I often recall how, shortly before the Arab Spring uprising in 2010, a congregant returned from a tour of Egypt and, after worship one Sunday, approached me to share with me the distress induced in them by the museum in Cairo. As it turned out, in the surprisingly detailed archive devoted to Ramses II the events narrated by the Old Testament’s Book of Exodus received only a single, incomplete sentence mentioned almost as an afterthought at the very bottom of a stone tablet, the place where today an asterisk would go. This churchgoer was uneasy that “the mighty acts of God” would go unnoticed by those who recorded Pharaoh’s own deeds and administration. How could there be so little contemporaneous mention of Moses, the Israelite slaves whose labor built the Egyptian temples, or their miraculous liberation to freedom through the Red Sea? The disjunction sowed a little doubt in him about the veracity of scripture’s witness, yet it struck me, and it still does, as exactly the way in which Pharaohs’ empire would narrate their past.
I thought of this congregant’s dismay again last week as the President held forth at the National Archives and insisted upon a new federal patriotic, pro-America education curriculum that neither the law nor conservative principles permit him to issue. In an unintended, ham-fisted way, the President succeeded in reminding us that the assumption that history can be told and taught in a manner free of ideological commitment is itself an ideological commitment. Indeed “most of the history we read— and write— is a lie,” David Bentley Hart asserts, “though often enough a lie told in earnest. We fabricate the past as much as we recall it, and almost invariably in ways that reflect an ideology that we either consciously seek to promote or unconsciously absorb from the society surrounding us.” The fact that to many people the history of those enslaved in American is ancillary— or, worse, corrosive— to “American History” but proves Hart’s point.
Much like translating the Bible from Hebrew or Greek into English, history is necessarily an act of interpretation. And, as many people discovered about confederate monuments this summer, the act of narrating the past is always, really, about interpreting the present and gesturing toward a particular desire for the future. In Lexington, Virginia, for example, where I own a home, the downtown cemetery is named for Stonewall Jackson. The city council gave it the graveyard that honorific not after Jackson’s death in the war (he was an elder at the adjacent Presbyterian church) nor after the peace at Appomattox Courthouse but during the Civil Rights movement. As much as removing his name from the graveyard, to keep the name is to tell history in a way that interprets the present in a particular fashion so as to determine a certain vision of the future.
With few exceptions, as the cliche concedes, history is told by the winners; it is the narratives of those “who have enduring names, most of whom were granted the special privilege of being remembered because in their own times they had enjoyed an immunity from the suffering and obscurity of the vast majority of humanity.” Oddly, though, this is the same manner in which Christians have recorded and relayed church history. This should be a problem for Christians and Jews alike, the latter believing that God is whoever raised the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and the former confessing that that same God became incarnate in a crucified slave. For those who worship the God of the Bible, history should be governed not by the Great Man Theory but “by the radically different story told by the gospels, which should be retold in every age, regarding those nameless and disenfranchised souls whose world was invaded by the call of God in Christ.”
There is perhaps no more obvious way Christians interpret history than the Apostles’ Creed. Karl Barth jokes that Pontius Pilate intrudes upon this recitation of the mighty acts of God like a dirty dog into a parlor. Pilate, though, is exactly the sort of man about whom history is meant to be written. He has a name, has a face before the law, stands in a station given him by authority of the empire. “Yet, David Bentley Hart notes, “Pilate’s story vanishes in the light of Easter. He is remembered today only insofar as he is written in the margins of the story of the slave and peasant God.” Easter, in other words, is not only the vindication by Almighty God of the crucified slave, Jesus Christ, it is the repudiation of reading the world from the perspective of the world’s Pontius Pilates. Cross and Resurrection, we recall every Advent, are the hinge point between an Old Age and the New.
He has been maligned much since the President’s event at the archives, but Howard Zinn, says David Bentley Hart, is a model for the Christian historian, for the true story of the world, Easter tells us, belongs not to the powerful but “to those that human memory has accorded no names: the poor, the rejected, the despised, the enslaved…these abandoned persons, more or less exclusively, are the whole center of a proper Christian understanding of the past, and so of a proper Christian desire for the future. Though they have been deprived of their names, God has given them the name of Christ; though they have been forgotten, he has given them Christ’s story as their own. Where they are, he is present; and, in human history, he most truly present nowhere else.”
If Christians really believe God has raised the one Pilate put on the cross, then Christian history should look exactly like the sort of history many today, apparently, increasingly fear. Until Christ comes again, Christian history should be a constant and subversive counter-narrative to the flattering myths empires tell, “a ceaseless interruption and riposte.”
Watching the funeral of George Floyd this summer, I thought of my former congregant who came back from Egypt chagrined the exodus story had been omitted by Pharaoh’s historians. When Rev. Al Sharpton led the congregation in reciting the tragically long litany of names that preceded George Floyd, names that would otherwise be forgotten— names that in many cases were forgotten for months until stubborn protests pushed them into the public consciousness— it struck me that this was an especially clear example of how Christians should tell history. And those who wish that those names would recede into the past, eventually to be expunged from memory, along with those protesting in their name are, well, anti-Christ. The insistent refrain, #SayHer Name, adopted in 2015 by the African American Policy Forum is but another example of narrating history according to the claim that a crucified slave has been given dominion and authority over all the earth. And in the case of Breonna Taylor, Christian history insists the true story of the world belongs not to justices who have sat on the Supreme Court deciding law but to those whose murders, like Taylor’s, those decisions made legal.
As David Bentley Hart writes:
“To know how to tell history, and to frame it theologically, is like learning to discern a picture cunningly concealed within another picture, a puzzle or hidden pattern, the true history of the Kingdom, which none can see except those who know to look for it. And when it is told aright, God is there as well, among his people the poor; Christ is always there, always risen and present, passing through the ages in the company of the forgotten and outcast…before we can know what to make theologically of history, we first have to know what history we believe in, where its center lies, what its inner logic is. As Pilate asked, ingenuously, for all we know, “What is truth?” There in the midst of the stories we generally desire to tell— amid the lies, that is, that compose most of our historical memory— is the one story that is perfectly true, and the one that we must learn to see, hidden within every epoch of the world, before theology can even begin to speak of what has been” (Theological Territories).
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