On Historical Memory

by Alexei Laushkin

I’ve been reading a pretty interesting book Church and State in American History by John F. Wilson. It’s written in 1965 and has a wide range of primary source documents on how Christians (evangelicals, Protestants and Catholics of a wide range of backgrounds) in the United States have thought about their relationship with the state and society.

One passing comment has struck me. It’s an authors comment from Wilson (who does very little interpreting as each sub chapter is either a letter or writing or selection from a historic period). Here’s Wilson:

Republican Protestantism (Wilson’s term for American Protestant Christians who crossed denominational lines to organize and advance the notion of a Christian republic but in the process lost some of their core identity) so dominated the protestant past that the denominations were alienated from their own more classical past, i.e., puritanism and the continental reformation, which could have provided ideological resources for coming to terms with an increasingly religiously- plural society.

Being alienated from the past. That’s what stood out to me.

When your alienated from your past, your also alienated from the faithful witness of past generations. Consider scripture on this point. 2 Kings 22:8-13:

Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the secretary, “I have found the Book of the Law in the temple of the Lord.” He gave it to Shaphan, who read it.  Then Shaphan the secretary went to the king and reported to him: “Your officials have paid out the money that was in the temple of the Lord and have entrusted it to the workers and supervisors at the temple.”  Then Shaphan the secretary informed the king, “Hilkiah the priest has given me a book.” And Shaphan read from it in the presence of the king.

When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his robes. He gave these orders to Hilkiah the priest, Ahikam son of Shaphan, Akbor son of Micaiah, Shaphan the secretary and Asaiah the king’s attendant:  “Go and inquire of the Lord for me and for the people and for all Judah about what is written in this book that has been found. Great is the Lord’s anger that burns against us because those who have gone before us have not obeyed the words of this book; they have not acted in accordance with all that is written there concerning us.”

The people of God had become alienated from their past. And while scripture and Christian history are two very different things, we often forget that lived scripture in the lives of the faithful that have gone before us is important to learn from and emulate.

One of the great tragedies of the modern Christian Protestant and evangelical western world, is it’s alienation from the past and alienation from the entire past of the church. We don’t recognize Christ in the other, because we see so little of their faithfulness, because that faithfulness is trapped in terms and traditions we don’t understand and therefore fail to grasp.

This is why liturgy and an anchored sense of how Christians have oriented themselves to their past is such a key part of being able to reorient towards a full Christian identify that stretches through the ages.

Liturgy becomes a kind of lingua franca that ties in the traditions and stories of many kinds of Christians. Even in Pentecostal circles today a sort of lived liturgy in the ordination of ministers and of (in some cases) Bishops is a tie, a historic tie to the lived saints in every generation.

Memory and a sense of fidelity to your past is critical to helping reorient oneself to the challenges of the present. There is literally nothing new that the church is facing today. Sex, schism, power, money, abuse, heresy, division, hardheartedness, indifference. These are challenges as old as the faith, but we can learn from Christians in different ages and how God was faithful to orient and protect his people as his people turned from their sins and sought him completely in every age. Christ became their dependence and their strong tower, that is the witness and history well worth remembering so that we might draw encouragement for the present days and the days to come.

When faced with a challenge that really seems new, we would do better to look to our past and immerse ourselves in the stories and lived realities of God’s goodness to every generation.

Consider these words from Habbukak 3:17-19:

Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the field produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior. The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to go on to the heights.

The prophet is facing desolation. The images here are signs of judgment. This idea that you won’t eat the grapes from the vineyard you planted, is a sign of judgment in the Old Testament. The psalms put it another way,  Psalm 46:2:

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,

The prophet and the Psalmist are drawing strength even while chaos and desolation reign. How is that?

Perhaps they have found the secret that Jesus himself talks about when he meets the women at the well but is doing his father’s business. Consider John 4:27-34:

Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?”

Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” They came out of the town and made their way toward him.

Meanwhile his disciples urged him, “Rabbi, eat something.”

But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.”

Then his disciples said to each other, “Could someone have brought him food?”

“My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.

Lived obedience and peace is its own kind of joy that surpasses the circumstance. It’s the joy of reoriented meaning and of life and peace in the inner rececesses of the soul. It’s a joy that feels the hardship around it but also feeds on the life given to it from the Holy Trinity.

For the saint of God each of us is called to be about our Father’s business whatever the circumstance. And in that peace, that peace that comes from above, we can join Habbukak in finding an immense joy. A treasure of great price. A deep dependence on God, the holy one of his people. From age to age the same.

And so our prayer can be the prayer of the liturgy. The prayer our Savior taught us as day to day we pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven, and that God’s will be done in us today as it has been done to Christians in every age. Let’s draw encouragement from their example, and run the race of faith with dependent endurance.

Alexei Laushkin is a Board Member of the Kingdom Mission Society, Vice-President of the Evangelical Environmental Network, and writer of the Foolishconfidence blog. His views are his own. 

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