The Christian Historian and Empathy

Part 5 of the Integration of Faith & History in the Classroom series

by Dan Miller.

empathyFew developments in the history of any group or individual can be reduced to simple matters of good and evil. Taking an empathetic approach to history means trying to understand the circumstances and perceptions that move people to action. None of us acts with total freedom or perfect knowledge. Our very consciousness depends on chemicals in the brain that can roil our emotions or make us hear voices. We are born into cultures that shape what we are able to see. We operate within institutions that limit our options and history sometimes presents us with a choice between various evils. As Reinhold Niebuhr argued so forcefully, unselfish virtue is not practical in a world where evil has access to power. Hitler’s legions could not be stopped by “turning the other cheek” and so the pacifists who called on the western democracies to disarm and foreswear the use of violence in the 1930s were less “moral” than the political realists who used military violence to halt fascist aggression.[1] In light of that, it behooves Christian historians to avoid condemning others without first trying to understand them. As Abraham Lincoln said of white southerners who “dare[d] to ask God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces,” we should “judge not that we be not judged.”[2]

And yet, empathize as we must, we Christians find ourselves unable to escape entirely from the language of good and evil. We have seen how often and how easily the language of political realism is manipulated to provide a justification for actions that are really just selfish—witness again the CIA-backed coups in Iran and Guatemala or the frequent appeals to “national security” by U.S. Presidents who are merely trying to escape political embarrassment. And we cannot help but admire those individuals who seemed to transcend the limits of their time and place to exhibit broader conceptions of virtue than we thought possible. One thinks in this regard of Bartolomé de las Casas and other Catholic missionaries who offered a Christian defense of the rights of the New World people against the claims of the Spanish empire of which they themselves were representatives, or of the Quaker John Woolman who saw how un-Christian slavery was long before his colonial American contemporaries.[3] One could, and a Christian historian should, multiply such edifying examples. The point is, that while we must avoid simplistic moral judgments, we must not abandon the awareness that, as people made in God’s image, our actions inevitably carry moral consequences and we ought always to be seeking “to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with the Lord” regardless of what our immediate circumstances seem to dictate.[4]

Ovassyne of the most awkward issues I deal with as a Christian historian is the history of the Church. Because Christians are “my people” in a deeper way than all others, it would be tempting to “go easy” on them when telling their story. The Scriptures themselves offer the most powerful rebuke to that approach. Time after time the “heroes of the faith” are depicted with unflinching honesty as sinful and foolish human beings. We are so familiar with the stories in the Old and New Testaments that I think we forget how much space is devoted to “bad news” about God’s people. On numerous occasions, the scriptures announce that God’s judgment begins, not with “the heathen,” but with the chosen. So I do not shy from presenting evidence of moral failure among the Christians. In presenting the Reformation era, for example, I assign Natalie Davis’ article on religious riots in 16th century France.[5] It offers a sobering look at how cruel Christians could be to each other when they thought they were defending the truth. (For balance, I also assign excerpts from W. Fred Graham’s, The Constructive Revolutionary: John Calvin and his socio-economic impact, which offers a very sympathetic account of Calvin’s teaching on social and economic matters.)[6]

things-fall-apartThe source which comes closest to capturing my own sense of what students need to ponder in the history of the Church is Chinua Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart.[7] Achebe, a Christian when he wrote the book, portrays the coming of the gospel to Nigeria. There is both humility and arrogance in the attitude of the missionaries. For some of its hearers, the gospel brings deliverance from spiritual and even physical death, for others it spells the destruction of a familiar and satisfying way of life. And despite the best intentions of its best representatives, the coming of the gospel in its Western Christian guise facilitates the expansion of Europe’s imperial power over the native people. A contextualized gospel indeed! And yet even that is not the last word. As Philip Jenkins makes clear, with the retreat of imperialism, Africa has witnessed a veritable explosion of Christian conversions. God works in mysterious ways, and history is full of surprises.

This post is the fifth in a six-part series based on a statement essay entitled “What Does History Mean to Me as a Christian? On the Integration of Faith and History in the Classroom” by Daniel Miller. This essay was originally written as a faith and teaching statement, which is required of all Calvin faculty but is rarely seen outside the boardroom. On Historical Horizons, we would like to share excerpts from some of our statements as a way of connecting with folks off campus who would like to get to know us better or are thinking about these issues as well. Additional posts will explore Professor Miller’s approach as a Christian historian, including the use of evidence, the role of the Bible and Christians in history, thoughts on a “secular” approach to history, and what our common humanity means to us as historians and Christians.

Professor Daniel Miller has been a member of the Calvin History Department since 1983. He regularly teaches a survey of Latin American history and has taken students there on several January Interim trips. His research interests include the history of Protestantism in Latin America and U.S.-Mexican relations.

Notes & References:

[1] Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1932).

[2] Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865.

[3] Luis N. Rivera, A Violent Evangelism: The Political and Religious Conquest of the Americas (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990) and “John Woolman, The Humanitarian Spirit,” in Words that Made American History, vol. I: Colonial Times to the 1870’s, eds. Richard N. Current, John A. Garraty, and Julius Weinburg, 44-55, (Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown and Company, 1978.

[4] Micah 6:8b.

[5] Natalie Z. Davis, “The Rites of Violence in Sixteenth-Century France,” in Social History of Western Civilization, vol. 1: Readings from the Ancient World to the Seventeenth Century, ed. Richard M. Golden, 287-300, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996).

[6] W. Fred Graham, The Constructive Revolutionary: John Calvin and his socio-economic impact (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 1987).

[7] Achebe, Things Fall Apart (Oxford: Heinemann, 1996).

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