When I was 16-years-old, my father took my brother and I on a Spring Break trip to Virginia to visit my Aunt Dana. On the way there, we stopped in Charlottesville to take a tour of UVA. Although I was a native of Kentucky, I wanted badly to attend the prestigious school. Even as a teenager, I remember being mesmerized at its history and tradition. The view of the campus from Monticello was something from which poems are made. The cottage-style dorms on the lawn leading to the Rotunda sent us back 200 years. And although I was eventually rejected from UVA (bad SAT score), the thought of being a small part of Thomas Jefferson’s legacy and vision was both alluring and…American.
I’ve always loved history, especially Southern history. Growing up in the state that gave America both Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln, and being a distant relative of Mary Todd Lincoln, history never seemed far away. In 2004, during my freshmen year at the University of Kentucky in Lexington (where Mary Todd was born and where Jefferson Davis studied at nearby Transylvania University), I had the mind to nail a Confederate flag on my dorm room wall. That same year is the year I began taking part in Civil War re-enactments with my cousins. As a lover of history, it was, in some sense, a chance to feel and touch and see the past. To re-live Southern history if you will.
That year at UK was also my first time being away from friends and family and church members and my life back home. It was a time to meet new people, including my RA…who was black. The very first time we met was in my dorm room right in front of that big Confederate flag. It was an awkward moment, and one that my roommate didn’t hesitate to point out. But I didn’t immediately remove the flag. Some years after college and seminary, and a Th.M. in Historical Theology later, I kept an old picture of my re-enactment days on my book shelf, next to my history books. Along with a picture of my great grandfather and some other black-and-white photographs, it was a testament to my love of Southern – and Kentucky – history. A history of which I’m proud.
In many ways, my love of history has only grown since becoming a pastor. On the eve of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, for instance, the words of the Preacher ring true now more than ever: “there’s nothing new under the sun.” (Eccl. 1:9) History is our friend, not our enemy. In the words of George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” When we whitewash or sanitize our history, we’re not trailblazing. We’re not engineering a superior product so much as re-packaging the same model. However, the more I discover the rich treasure of American and religious history, the more I’m convinced that history serves us best when it’s wielded more like a compass and less like a weapon. It functions never for its own end, but for a greater, more glorious one. Therefore, history is both descriptive and prescriptive. A compass cannot always tell you where you are, but it can always tell you where things stand in relation to you. We need to know where we stand.
However, unless we view the compass of history through the lens of human sin, it is inevitably wielded in 1 of 2 ways: (1) to sinfully exalt ourselves above our predecessors (2) or to exalt our sinful predecessors above ourselves. Both miss the beauty of history. The Christian who ignores history has ignored what it means for God to warn his people of the sins previously committed. (Heb. 3:7-19) Conversely, the Christian who exalts history has forgotten the very purpose of history itself. (John 6:31-35) Human history is the history of redemption, and it points ultimately to Christ. But it can’t bring us to worship Him unless we first acknowledge that history is also the history of sin. Through the lens of human sin, God has called us to see history as remembrance without reverence. While Southern history isn’t biblical history, it’s important to remember that all of human history underscores the preeminence and magnificence of Christ in “the plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in Him, things in heaven and things on earth.” (Eph. 1:10)
In light of this ultimate Gospel, when I understood the very reason for linear history as created by God, I also understood that the pictures and books on my shelf should never diminish that glorious end. If a picture of Confederate soldiers understandably serves as an offensive stumbling block to any African American brother or sister sitting in my office, it needs to come down. And so it did. If a Confederate Flag becomes a roadblock to the Gospel for my African American RA, it should come down. And so it did. Human history isn’t a weapon; it’s a compass pointing us – and others- to Christ.
Today, with two African American children, I understand more fully the immense burden and offense created by the images of American history to the black community. But that doesn’t mean that I’ve dispensed with my love of history. In fact, having African American children makes me love history even more! Ultimately, I love Southern history not for what it says about me, but for what it says about Him. History is sinfully…and gloriously…Christward. When history is wielded as a compass and not as a weapon, events of the day become less about “sides” and more about souls. After all, the very purpose of history, my purpose, is to make His name known in the Gospel that saves. Today, when a couple names their son Noah or Jacob or Judah or David, they’re not endorsing drunkenness or deceit or enslavement or adultery; they’re implicitly acknowledging that the evil deeds of even the best sinners are a part of a larger narrative that directs us to the law-keeping Messiah. Let’s use history to that end, not as an obstacle to the faith of others. (2 Cor. 6:3-10) History is Christward.