Psalm 106: 1-27
Praise the Lord! O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever. Who can utter the mighty doings of the Lord, or declare all his praise? Happy are those who observe justice, who do righteousness at all times.
Remember me, O Lord, when you show favor to your people; help me when you deliver them; that I may see the prosperity of your chosen ones, that I may rejoice in the gladness of your nation, that I may glory in your heritage.
Both we and our ancestors have sinned; we have committed iniquity, have done wickedly. Our ancestors, when they were in Egypt, did not consider your wonderful works; they did not remember the abundance of your steadfast love, but rebelled against the Most High at the Red Sea. Yet he saved them for his name’s sake so that he might make known his mighty power.
He rebuked the Red Sea, and it became dry; he led them through the deep as through a desert. So he saved them from the hand of the foe, and delivered them from the hand of the enemy. The waters covered their adversaries; not one of them was left. Then they believed his words; they sang his praise.
But they soon forgot his works; they did not wait for his counsel. But they had a wanton craving in the wilderness, and put God to the test in the desert; he gave them what they asked, but sent a wasting disease among them.
They were jealous of Moses in the camp, and of Aaron, the holy one of the Lord. The earth opened and swallowed up Dathan, and covered the faction of Abiram. Fire also broke out in their company; the flame burned up the wicked.
They made a calf at Horeb and worshiped a cast image. They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass. They forgot God, their Savior, who had done great things in Egypt, wondrous works in the land of Ham, and awesome deeds by the Red Sea.
Therefore he said he would destroy them—had not Moses, his chosen one, stood in the breach before him, to turn away his wrath from destroying them.
Then they despised the pleasant land, having no faith in his promise. They grumbled in their tents, and did not obey the voice of the Lord. Therefore he raised his hand and swore to them that he would make them fall in the wilderness and would disperse their descendants among the nations, scattering them over the lands.
I am fascinated by the life and times of John Adams. The HBO documentary starring Paul Giamatti is one of my favorite docudramas, 1776 is one of my favorite stage musicals, anything that looks into the life of this man stands out to me. He was a brilliant thinker, a brilliant statesman, and you would be hard pressed to find a more incredible love than the one that existed between himself and his wife, Abigail. He is the complete package.
John Adams is just one example of a fascinating person from the past. Others include, the doomed inventor Thomas Midgely Jr. someone who I discussed early on in my time here or the minimalist theologian Ulrich Zwingli. Even in scripture there are some figures that stand out among the others for being prominent or interesting. Many of the Kings of Judah and Israel, the post-Babylonian civic and religious leaders Ezra and Nehemiah, and so on and so forth. Our past is replete with people who can inspire us to greatness, who we can study with great intensity. However, in these studies and our reflection on the great figures of the past, we must be careful that our understanding of their life does not become whimsical or nostalgic.
What I mean by this is that the reality of the people who came before us is often more complicated than we would like it to be. As in the modern world, very few people who became notable for what they did were people of spotless moral or social conscience. The prominent statesmen of the past, no matter the good they did, were often responsible for a great deal of evil. The great theologians, though they taught us of God and of Christ and formulated magnificent treatises on how we come into the body of Christ, often neglected the weightier matters of the law. Even within the Biblical narrative itself, we are often invited to read the lives of the characters within, not with rose colored glasses, but with a firm, honest, and critical lens.
Returning to my favorite founding father, we find that, while John Adams escapes many of the sins of the other founding fathers, it is impossible not to look at his legacy and be critical of it. While he did not own slaves, and even wrote against the practice from time to time privately, he did not consider it a sufficiently pressing moral question to act upon. His wife, Abigail, disagreed and worked as an abolitionist. While he managed to avoid war with France, criticism of his presidency led to him forming the “Aliens and Sedition Act.” On one hand this made it nearly impossible to criticize the government without fear of retaliation, on the other it first made it harder to become a citizen and then deprived non-citizens of many of the rights they would have otherwise enjoyed.
While it is easy for us to wave our hand at one or several of these features, after all most of these laws passed out of existence within three years of their passing. After all, it was normal in that day and age to keep slaves. None of these offenses were without criticism even in their own time. Slavery was actively opposed by many in the colonies, including the initial Methodist movement before it sold-out to the popular culture of the time. His silence therefore would have rung loud and clear to those with ears to hear it. Regarding the Alien and Seditions Acts – it led to the unforgiveable act of Japanese Internment during WWII.
The two understandings, the lauding of his goodness and the condemnation of his failures, are not oppositional beliefs. The student of history must be willing to do both. We cannot learn from the past if we pretend that it is the ideal that we somehow lost, as Ecclesiastes puts it, “Do not say, “Why were the former days better than these? ”For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.” (Eccl. 7:10) Nostalgia does very little good, and quite a bit of evil. On the other hand, blind opposition to things past causes us to lose the wisdom it holds. Many problems we have today we have had for ages, and the past has some wisdom about them.
