A Little History, Please

It has been almost ten years since I tried an experiment among the students in my Christian Social Ethics class. I wrote two dates on the board: 9/11 and 11/9. Then I asked the students to tell why both dates in history were significant.

Everyone could wax eloquent about September 11, but not a person knew why I would mention November 9. Yet November 9, 1989 is typically remembered as the day the Berlin Wall fell. This date has come to symbolize the end (or at least the beginning of the end) of the Cold War. When I attempted my modest experiment in historical reflection, I received blank stares. I would not even try to ask the question today.

No Memory, No Vision

So what is my point? Those of us committed to the church’s renewal should stop dismissing deep historical awareness as simplistic nostalgia for outmoded practices. Mindlessly repeating worn and ineffectual patterns of church life is not the same thing as learning, really learning, from the past. Some of today’s self-styled visionaries flirt with suggesting that a regard for history is laziness or resistance to change. Not so. Change will come, regardless. How we respond to change is the issue.

Forget the clichés. Perhaps those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it, but this never impressed me as an adequate reason for looking back. In fact, many things would be worth repeating, at least the things that taught us courage and prophetic sensibility. Other things are better left behind. Either way, one must know the past to make this differentiation. I am amazed at the way our culture ignores or even ridicules truths that were not “invented” last night in Silicon Valley. Sadly, this arrogance is alive in the church, too. Do ecclesiastical savants truly believe that followers of Jesus should be more like the makers of a certain computer or the powerbrokers of some other corporate behemoth? It all seems so fickle, this casting about for direction. Not only is it uninspiring. It just might be unfaithful.

For Instance: Economic Justice

Take the church’s historic witness regarding economic justice. Today many toss around the word “socialism” as if we are somehow threatened by a tidal wave of totalitarian Marxist states. For those of us who grew up when there actually was a coalition of brutal political control devoted to socialist ideology, this is strange. I have not met a true socialist in years, at least not anyone who would defend the systems that crumbled during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Sure, there are some increasingly isolated dictators who cling to Marxist-fueled power, but let’s come clean.

The church has wallowed in economic complacency since the end of the Cold War. We have even tolerated unconscionable greed. Conservatives and Liberals face off in stereotyped debate, but their economic assumptions are not that different. Remember the last presidential election? The media of all persuasions loved to make a distinction between social issues (abortion, gender, race, sexual orientation, etc.) and economic issues (meaning, basic income and employment concerns). Since when did economic issues cease to be social? Income disparity is one glaring example. We can cite any number of studies that document the way those at the top are reaping more and more while those at the bottom and in the middle receive comparatively less. This is happening among church structures, too. Many in positions of spiritual power act as if their privileged status is, well, “deserved.” A corresponding logic begins to suggest that those who struggle must have done something to invite difficulty. There is not a lot of Jesus in either of these assumptions.

The Priority of Personhood

In the 1890s, when industrial development brought both good and bad, Pope Leo XIII wrote a groundbreaking document: Rerum Novarum (addressing unprecedented change in economic dynamics). This mild and deliberate piece warned against the claims of Marxism, but it also leveled a brutally honest challenge to the owners of capital. Freedom and initiative were good things – if they affirmed human dignity. Those with power and privilege had a responsibility to serve others. This was no socialist rant. It was the sober and restrained teaching of a Pope – in the late nineteenth century. Others lifted up a comparable message. Respecting the sacred nature of people is not the same thing as socialism. Later theologians and world-wide observers even argued that state-sponsored socialism’s abuse of people led to its collapse. There may be a cautionary tale here. We can’t “innovate” our way out of deep values quandaries. At some point, we have to know who we are and what we stand for.

A Church Inside Out

The current anxiety among mainline Christians about membership loss and diminished prestige has been accompanied by an increasing desire to measure all things against the reigning economic standards. This is a bad idea. The world needs us to be who we are, whether we live in the nineteenth, twentieth, or twenty-first centuries. That means calculating value according to God-established truths and not according to the latest, often predatory fads. Only a church committed to those outside from the standpoint of historic principle can be what it was called to be. A church that ingests the worst of culture to ward off collapse will hasten its demise.

So, pondering a little history about the way Christians have charted a better future is not time wasted. Let’s avoid repeating culturally conditioned assumptions from the past, but let’s also learn something from the faithful who came before us. Trust me, living and breathing this historic witness will be a wild and exciting ride!

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