Rewriting History

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 62; 145, Joel 3:1-2, 9-17, 1 Peter 1:1-12, Matthew 19:1-12


You’ve probably heard the phrase “History is written by the victors.” It means the winners of a conflict are generally the ones who get to define history by putting their spin on it. The winning side remembers and records its heroism and bravery, but downplays or outright ignores its own moral failings and shortcomings. History books may be biased, but history itself doesn’t change – and there are often people who remember what the winners would rather forget.

Evolving attitudes towards Columbus Day and Thanksgiving are relatively recent examples of how the parts of history we celebrate never quite bury the parts we’d rather forget. Indigenous peoples of the Americas have been working for years to raise awareness about the horrible price they paid for the European colonial dream. Every culture which subdues another portrays itself in a favorable light; nobody wants to be the villain of their own story.

This type of revisionism is not limited to military history. Without in-depth study, the history of the church can also be murky to us, and what we consider fundamental may be a more recent development than we’d like to admit. For example, when the Pharisees challenged Jesus on the legitimacy of divorce, Jesus responded with a more conservative answer than they expected, saying anyone who divorced and remarried committed adultery. When they argued Moses himself set up the conditions for divorce, he said, “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.” In this case divorce was the “winner” and people seemed to have conveniently forgotten it was not always so.

The church of today is very different than the church of a thousand years ago, which was very different from the church a thousand years before that. Even the church’s more fundamentalist branches, which style themselves as a return to the basics of Biblical faith and teaching, are a relatively modern phenomenon which approaches scripture and church community very differently than did earlier Christians. As the current “winners” of history, we are compelled to justify our present by reinterpreting the past. The danger in this is feeling the need to deny the truth when it returns to haunt us.

As important as tradition and doctrine are to understanding our faith, it’s just as important to understand the reasons behind them. Sometimes, like the Pharisees’ take on divorce, they are justifications for our failures. Not every change to how we understand faith and scripture – not every tradition we reevaluate – is a step away from “authentic” Christianity. Some of them may be a step back toward it. Those who define the church today are history’s winners. If the first really would be last, it might be a good idea to listen to the buried and forgotten truths we need to hear from the losers.

Comfort: Truth is a promise, not a threat.

Challenge: Do some research on how the Bible came to be.

Prayer: For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall never be shaken.  (Psalm 62:1-2)

Discussion: Have you ever learned something you thought you knew about history wasn’t correct?

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