In last week’s address to the U.S. Congress, Pope Francis brought an eloquent and powerful sermon to the halls of power. Using four great leaders from American history, the pope reminded the leaders of this nation that we do have great ideals. As Francis sees it, Lincoln, King, Day, and Merton each embody certain aspects of the American character, and I enjoyed his unpacking of these four ideals.
In a not so subtle response to criticism over the canonization of Junipero Serra, the founder of the California mission system, the pope stated in his address that we cannot judge the past by the standards of the present. I simply could not agree with him more and let me tell you why.
Every person is a mixed bag.
As a lay theologian, it is important to remember that every person is flawed. We are sinful, and the pope would be the first to assert this truth (I’ll be the second!). At the same time, we do have a measure of good in this fallen world, thanks to common grace (which is a Reformed theological concept). There is good that God blesses society with apart from the salvific work of Christ. Sin is not fully corrosive in the world, thanks to the restraining grace of God. However, when it comes to humanity, we are created good but existentially strained from the righteousness of God.
Serra is a mixed bag, like all people. He did good things and not so good things. However, how does he compare with the rest of his contemporaries? How does other historical figures we admire compare with others of the same time?
Don’t be a chronological snob.
C.S. Lewis has a great section in one of his works where he argues that people who stand in the current century and judge the past are guilty of chronological snobbery. We sit judging other people based on our own “self-evident” truths, when in reality we could very well be just as guilty (or more!!) if we were in their situation. As a friendly reminder: nobody is perfect (see above).
It takes a great person to walk away from power, as George Washington did after the American Revolution, and I might not have done the same thing as he did. Would you have given up all power when it was in your historical right to proclaim yourself as the conquering king? Yes, he did own slaves, but what about his contemporaries? Step away form your Twentieth Century world and into his.
Would you have placed your life on the line over the abolition of slavery? Would you have walked across the bridge at Selma and confront the ugliness of racism? Seriously though, think about it.
Of course I can see the flaws of Lincoln or Calvin or ______, but does that mean I would have done any better in their shoes? Would you?
Judge historical characters by their own present.
If you want to be a good historian, tell a story. Get inside of their world and see what the historical figure saw—tell their story first.
Of course it is impossible to be objective, our own beliefs will always impact our thought process; however, we might learn to see that historical characters have merits and flaws. Reflecting on the past character by their own present reality will show us something new, and it just might make us more empathetic when it comes to listening to others in our own present. Maybe through this exercise we can regain the lost art of listening well before offering our own opinion.