I thought this excerpt from Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past would make for an appropriate Valentine’s Day post on history blog.
Love is at the center of the Christian life. It is one of the “fruits of the Spirit” recorded in Galatians 5:22-23. Jesus reminded us that “greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13). His sacrificial death on the cross exemplified the ultimate act of love (Phil. 2:6-8). In the Christian tradition, we flourish as human beings when we learn to live the “Jesus Creed”–loving the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and loving our neighbor as ourselves. Such sacrificial love for God and neighbor is the source of true joy and happiness. In the words of St. Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). As theologian Miroslav Volf reminds us, ” At the core of the Christian faith lies the persuasion that…’others’ need not be perceived as innocent in order to be loved, but ought to be embraced even when they are perceived as wrongdoers… The story of the cross is about God who desires to embrace precisely the ‘sons, and daughters of hell.'” Our lives should be one of “embrace” rather than “exclusion.”
The study of the past offers endless opportunities to exercise loving embrace to our fellow humans, even if they have lived in a different era and are no longer alive. It is easy to manipulate the voices from the past to serve our own purposes in the present, and out of love we must not do this….This kind of presentism makes for bad history, and when looked at theologically, this kind of manipulation is also a failure to love–a failure to enter into the worlds of those who have gone before us with a spirit of compassion, selfishness, and empathy. People in the past cannot defend themselves. They are at the mercy of the historian. This, of course, gives the practitioner of history a great deal of power. But Christian historians will do their best to meet the people in the past as Jesus encountered the people he met during his earthly ministry. They must relinquish power and avoid the temptation to use the powerless–those in the past who are at the mercy of us, the interpreters–to serve selfish ends, whether they be religious, political, or cultural. The exercise of this hermeneutic of love means that we will read historical texts for the purpose of learning how to love people who are not like us, perhaps even people who, if we were living at the same time, may have been our enemies. It forces us to love others–even a nineteenth-century slaveholder or Hitler–when they seem to be unlovable. Failure to respect the people in the past is ultimately a failure of love. It is a failure to recognize the common bond that we share with humanity.