A classmate of mine in seminary once told me that there’s a peculiar way that Southerners give directions. He was from eastern Tennessee and had observed this peculiarity having grown up in that region. He said that Southerners tended to give directions like: “Go down to where the Johnson farm used to be and turn left. Then when you get to the store that Mavis Williams used to own, take a right…”
These are not directions that someone new to the area could possibly understand. They relied not just on good spatial reasoning and a good sense of direction, they relied on a personal experience of the history of the place you were in, which, if you think about it, would obviate the need for directions in the first place.
But I suppose I should not be quick to judge our Southern brothers and sisters, at least not as long as I keep referring to the East Quad Building as “the Old SIS Building” or struggle to avoid calling the American Café in Ward “Wagshal’s,” which it was called about a decade ago. And while we’re on the subject, it’s no longer the Ward building anymore, is it? It’s Kerwin Hall.
I suppose we all have an attachment to the way things used to be. We all have some relationship with the past. But do we have an honest relationship with the past?
II. THE ROMANTICIZED PAST
Because our connection to the past can often be emotional, it is rarely dispassionate. We have a tendency to romanticize the past. My mother is fond of antiques and has decorated her home with elegant antiques from a wide range of periods, from the Colonial period on. She has a number of dishes from early in the 20th Century that are blue with white speckles on them that she’s fond of. My grandmother, on the other hand, hates them. They remind her of what they had to use when she was growing up poor. She prefers pyrex and tupperware. Sometimes, our imaginations of the past are better than the past actually was. We easily fall into the trap of imagining “glory days” and “the good ol’ days,” that don’t really hold up to closer inspection.
This point is made particularly well in the television program Timeless. The story is about a soldier, a pilot, and a historian who chase a criminal and his stolen time machine through history. Over the course of the program, it is often noted that there are very few times in history they can travel to where their black pilot will be safe or treated well. Likewise, there are few times when the woman historian will be taken seriously. This often limits the ways that they can blend in and accomplish their mission.
I often hear people wax rhapsodic about the 40’s or 50’s and I think it’s legitimate to respond, “You mean when blacks weren’t afforded their full civil rights and women were frequently confined to the home?” There isn’t enough style and fashion on display in Mad Men to make up for the rampant sexism and the racial segregation.
And any fond imaginings of the medieval or ancient worlds are quickly dashed by a reminder that they had no antibiotics. Life in the glory days was often prematurely cut short by things that can be treated with over-the-counter medicine today. And for those of us who have romantic feelings about the Revolutionary era in this country, it bears reminding that while they looked stylish in their powdered wigs and three-cornered hats, but what today would be a couple of sick days at home could have been a death sentence.
So, our recollections of the past are either colored by our own fuzzy memories, often influenced by rose-colored recollections from childhood, or are fanciful imaginings of a time we can only dream of but are greatly fortunate not to have lived through ourselves.
III. PAST AS INSPIRATION
That’s not to say that the past can’t have lessons for us or serve as an inspiration: it certainly can. In the lesson read earlier from the Christian New Testament, the author of the letter to the Hebrews makes studied and extensive review of the past. It chronicles the lives of all those in the history of Israel who committed their lives to faithfulness and to God’s purposes, even when it meant suffering for them. The author of Hebrews lifts up their example as an example of people in the past whose faith is vindicated in the present. Here the author uses history to take the long view, to provide inspiration and hope.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith
In the Qur’an we likewise encounter another the invocation of the past as guide to hope in the present. In addition, the Qur’an reminds the reader that those who scoff at the message of God have short memories: surely the examples of Noah, A’ad and Thamud, Sodom and Midian have not been forgotten?
The past is frequently used as instruction and guide. What happened in the past can provide object lessons for us in the present. In effect, these are the scriptural versions of George Santayana’s famous statement that those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
This is certainly a lesson of the past that is frequently invoked today. As we see rising levels of intolerance, xenophobia, and hateful ideologies, we cannot be ignorant of the historical precedent before us. Where we have seen entire communities marginalized, where we have seen immigrants blamed for economic woes—to the point of deporting immigrant children who have only ever known this country as home, where we see hateful ideologies of white supremacy and nationalism elevated to become part of the political discourse, we know that peril lies ahead. Because we have seen this before. The past is full of lessons for us.And the prophetic among us remind us to heed those lessons, lest history repeat itself in an endless cycle of woe.
