually live in a post-racial world, and because only attention to the past can help us currently understand the plight of many African-Americans in today’s America.
Finally, a theological comment. If God is ultimately in control of history, and we don’t control God, then we don’t control history. This observation does not remove responsibility, but it does humble us and remind us that we don’t simple “use” history, but history “uses” us.