History and Mystery

Recently Susan and I purchased the Blue-ray format of the tv series Roots. This monumental television event was based on Alex Haley’s bestseller by the same name. One of the extras on the Blue-ray format featured interviews with the actors in the series. Each actor shared her or his perspective and insights regarding the series and its impact on U.S. culture. Veteran actor, singer, and dancer Ben Vereen (who played “Chicken George”) offered a profound observation about how history shapes culture and individual lives. He drew a distinction between history and mystery. “History” is “his-story.” “Mystery” is “my-story.” Vereen said that when “his-stories” dominate, they have no respect or concern for the billions of “my-stories” (“the jewels inside me”) which constitute the authentic history of the world.  

Many people assume that history is simply a record of “what happened,” and to a certain extent, history does relate what has occurred in the past. For example, no one would doubt that there were two World Wars, the Great Depression, the Holocaust, the assassination of JFK, and astronauts walking on the moon during the last century (although there are conspiracy theories regarding the last three examples which question aspects of those events and are promoted by the lunatic/racist segments of our society). But history also contains subjective interpretations and sometimes outright propaganda, exaggerations, omissions, and lies. A little background on the “history” of history can be instructive. 

Ancient historians were obliged to twist and distort their histories to please their rulers.

Most scholars maintain that history as recorded events began with the invention of writing. Different forms of writing began in Mesopotamia (3400-3100 BCE) and Egypt (3250 BCE). (The time involving humans before the invention of writing is referred to as prehistory.) What I find most interesting is that writing developed about the same time as the rise of kingdoms in the ancient Near East. Kings needed records for taxation, military, and propaganda purposes. Kings, of course, also wanted to be remembered in ways which glorified them and their reigns. Therefore, truth was not the primary concern of these rulers. Scribes were needed to record the events of kings’ reigns, but care had to be taken to please these arrogant and paranoid rulers. At best, we find skewed accounts of these ancient times. For example, Egyptian pharaohs never recorded their defeats. Roman emperors never wanted objective and ethical evaluations of the existence and conditions of slaves, conquered peoples, and enemies. So, ancient historians were obliged to twist and distort their histories to please their rulers. Historians today take great pains separating “the wheat from the chaff” as they try to determine “what actually happened” while doing their research.  

The lunatic fringe in the U.S. supports efforts to rewrite American history in ways which minimize or ignore the evils of slavery and the genocide of the First Nations on this continent.

We would be foolish to assume that more recent history is immune to such propaganda and distortion. The lunatic fringe in the U.S. supports efforts to rewrite American history in ways which minimize or ignore the evils of slavery and the genocide of the First Nations on this continent. Fundamentalist and some conservative Christians maintain that our nation was founded by good Christian men on Christian principles in spite of the fact (and it is a fact!) that many of these Founding Fathers were Deists who did not believe in miracles, the resurrection of Jesus, or the final authority of the Bible. (Thomas Jefferson even wrote his version of the New Testament which left out any reference to miracles or what we might call the supernatural.) And many of these Founding Fathers owned slaves, a fact easily overlooked by those with racist tendencies today. (Can anyone own another human being and, at the same time, follow the Golden Rule of doing unto others as you would have others do unto you? How can anyone “owning” another human being claim to be “following Jesus”?)  

The hard truth about history is simply this: history is most often written by the winners. There were and are oral histories which give a different perspective. The existence of those oral histories is the whole point of Roots. Alex Haley heard an oral history from his grandmother which he traced back to Africa and his ancestor Kunte Kinte. But oral histories, especially in our kind of society, are easily ignored, discounted, and forgotten as the decades go by. We do have historians among Blacks and First Nations who are writing their own accounts of U.S. history. As one would suspect, these histories are radically different from the histories most of us grew up with. However, for the most part, they offer a far more accurate account of this nation as they bear witness to an undeniable and harsh truth: our country’s founding and later prosperity were based on the slavery of one race and the annihilation of another race. Recent events in the U.S. reveal that almost half of the U.S. population still has not realized this tragic past and how its legacy continues in 2021. 

But back to the insight of Ben Vereen. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson would have written very different histories from those of Kunte Kinte and Kizzy. Andrew Jackson, guilty of murdering thousands of First Nations’ peoples, would have written a very different history from that of any one of the Cherokees who survived the Trail of Tears. John C. Calhoun, the leading defender of slavery, would have written a very different history from those of Frederick Douglas and Harriet Tubman. And Donald Trump would write (if he could find an amoral ghostwriter) a very different account of his presidency from that of the Rev. Dr. William Barber III. (Also notice that history as “his-story” is itself very revealing. “His-story” shows a patriarchal bias. “Her-story” rarely is given its due in most histories. Women in all ages could also have written radically different histories as they shared their own stories of oppression, endurance, and triumphs.)

