History Lessons
by Bill Noggle 1995

It appears that history is gaining in popularity now that conservatism is a rising star in the political arena. The newly elected Speaker of the House once taught the subject, and in the media, printed and electronic, historical allusions are commonplace with a variety of pundits; liberal and conservative, secular and religious. This would be a welcomed change were it not for the revisionism indulged in by diverse cultural interests. The recently proposed National Standards for history were unanimously condemned by the U. S. Senate, while educators were either favorably disposed or mute. In view of the variety of opinions heard, a working knowledge of history is most helpful in sorting through this jungle of rhetoric.

According to Arnold Toynbee, "History is predominately the story of unlearned lessons." These lessons of history are most readily learned in hindsight. Like a prophecy heeded, history applied successfully to a later problem, is seldom noted until it appears in a polemic addressing a current issue. More often, history is employed for baser purposes. Consider, for example, the following:

"Western nationalism prevails, the whole people is being taught from boyhood to foster hatreds and ambitions by all kinds of means, - by the manufacture of half-truths and untruths in history, by persistent misrepresentation of other races and the culture of unfavorable sentiments toward them, by setting up memorials of events, very false, which for the sake of humanity should be speedily forgotten, thus continually brewing evil menace toward neighbors and nations other than their own. This is poisoning the very fountain of humanity. It is discrediting the ideals which were born of the lives of men, who were our greatest and best. It is holding up one universal religion for all the world. We can take anything from the hands of science, but not this elixir of moral death."
 So has the Indian poet, Sir Rabindranath Togore, described the rising nationalism in Japan. This was written in 1916, and hardly of interest today. Or is it? Recently a missionary returning from Japan described as the most disturbing element in that culture the obsession with the idea of "Ichi Bon": "Number One". One wonders at the sight of a group of teenagers who are crying, "We are number one," while jumping about, waving one finger in the air, after trouncing some ten-year olds in a pickup basketball game. We are not immune to self-congratulation.

Tagore's essay expressed the hope that Japan would not embark on a course of military aggression. As we now know, such was not the case. National self-aggrandizement and its consequent wars are the hallmarks of this century, attributable not only to Japan, but also to each national power without exception. National pride with self-serving, power-seeking leadership can not help but lead to personal grief and suffering. The folk song refrain popular during the Vietnam war still echos true: "When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?"

As with schoolwork, lessons are either learned, half-learned, or totally dismissed. The Bible, similarly, is either accepted as is, or is rejected totally or in part. The historicity of the Bible was first attacked by a number of scholars. The Old Testament was reduced to mythology, leading to the "higher criticism" which stripped Christ of his divinity. The scientific historical methods though claiming neutral objectivity, concealed a subjective animosity to religion in general, and to Christianity in particular. Centuries before, the laws of Moses were reduced to arid legalism through the subjective interpretation by the scribes and pharisees. Their animosity toward Christ was extended to the Christians when political conditions permitted. The controversies between these critics and Christ were invariably settled when Christ provided the proper interpretation to the law as given in Scripture.

It is readily apparent that the motivations for drawing lessons from history, (biblical history in particular) as to purpose and criteria, are of crucial importance. The only acceptable course is to conform to the will of God, whose criteria is the system of truth revealed in Scripture. Therefore, in obedience to God's commandment, we must study history, the purpose being that we learn the fear of the Lord, that we learn His statutes, that we take up Christ's easy burden, and that we remember His mighty deeds.

History is memory in the human sense. It is the path by which the Word comes to us. The Bible constantly commands us to remember; remember now thy creator in the days of thy youth; remember His marvelous works; remember the Sabbath to keep it holy; do this in remembrance of Me. But because of our sin nature, we remember selectively, rejecting, altering, or accepting the past according to our purpose.

Today America is the ascendant world power reluctant to remember that last century the British Empire was in the same position. Britain, among her many accomplishments during the last century, achieved political reform, enacted legislation to ameliorate social ills, instituted free trade, championed a variety of persecuted ethnic peoples, boasted of her industrial and commercial power, extended suffrage so that political power fell to the middle and working classes, and with her military power, maintained peace in the colonies. Also during this time missionary activity was considerable while archeology and biblical scholarship thrived. The empire was vast, proud, and self-sufficient. On the occasion of Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee, Rudyard Kipling was moved to write:

  If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
    Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,
  Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
    Or lesser breeds without the Law --
  Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
  Lest we forget -- Lest we forget!

many parallels between nineteenth century England and twentieth century America, is there cause for alarm? Shall we cultivate our cabbages like Voltaire's "Candide", or shall we petition God's mercy as did the publican, or shall we cry out as did the penitent thief, "Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom."?

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