And to be fair, something of that cyclical nature of history is found in the religious traditions, from those that outright embrace a cyclical flow of history to those who have a linear sense of time but nevertheless affirm that history is full of repetition and rhyme:
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
The author of those verses notes elsewhere in the Book of Ecclesiastes: “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9 NRSV)
But it would be a mistake to conclude that in the religious mind the past is merely a series of events that may appear similar to events of today or tomorrow. In our religious traditions, the past is in the present and the future.
In the seder haggadah recited during the Passover meal, when the question is asked as to why the meal is being conducted in its particular fashion, the leader responds quoting Exodus 13:8: “It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.” It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt… In this way, Jews engage the Passover not as dispassionate chroniclers of events centuries ago but as participants in the drama. The past isn’t gone—it is here among us.
It is in the same way that Christians celebrate the eucharist, doing it “in remembrance” of an event they were not personally present for, but which they pull into the present with them.
In our religious traditions, the past is not over and gone, it is here with us in the here and now.
IV. PAST AS PROLOGUE
That’s true in ways that we might not expect.
I have on occasion taught courses in the New Testament, both here at AU and next door at Wesley Seminary for their summer Course of Study. Whenever I teach a course that involves scripture I say to my students, ad nauseum, “context matters.” That is, you can’t interpret this text properly until you have an idea of who wrote it, why, where, to whom, and when. It matters whether the audience was Jewish or Gentile, whether it’s written before Judaism and Christianity went their separate ways or after. And so on. The context is inextricable from the text. Contrary to a common attitude, those texts did not drop out of the sky, completely detatched from the world in which they emerged.
And so it is with us and the past. The past is inextricably bound with the present. In addition to romanticizing the past our other major error is in thinking that the past has nothing to do with us. “That’s all in the past,” we’ll say, excusing ourselves from having to deal with some unpleasant detail of yesteryear.
This attitude is especially prevalent with my fellow white folks. “I’ve never owned any slaves and I’m not racist, that has nothing to do with me,” we’ll object when a person of color brings up the long legacy of racial injustice in our country. Oh, yes it does have something to do with me! I don’t need to have owned any slaves or even had any ancestors who did to be benefiting currently from the racially privileged system that elevated whites and subjugated blacks. The racial sins of the past have everything to do with me as a white male in 21st Century America. It matters not that my family were all from New York and Connecticut on my mother’s side and emigrated from Germany and Italy at the beginning of the 20th Century on my father’s side. The past is present for me in a very real way.
The past is present for me in ways that I cannot conceive. Undoubtedly, there are events that took place in my European ancestors’ homelands that continue to have repurcussions in my life. I cannot pretend that my story began in the autumn of 1968 as if I were a text that dropped out of the sky. Everything that came before me shaped me and my life, whether I’m aware of it or not. It’s fun to imagine what it’d have been like for us to have been born at some other time or in some other place, but none of those people would be us—they’d be someone else, born into some other context and shaped by some other particular flow of history that led up to that moment.
In our country, the past has come up a lot lately: slavery, the Confederacy, Jim Crow. There is a great deal of consternation in some quarters about “dredging up” the past, while at the same time, so many others find the past inescapable.
But what our religious traditions remind us is that there is no escaping the past—it is here in the present with us. It shapes the present and informs the future. We cannot escape the lessons of the past, however much we might want to.
Often when we come to college, we look at it as an opportunity to reinvent ourselves. To forget our past and start over. And these years are a powerful time in a person’s life. But we never truly let go of our past. We can refuse to be defined or limited by it, but it is always with us, a thread in the tapestry that makes up our lives. Our task then becomes how do we integrate the past with who we seek to be? How do we understand our past to understand who we are as individuals?
