Published: Fall 2009 in Feature Story

The Wait – and Weight – of History

by Acting Provost Richard Pointer, Fletcher Jones Foundation Professor in the Social Sciences

In January 2009, the Consultative Group on the Past issued its much anticipated report. Established in 2007 by the British government’s representative in Northern Ireland, this body’s stated purpose was to assess how the people of that still-divided society might more effectively interact with what has transpired there over the last 40 years so they might live more peaceably and stably together in the years ahead, or in the words of its co-chairs “to find a way forward out of the shadows of the past.”

The report’s 192 pages make clear that although much progress has occurred, many shadows continue to hang low over life in Northern Ireland. For still too many there, history remains either a dark place from which to escape or a blunt instrument to bludgeon the other side for its sins. How will Unionists and Nationalists, Republicans and Loyalists find their way through the past to some common or shared understanding of what has come before and in that way move out of the shadowlands of their history into some brighter future? And when will they be ready for that to happen? The answer is “not yet” when it comes to the Consultative Group’s desire for there to be a shared memorial where all the citizens of the nation could jointly remember their conflict; they admit that it’s simply too contentious an idea for the moment. More time, more history will need to pass before the nation can bear the weight of acknowledging the most elemental truth about its Troubles: both sides were responsible, both sides suffered. Meanwhile, individual families such as that of Martin Mallon wonder when if ever they will know the truth about the particular events of the Troubles that touched them most directly. In the Mallons’ case, who was it that killed their 76-year-old Aunt Roseanne in cold blood while she sat peacefully watching television in her rural cottage in 1994? Will those responsible ever be held accountable? Martin and others in her family are tired of waiting for justice to roll down, tired of asking “how long” will it take for the truth to be told. A past that weighs heavy upon the Northern Irish calls forward cries for both more waiting and less waiting.

In that, the Northern Irish are hardly alone. Facing the past is often hard work, painful work if we are going to do it honestly and openly. Timing is many times the key. Finding that right moment, that right year, that right decade, that right century to lay bare a fuller account of what’s come before is tough business when we know that such knowledge may very well shake the foundations of what we have believed about ourselves and about others. And so, telling the truth about the past, or at least more of the truth, is almost always a waiting game. Sometimes we wait for courage. Sometimes we wait for emotional distance. Sometimes we wait for wisdom or inspiration. Sometimes we wait too long and it becomes harder not easier to confront all of what has preceded us. Just ask Jews and Arabs, or Armenians and Turks, or Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks.

Nobody knows or should know more about the wait of history than the historian herself. Historians through practice, if not intuitively, soon figure out that waiting is intrinsic to their craft. The work of historical research and writing, for example, often requires a good deal of waiting; it’s a slow, laborious, intellectually demanding but mostly satisfying process. Moreover, who more than the historian is at the ready to say, “Let’s wait and see,” when it comes to assessing the significance of some current event? That perhaps has always been the historian’s mantra but all the more so today in the 21st century amid our world of immediate information and instant analysis. The rush to judgment is epidemic in our culture. It has run rampant over any countervailing impulse to pause and reflect and wait. Historians seem hopelessly behind the times when we’re not ready to pronounce on the afternoon of 9/11 that the events of that morning will change the world forever or to assess where Obama will rank among all our presidents after his first week in office. Give us a few years or maybe a few decades to see where things go or how they work out. That’s the only way we can have some proverbial perspective on what’s transpired, the only way we can have that wide angle view that’s needed to begin to sort out the truly significant from the ephemeral. Otherwise we’re too close to see clearly, too prone to blurred vision. Waiting provides the historian with a kind of corrective lens through which to look backward. Or to put it in other words, the present must be past for us to be comfortable working on it.

This link between history and the act of waiting strikes me as one of the main ways in which my life in the past — which is to say my study of and absorption with the past — has pushed my intellect and my character in particular directions. In this article, I want to explore some of those directions history has taken me.

Doing history has certainly forced on me the virtue that I least like and the one that, not surprisingly, I am least good at – patience. History has demanded that I fight against my natural instincts, my natural self and its bent towards impatience, impulsiveness, and impetuosity. I believe that patience is one of the primary habits of being that history has pounded into me.

The type of waiting, however difficult, that I have described so far as essential to the historian’s craft seems to me to be a good kind of waiting, good for both the historian and for the history she teaches or writes. But my research over the last 15 years or so has made me increasingly aware of another type of waiting in history, one I see as far less good. It’s the wait of those from the past whose stories have yet to be told, or yet to be told well, or yet to be told fairly. They wait to be given their due, to be given what we might call historical justice. Indians in early America largely fit that bill. Until recent decades, historians have had a hard time imagining that natives were central to the outworking of that history or that natives might have had their own perspectives on the unfolding of that history. As a result, Indians have had to wait off stage for 200 or 300 years, pushed out of their major roles to the side and turned often into bit players with no lines. Ending that wait in some modest way has been an important motive for my scholarship over the last number of years on the encounters between native peoples and Europeans in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Most of us, I think, at least in our best moments, would want any future scholar who sets out to rehearse our lives to give us our due, neither inflating our virtue or our vice but instead writing something within which we could recognize ourselves. I believe the Indians I study are no different.

