The Abuse of History

‘The past is a different country’, but it needn’t be an alien one. I have always believed that we need to know our own history, be at home with the story of how we came to be. Often that means accepting that the narrative we grew up with is partial, even misleading in the way it suppresses some things and highlights others. Truth tends to be bigger and more challenging than we like to admit and few of us ever manage to see it whole, but I think we need to make the effort. To think historically is not the preserve of a few specialists. Rather, it is something we all ought to aim at, for those who don’t use history often end up abusing it.

Thinking unhistorically about the past can be dangerous. Take, for example, some of the comments you see online whenever there is some act of violence involving Christians and Muslims. Inevitably, someone will refer to the atrocities of the past. The historian in me winces at the frequently inaccurate references to the Crusades or the Ottoman empire, but they also make me want to ask why anyone should think that what happened in the twelfth century should justify or excuse what happens in the twenty-first. What is the connection, for example, between Frankish knights and most modern-day westerners? It is tenuous at best; but historical fact bends before the power of emotion, and that is the point.

Memory is a great gift, but it can play us false. It can make us perpetuate a cycle of distrust and aggression, of brutality and violence, that stems from an imaginary identification with the past. In short, it can imprison us in destructive attitudes and patterns of behaviour that are unrelated to actual experience. We live a fiction. Before pointing the finger at others, however, I think it would be useful to examine a few (unconscious) prejudices of our own. How do we perceive our own history and the history of our nation, Church or whatever? How far does that history illuminate the present, and how far does it cast a dark shadow over our ability to rub along with others in peace and harmony? The answers may not be comfortable.


A Friday Prayer

Fridays are important to all the children of Abraham. For Jews, tonight marks the beginning of the sabbath and its rest, ushered in with joy and thanksgiving; for Muslims it is a day of prayer, and after the call to prayer has sounded, also a day of resting from work. For Christians it is a memorial of the Passion and Death of our Lord Jesus Christ, a reminder that we cannot save ourselves. For us too it is a day of joy and gladness, but it is a sober, plain joy, for it is lived in the shadow of the Cross. For all the children of Abraham this is a day of prayer. What might the world be if we all, individually and collectively, lived what we believe?


Prejudice and Fear

Last night I listened to part of the World Service and learned that another Catholic church in Nigeria had been burned to the ground by Islamist extremists. It reminded me that when I last saw Mother Charles of Enugu (a Benedictine community of nuns) she remarked, very quietly, that she was expecting her community to be martyred. Expected it! I think we in the west sometimes forget that our fear of a terrorist attack, though real, is light years removed from the daily reality of many Christians in Africa, India and the Middle East.

As the fireworks burned and blazed last night in memory of 5 November, I couldn’t help reflecting that very little has changed in over four hundred years. The name of the enemy may have changed, but we continue to be afraid of the ‘other’. Whether we live in Nigeria or New Jersey, London or Lagos, we feel our vulnerability. The only difference is that we in the west have security forces which devote considerable time and energy to trying to keep us safe, irrespective of our opinions and beliefs. Perhaps today we could remember all those who don’t enjoy that kind of security, who fear the corruption of police or army and who live with an ever-present fear of being bombed or butchered by their fellow citizens.