As a history professor I often find myself in conversations with students and fellow faculty members about whether or not it is appropriate for historians to cast judgment on people and events from another era. Since I teach at a Christian college, these conversations usually focus on applying the moral teachings of the Bible to past events. I am often accused by my non-historian friends of being too “evenhanded” on a particular subject when I should have used my role as a historian to speak prophetically about why such and such a person from the past was wrong.
There is some truth to these kinds of criticisms. How can we be
value-free or morally neutral when we are exploring the past and
encounter Adolph Hitler and the Holocaust, American slavery, Attila the
Hun, and other stories and historical actors that most Christians—and
perhaps even God– would not hesitate to describe as “evil” or “wicked.”
To paraphrase the activist Howard Zinn, a writer who was never shy
about casting moral judgment on the past, “you can’t be neutral on a
moving train.” Similarly, Christians cannot be neutral to the
injustices that surround them. They are required to be moral critics.
So how should Christian historians balance a moral sensitivity to the
injustices of the past with the kind of detachment that is necessary to
fulfill their responsibility as historians? What follows is a brief
and initial attempt at trying to answer that question.
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