It may seem peculiar to speak of long-dead persons as wanting anything, whether Indians, Europeans, or anyone else, but let me suggest that all of us carry with us, at least to a certain extent, the wishes or hopes of some who have gone before us. Perhaps our parents or our grandparents or a friend; their desires for us or our children stay with us and can shape how we live our lives. For historians, the presumed desire of most folk in the past to have their story told fairly obligates us, I think, to treat them as we would any living person – to in fact treat them as a living person. That requires that we begin by breathing new life into them, that we resurrect them, and that once alive, that we try to do nothing less than love them as our neighbor. Such love may take us in many directions but most essentially it pushes us towards telling the truth as best we can, as best we know. And when we do that, we have a better chance of according people the justice they deserve, whether we can see them in the here and now or only in our mind’s eye. And yet, even under those conditions, we historians are bound to mess up the story or get it only partially right. So in some sense we all wait for history or something beyond history to set the record straight on us and everyone else.

Some of us have had to wait particularly long for history to give us even a small portion of our due. And tragically, at least in American history, that has been most true for those who suffered the gravest injustices while alive. The future for them has been painfully slow in meting out any more justice than they experienced in their present. And so the words of Martin Luther King Jr. in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail seem to me to apply equally well to the 18th century Indians I study as to the African Americans he spoke of in 1963: “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’” Historians can do nothing to change what actually happened in the past. But they can endeavor to do justice to all of their subjects and perhaps have a special responsibility to do it to those peoples who experienced so very little of it in their own day.

That ultimate justice will in fact come, that all will be accorded their due, that everything will be set right is the hope that has animated Jews and Christians throughout history in the face of so much present evidence to the contrary. It’s the hope that the Old Testament writers had in mind when they spoke of waiting for the Lord or waiting upon the Lord. It’s what Paul envisioned when he reminded Titus that we wait for the blessed hope. It’s what he portrayed for the Christians in Rome when he depicted all of creation waiting in eager anticipation, groaning in pain for its deliverance, for its complete redemption, for its perfection. Here’s the big wait of history – the wait for the Lord’s coming and his coming again, the wait for all things to be made new, the wait for the rough places to be made plain.

Rarely has that big wait been spoken of more confidently if soberly in the American experience than by Abraham Lincoln on March 4, 1865, Lincoln’s second inauguration as president. On that occasion, his speech offered a theological reflection on the meaning of the Civil War. He told the American people, North and South, that the Almighty had his own purposes in this war and would take history in the direction he would have it go. And in the end, divine justice would be done. Lincoln’s eloquent words tell us that God is driving history, however slowly and however painfully, towards justice. Scripture reminds us that that work of the Lord will only be finished at the end of history, at the end of the long wait of history. In the meantime, I think we do our best to be on the side of the Lord. History has pushed me towards believing that that means we do justice to whomever we can – to those long dead, to those at our side, and even to those yet to come. So here’s another thing that history has done to me: it’s forced me to confront issues of justice on pretty much a daily basis in my reading, teaching, and writing for most of the last thirty-five years. And in the process, it’s asked me, no, it’s required me to make choices about where justice lies and to consider what it might mean to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with my God when I head into the past as well as into the future.

Do justice, be patient; those have been two of the major calls of history on my life bound up with the wait of history. Other calls have sounded from the weight of history. For most historians, I think, the past sooner or later becomes a heavy load to bear. That’s true in part because of how much of it we come to know and our eagerness to have others benefit from our knowledge. So in our classrooms there’s never quite enough time to make all the points we want to and the stacks of articles and books we collectively write grow taller and taller. Yet in the end the past rests heavy upon historians less because of how much they know and more because of what they know. It’s simply the case that living in the past, for even a short time, exposes us to the messiness of life and to the brokenness of people. Wherever and whenever we look, it becomes blatantly obvious that things were not the way they were intended to be. And the upshot of all of that has been untold human pain.

