The recent round of protests in Colorado over a proposed change to the Advanced Placement American History curriculum has illustrated for me the challenge in our culture about what it means to remember well.
The College Board, the organization that administers Advanced Placement tests that allow high school students to earn college credit for their studies, recently recalibrated the framework of the AP American history course. This decision set off a recent, fiery round of protests in Jefferson County, Colorado, just west of Denver.
The new College Board framework includes instruction about the colonial-era conflicts between Native Americans and European settlers (a view that also comes up each year around Columbus Day and Thanksgiving) and an exploration of hot-button issues shaping current events. The conservative majority in charge of the Jefferson County School Board joined a handful of other districts around the country in expressing concern at the shift in content and tone of the new curriculum.
Those opposing the new guidelines insist schools should help develop good citizens by giving their students a strong sense of American exceptionalism. Those supporting the College Board’s new framework have the same goal, but see the benefits of studying of some of the difficult chapters of our country’s exceptional but imperfect history. The wars and discrimination, the hostile takeovers and lynchings: These things happened in the land of the free and the home of the brave as well.
While the Colorado debate has surfaced all sorts of educational issues, including concerns about implementing Common Core standards, the discussion about what it means to remember and how we pass those memories on to the next generation has important application for all of us.
Those who view the past through a rose-colored filter or selective recall may think they’ve discovered a workaround to George Santayana’s famous observation that those who don’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it. After all, they’re not forgetting the past. They’re simply remembering more comfortable version of it.
God asks us to recall the past, too. But the kind of remembering to which his followers are called is not a passive act of recall, nor does he ask us to filter the unpleasant bits of the story as we consider the past. This kind of remembering the past is meant to form us into people who walk humbly with him in the present tense, reflecting his character as we act justly and love his mercy.
As someone who has experienced anti-Semitism, a chill goes down my spine when I hear a world leader steadfastly refuse to remember history, preferring instead an alternate version of reality. I live with the knowledge that my faith in a Jewish Messiah would not have spared me or my family from the gas chambers of Auschwitz had I been living in the Europe controlled by the Third Reich during World War II.
I felt it essential that my children understand the difficult parts of our ethnic-religious history as they were growing up, as they were going to be living in a world where anti-Semitism continues to be an issue. (The remembering and teaching of the darker moments in history to children needs to be age appropriate, of course. I am not advocating showing Shindler’s List to six year-olds as a way to tell them about the Holocaust.)
We can probably all understand the impulse to skip over painful histories, whether in our personal lives, our country, or our people. After all, our hope is that our children will secure a better future. But, especially as they grow up, these histories hold important lessons for them—in the good and the bad. The many unvarnished discussions my family had over the years about the troublesome, painful parts of our world’s history served two important purposes: they gave them a vocabulary for signs of both personal and systemic injustice and a voice they could choose to use on behalf of another.
The bit of verse attributed to German pastor Martin Niemoeller, who survived years of imprisonment in Nazi concentration camps during World War II, has been used to motivate many to social responsibility. These words offer a unique call to those of us who bear God’s name in this world:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
A version of the past that avoids the unfavorable will not form kingdom-hearted members of society who recognize injustice, or discover how to use their voices on behalf of the marginalized. Through these painful histories, we as followers of Jesus develop a greater empathy for the stories of others.
Sometimes, using our voice on behalf of someone who has been marginalized means not saying a word. We can engage in the ministry of listening to hear and know the stories of those who have been treated as “less than” members in our society and sometimes, in our churches: immigrants, the mentally-ill, minorities, the disabled, the poor.
Rather than stopping the conversation with remarks like, “Why can’t you just move on? The past is the past,” “I’m not responsible for what your people experienced,” or “You’re stuck in your victimhood,” we can simply listen. The fruit of the Spirit flowering in us will express the compassion of God for the others he’s placed in our lives. God’s love is a far more powerful filter than rose-colored lenses any day.
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