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History teaches us 

Reflecting on events in Charlottesville, Mary Taylor says it vital we study how the Bible holds up a light to current events


There has been a lot of history lately. American history: the Civil War, Confederate generals, Northern slave owners, Jim Crow, segregation and slavery. European history: the third Reich, Nazi Germany, swastikas, National Socialism and the rise of its anti-Semitic populism. All of these have been referenced from last week’s events in Charlottesville and the swelling criticism of Donald Trump’s reluctant condemnation of white supremacy movements.

History is more than just one thing after another. We find ourselves trying to make sense of current events and movements through looking for similar patterns in the past. We take warning from how seemingly small ripples can become tidal waves of hatred and oppression. We also use history to build courage and resolve by drawing on stories of opposition and resistance. Figures as varied as J K Rowling and Arnold Schwarzenegger have drawn on history to sound clear moral calls against hatred, racism and exclusion.

As I think about this digging into history, I want to advocate that Christians be prayerful - committed to bringing history and Scripture together in the same searching for holiness and wisdom for the present day.

For a Christian, being immersed in the story of the Bible gives us both the human and eternal framework for what we learn in the schoolroom of history. Ok, it’s not always the concrete history of dates and events, but it is always the history of God with God’s creation and God’s people – in stories and songs, law codes and genealogies. And as with history, in Scripture we also look for the patterns - in God’s character, in human life and history; we take warning and we establish what is good; and we stir up courage for justice. The Bible is our human story which means it covers a wide-ranging curriculum of passion and sin and promises and betrayal, love, hate, murder, jealousy, faithfulness and everything in-between. It tells us of God’s overarching goodness and of the defeat of evil, at the same time as urging us on to faithfully living God’s way in the time and place we find ourselves.

So, I find it deeply alarming to read and hear fellow Christians endorsing Donald Trump as God’s chosen; endorsing apocalyptic threats of fire and fury, and sanctifying a longing for the past which could be called patriotic but is characterised more than anything by white supremacy. Evangelicals form a significant proportion of Trump voters and there are leaders who will quote the Bible in support of his power and policies.

Trump supporters will be many and varied but there is a suggestion that many are nostalgia voters; discomfited by change and development in society and anxious that their privilege is ebbing away as America changes rapidly and they find themselves in a different country. Some say it is the last gasp of American evangelicalism and a sign of the beginning of the end rather than the turn of the tide. I cannot say but history will.

Is it okay that I read the Bible so differently? Here is where I think it has something to do with being careful to read history as well as Scripture? Reading our Bibles with history, reading history with our Bibles; both are essential, as is wrestling with theology. What is our theology of war, of non-violence, of government, of humanity? In the period of the Third Reich it was theologians such as Karl Barth who provided the biblical foundation for the German Confessing Church to challenge the idolatry of National Socialism. It enabled them to declare that the church is subject to Jesus alone, under the authority of Scripture, not ultimately under the authority of the state. I think it is vital for us to read Scripture with some significant theologians to guide us. It’s important that we study together, talk about how the Bible holds up a light to history and current events.

But also, how the reverse is true – that we must read our Bibles with honest questions from real life experiences. Let’s be wary of easy answers and let’s draw from wells of theological thinking and biblical study that are deep and wide. And let’s also be sure to honour theological and historical study.

On a historical note closer to home I was delighted to be at the service celebrating 200 years since the death of the Revd John Fawcett, minister at Wainsgate, and then Hope Baptist Chapel, Hebden Bridge. I knew that he was the composer of the Baptist anthem ‘Blest be the tie that binds, our hearts in Christian love’ and I knew the lovely, sentimental tale of him and his wife abandoning their move to a fancy London pastorate out of love for the tiny Wainsgate congregation.

What I didn’t know is how under Fawcett’s ministry and leadership, members of the church at Wainsgate moved down the hill into the town where the industrial revolution was expanding the population of mill workers at an exponential rate. Their vision was to be church where the people were, in order to bring them Gospel hope. Nor did I know that the church opened the first Sunday School in the Calder valley, bringing education and care to the many poor children destined for lives of heavy labour in the slums of Hebden. Knowing and caring about contemporary conditions, courage in facing changing history, and listening to God through the Bible, meant Fawcett and his church were not looking back with nostalgia or holding onto perceived past glory but adapting and innovating faithfully to God’s love for all people in their unique time and place.

What will we learn from history? And what will those who follow learn from us?


Photo | Bob Mical | Flickr | Creative Commons

The Revd Mary Taylor is Regional Minister in the Yorkshire Baptist Association (YBA). This blog was originally circulated to YBA members, and is republished here with permission. 
Baptist Times, 22/08/2017
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