Part of the freedom humans must embrace can come about only as they can differentiate history/his-story from mystery/my-story. History has been used to deny and suppress billions of “my-stories” for the last 5000 years (since the beginning of kingdoms on this earth with all the evil, mischief, greed, arrogance, and violence inherent in absolute monarchies). But each person has her or his story which yearns to be told, healed, and fulfilled. Hope may spring eternal, but history records a systematic and intentional crushing of hopes for justice, freedom, and peace. 

So, what hope might the Christian faith bring to the harsh realities of “his-stories”? In the midst of that gruesome history camouflaged by waving and planting flags, “just wars,” frenzied patriotism, and pandering to the base desires, fears, and prejudices of the ignorant and hoodwinked, comes a Jewish laborer who tells a different story. He too speaks of a kingdom, but it is unlike any kingdom the world has ever known. His kingdom is based on unconditional love, compassion, forgiveness, sacrificial sharing, real justice, authentic peace, mercy, inclusion, joy, and reconciliation. And many peasants, who had learned the hard way that traditional kingdoms can never bring about goodness, justice, and universal dignity, decided to commit themselves to his message, his kingdom, and this strange God he called Abba. 

Early church fathers took his message to mind and heart. They preached that this incredible God Jesus revealed and incarnated had Her own story. These writers insisted that the divine saga began even before the first stirrings of the cosmos. God’s intention was to include every part of creation and every human being in the Greatest Story Ever Told. When the final word is spoken and recorded, the message shall be, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with humans. God will dwell with them, and they shall be Her people, and God Herself will be with them. She will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21: 3-4) But that cannot happen in its entirety until “the kingdoms of this world have become the kingdom of our Lord and her Christ, and She shall reign forever!” (Revelation 11:15) I take these verses to mean that the histories of this world will dissolve into the mystery of God’s Story. The early church believed, trusted, and celebrated this final victory—a victory the likes of which no kingdom has ever accomplished or even imagined. That’s why joy was so ubiquitous in the early church. Those Christians were permeated with a hope full of love, peace, and joy. And—this is what is so important for us today—they lived as though that new creation was already taking place. They were called and blessed to be the conduits of this radical healing and liberating kingdom. Jesus had inaugurated this realm, and they were continuing its message and essence by the lives they led, the love they shared, the forgiveness they offered, and their hope which cast its light into all the dark places of the world.

History in all of its forms and biases will not have the last word.

History in all of its forms and biases will not have the last word. Indeed, it need not even have the last word today. As we join Jesus in this great divine conspiracy, we can allow for the mystery of God’s history to unfold in our little corners of the garden of creation. For every strutting and fake history which tell its lies and adds its oppression, there are countless “my-stories” which can grow like mustard seeds and rise like leaven to create microcosms of God’s realm right in the belly of the dragon. And it will be these faithful “my-stories” which God can use both in terrestrial history as well as in the next dimension to flesh out divine dreams. The other histories will dissolve into oblivion. Truth will be revealed. Justice will be served. Healing will take place. Reconciliation will reunite. And love will win. The outcome is sure because God is faithful. The real and only challenge for us is whether we will become a part of this divine conspiracy in our here and now as we each allow “my-story” to become a part of God’s everlasting story.

[Rob Bell in the documentary entitled The Heretic expresses the hope found in Revelation 21 and among the early church father with these inspiring words:

At the heart of the Jesus movement was the belief in the reconciliation, renewal, and restoration of all things: Everything broken being fixed; everything that has wandered coming home; everything that lost the plot rediscovering its true story. So, this movement always had at its center a new heaven and a new earth. It was never about this group is out: “Nice try. We’re going to party. Apparently, you had your moment.” No! It was always [good news]—the images were a feast, a banquet, a party, a celebration and everyone’s welcome. 

Rob Bell

Bell suggests that the corruption and distortion of the Christian faith in our day are the result of forgetting its central message of love, salvation, and renewal. In other words (or in my words), we have forgotten God’s story as we are distracted, seduced, or terrorized by all the “his-stories” of our world. God’s eternal mystery is greater than all our histories. Forgetting that grace will lead the church down destructive paths of cynicism, hopelessness, arrogance, and/or exclusion.]

[Deists among the Founding Fathers included Thomas Jefferson (author of the Declaration of Independence), James Madison (Father of the US Constitution}, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, and Ethan Allen. George Washington (the Father of our country) has been described by historians as a Deist, a Christian Deist, and a “theistic rationalist.” In other words, although Washington believed in God and even in the efficacy of prayer, he rejected many of the core beliefs of orthodox Christianity. Today, his beliefs would be condemned by all Fundamentalist Christians and most conservative Christians. Abraham Lincoln, though not a Founding Father, had Deist tendencies for most of his adult life. Those are the facts. But why let facts inform histories which are guided by bigotry, arrogance, and fear?]

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