There has been persistent discussion in recent years, truly for a few decades, over how we should treat the past. As critical means of analysis have become more prevalent in academia they have been met with open arms by some, and deep suspicion and opposition by others. For my part, I earned my degree in Religious Studies focusing on critical histories of the Christian tradition and indeed have worked throughout seminary with critical theories of all colors. In all the years that I have been studying through critical lenses, never once was I called upon to denounce my faith, my lineage (muddled though it may be,) or my sense of self. However, at every step I was invited to think about what I thought I knew in new ways, from new perspectives.
The art of reviewing the past and acknowledging the good and bad within it is not something that we have to go blindly into, in fact it does not require any formal knowledge of post-modernism or post-colonial theory or any other such framework. I say this because we have one of the most comprehensive examples of historical criticism available to us in this, that is to say, in the Holy Bible. This book, our sacred scripture, is made up of 66 books.
Of those books, something like 10 of them directly act as historical accounts and critiques of the Kings of Israel and their reigns. The 12 prophets utilize the history of God’s people to inform their contemporaries of how far back their corruption goes, the Psalms often do the same. Even in the books that are not strictly historical we find similar critiques – the five books of Moses, Ezra and Nehemiah, even Ruth and Esther to a degree, all paint a picture of God’s people that is not just good people doing good things, but complicated people doing both good and evil with their life. Look at any Biblical figure, you will only find one who is above reproach, who is worthy of exaltation and veneration, only one Christ who is our salvation and example,
It is paramount that we do not think our histories, whether they be our family histories, our national histories, or our denominational and theological histories are greater than the histories recorded in scripture. If the word of God was capable of analyzing its subjects, lifting up what was good and condemning what was bad, without making excuses for their behavior or ignoring the nastier aspects of their life, then we have no excuse for not being able to do the same. I will always be fascinated by John Adams, I will always in some ways see him as a model rabble rousing statesmen, but I cannot do so without treating with equal seriousness the sins he committed against his fellow human beings.
Popular discourse surrounding history in recent years has become a polarizing one. There are those who would like the figures of the past to stay in our exalted memory, paragons of the ideals that we have lifted above all others. There are others, who through legitimate means of analysis, have decided that the sins of the past cannot be ignored. That we cannot pretend that our forebearers were often exceedingly wicked toward those unlike themselves. That it is difficult to lift up as a paragon of virtue, those who owned other human beings as a means of producing capital.
However, I do not believe that there is truly so great a gulf between the two ideals. In both cases, people desire to connect with the past in some earnest way. On one side, the legitimate goods of the past need to be lifted up and emulated and on the other the real and present evil of ages past must be exposed for what it was. If we wish to grow, not only as individuals but as a culture, then both are necessary. Duality is inherent in any human being, in any human society, and failure to acknowledge success or failure ultimately results in a stagnant and increasingly insular society.
Our scripture today stands out to us because, for the entirety of Psalm 106 that author makes no claim to the goodness of God’s people. The Psalmist asks for God make them right, to restore God’s heritage within themself, but then lists every sin they can think of their people committing. In the conclusion, which we did not hear, the Psalmist asks for their people to be returned to the promised land, telling us that this Psalm was written during the Babylonian exile. It was in exile, when all the pet pleasures and distractions of Israel were removed, that this rumination became possible. The realization that the great legacy of Israel was more complicated than just being God’s people but was actually fraught with sin and betrayal only came when the people could not delude themselves otherwise.
For us today, facing one of the most contentious elections in our history. For us today, in the midst of a deadly pandemic. For us today, in a country that cannot decide on how it wants to tell its story. We will hopefully find ourselves becoming more considerate of how we got where we are. Not through a long history of sinless leaders and populace, but a long a troubled fight to establish a truly good society. In every generation there is a call to moral action, there are some successes and some failings. There are epochs of prosperity and justice and goodness, but always in the shadows there is injustice. We cannot stand on the summit of our history any more than Israel could remain on Sinai, because at the foot of the mountain will always be our golden calf.
We cannot talk about the American Revolution and the fight for liberty without addressing the failure to free the enslaved. Cannot speak of Westward expansion without talking about the genocide of Native Americans. Cannot talk about Lincoln’s emancipation of the enslaved without talking about his view that the black race was inferior and could not live among whites. We cannot talk about the Civil Rights Movement without addressing the prison industrial complex. And as we go about our lives today, we must understand that we are writing a history people will someday read.
Will we stand out as a dark era of evil or a paragon of virtue. That is a decision we must make, and it can only happen when we reject the evil we have inherited and accept our true heritage which is found in righteousness, not in blind love of our past. In goodness alone not in warm feelings of empty pride. In Christ alone not in the exaltation and apotheosis of any other hero. Let us study, let us be unsettled, and let us be willing to put away and grow beyond the Sins of our Fathers. – Amen.