Wednesday, August 8, 2012

This Week's "Anxious Bench" Post at Patheos: "Should Historians Cast Judgment on the Past?"

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.

Read the rest here.

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