Indeed, part of the reason we come to college is to broaden our understandings of the world. I remember a student from years ago who as a freshman came into my office despondent, flopped down on the couch, and began shaking his head in utter disbelief and disgust. “…Columbus…” he began. I remember thinking that it seemed like a powerful reaction for a man who had lived five hundred years ago. But my students was right to react as if it had happened yesterday, because the effects of the Columbian encounter are still very much with us. Native American genocide, the slave trade, European settlment and imperialism all flowed from that encounter and the way it transpired. What if we all felt about the past that way? What if we were to see the past as a living reality that we had to confront? The reality is that for many of our people of color, the past is an inescapable reality. Perhaps some progress could be made if we all felt that way.
This semester, we will be commemorating the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, with a slate of programs going from today until early November, sponsored by every college on this campus. This commemoration is not done to celebrate Protestantism or a Eurocentric worldview. It is done because the Protestant Reformation was a major event that continues to have repurcussions even today. In ways that we cannot even imagine, our world is shaped for good or ill by the Reformation—and it is worth taking our time to reflect on them.
This past weekend, I spoke at a science fiction convention here in D.C. along with Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, our Muslim chaplain, on the top of scripture and science fiction. I noted that both employ what Walter Brueggemann would refer to as the “prophetic imagination” using a vision of the future to challenge the present. Indeed, invoking the future to critique the present is an old tradition in religion (and science fiction).
But we cannot have a coherent vision of the future to invoke if we do not understand our past. For people of faith, the past, present, and future are all bound up in interdependent relationship that is not easily severed. And so our task must be to have an eye on the future and the past as we navigate the challenges of the present.
It is not always an easy task. It may involve some pain. It will require wisdom and a lot of grace to learn the lessons of the past, both as individuals and as entire communities.
But when we do, we embrace a wholeness of experience that is essential to our own wholeness. When we embrace the past, present, and future together, we embody the Divine, the One who was, who is, and who is to come.
Ecclesiastes 3:1–8 NRSV • For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.”
Hebrews 11:32–12:2 NRSV • And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets—who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions,quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection.Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented—of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.
Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised,since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
Qur’an 27:67-73 • Yet those who disbelieve say: When we have become dust like our fathers, shall we verily be brought forth (again)? We were promised this, forsooth, we and our fathers. (All) this is naught but fables of the men of old. Say (unto them, O Muhammad): Travel in the land and see the nature of the sequel for the guilty! And grieve thou not for them, nor be in distress because of what they plot (against thee). And they say: When (will) this promise (be fulfilled), if ye are truthful? Say: It may be that a part of that which ye would hasten on is close behind you. Lo! thy Lord is full of bounty for mankind, but most of them do not give thanks.
22:39-48 Sanction is given unto those who fight because they have been wronged; and God is indeed Able to give them victory; Those who have been driven from their homes unjustly only because they said: Our Lord is God – For had it not been for God’s repelling some men by means of others, cloisters and churches and oratories and mosques, wherein the name of God is oft mentioned, would assuredly have been pulled down. Verily God helpeth one who helpeth Him. Lo! God is Strong, Almighty – Those who, if We give them power in the land, establish worship and pay the poor-due and enjoin kindness and forbid iniquity. And God’s is the sequel of events. If they deny thee (Muhammad), even so the folk of Noah, and (the tribes of) A’ad and Thamud, before thee, denied (Our messengers); And the folk of Abraham and the folk of Lot; (And) the dwellers in Midian. And Moses was denied; but I indulged the disbelievers a long while, then I seized them, and how (terrible) was My abhorrence! How many a township have We destroyed while it was sinful, so that it lieth (to this day) in ruins, and (how many) a deserted well and lofty tower! Have they not travelled in the land, and have they hearts wherewith to feel and ears wherewith to hear? For indeed it is not the eyes that grow blind, but it is the hearts, which are within the bosoms, that grow blind. And they will bid thee hasten on the Doom, and God faileth not His promise, but lo! a Day with God is as a thousand years of what ye reckon. And how many a township did I suffer long though it was sinful! Then I grasped it. Unto Me is the return.