Now perhaps all historians, and for that matter, all of us, get accustomed to that reality, and manage to ignore it, or steel ourselves to it, or become cynical about it. Sometimes we are simply numbed by it. Or we convince ourselves that our role is to be merely an interested observer of it. Each of those is a tack for throwing off the weight of history. And no doubt we need to be able to do that to cope with the challenges of our own lives. But I don’t think that that’s always good enough for historians. Sometimes we historians are called to bear some of the pain of the past and to lay it bare for others to share in. At least that is what I have come to see as part of my responsibility or burden as a history professor and historian. That surely is not a unique burden of the historian; all the liberal arts share in it. It’s just that we historians may have a wider set of materials to draw upon. So I believe it’s sometimes necessary to take one’s students or one’s readers into some very dark places. Or perhaps I should put it, to invite our students or our readers to go to those places with us, because I’ve been convinced over the years that unless others choose on their own to make that trip, it won’t affect them in the ways I want it to. In asking a class to go down that road – whether that road is slavery, genocide, war, racism, famine, disease, or something else – I feel a great weight; it’s the weight of knowing others’ pain and the weight of being the one who is bringing students into that pain. Nevertheless, I want to pass that pain on to my students, not so that I can be free of it but so that they, too, can be changed by it. For in really knowing that pain, our minds are stretched, our hearts are broken, and our souls are deepened.

The past is a burden, then. It is part of what I carry with me. And it’s another part of what history has done to me: it’s forced a lot of pain on me. That may sound facile or trite but I mean it in all seriousness. History has demanded a radical loss of innocence and a profound growing up. It’s what turns most historians into skeptics. It sobers us, it slows us down, it stops us. Much of the time I have been a reluctant recipient of this particular “gift” of history but its refining work has nonetheless gone on.

In recent years, that has particularly taken the form of my growing awareness of the ways in which the pains of the past can continue to close in upon those who have suffered to the point where unless those wounds are healed and reconciled, there is not much of a today and very little of a tomorrow for those people. The past comes forward with them, as for us, in the form of memories. Whether those people are individuals or whole nations, those memories go a long way towards shaping their self-identity and how they interact with others. Memories are our reconstructions of the past and stand alongside the work of historians as another way of interacting with the past. So to return to where I began, Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland have very different and competing collective memories of the past. Until those memories change, the past will remain a major obstacle to a fuller peace there, a major load weighing down that whole society. Westmont students I took there in 1999 and 2007 certainly sensed that. Likewise, visits to Bosnia with students in 2004 and 2007 revealed similar truths about how the pain of the past remains very much alive in competing memories that perpetuate deep divides among its peoples.

Sometimes the weight of the past is so great that it threatens to do nothing less than crush us. One of this year’s best picture nominees, The Reader, based on Bernhard Schlink’s novel, captures a bit of what that can look like. Its story of postwar Germany trying to come to fuller terms in the 1960s and beyond with its individual and national sins of the 1940s points up the toll the past can take. Guilt, shame, reprisal, lack of forgiveness, generational conflict, loneliness, hopelessness – those are just some of what this book and film show the past capable of inflicting both upon those who experienced it in the first place and those who follow. This novel also shows that sometimes the dead can hold us accountable when nothing else or no one else can.

Exploring the depths of human sinfulness is surely not the only thing we students of history do but it certainly needs to be one of them if we are going to take full account of the past. We find that the sins of the fathers and mothers do indeed get visited upon the third and fourth generations. Evil usually does leave a long trail and in its wake, we historians find the stuff of human tragedy. That weighs heavy on us or at least I think it should.

Thankfully, that is not all there is to the human past. There are also what writer Thomas Cahill has called “narratives of grace” running throughout history; moments when some truth was discovered, some good was done, some evil was overcome, some beauty was created, preserved or enjoyed, some care was extended, some wrong was righted, some trespass was forgiven, some sin was atoned. We historians rightly avoid the temptation to turn the histories we write and teach into simple morality tales of good versus evil. Life is too complex and ambiguous for historians to be the final arbiters of such matters. But we owe it to ourselves and to others to acknowledge the profoundly mixed character of the world we live in and of all past worlds. There is light among the darkness, grace amid the shadows, something worth believing in.

As a Christian historian, I believe that grace comes from a good God. He has shed his common grace across all peoples in all places at all times but has also chosen to incarnate grace in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. In so entering history himself, God imparted to history a significance, a weightiness, and a weight it would not otherwise have. That gives Christians as good a reason as anyone to take history seriously and to believe that it does matter, that it is good for something. It makes a life dedicated to the study of history a calling worth pursuing, even in a fast-changing, fast paced culture that doesn’t give much weight to history or historians.

Perhaps that’s all the more reason to be an historian in the 21st century; we’re needed more than ever to be a kind of counter-cultural tug or anchor, trying to keep things weighed down for just a little while so we catch our collective breath. But that’s tough to do when the current of time seems to be rushing swifter and swifter forward, leaving our ability to look backwards more and more impaired. Under those conditions, it is easy to conclude that a life spent in the past and the past itself are best washed away, swept out to sea or simply down the drain. After all, how can what happened in the 18th century or any other century really matter when compared to what we face right now or in the future? That has been a real question for me for decades. The only way in the end through that question has been and continues to be an act of faith – faith that Christ’s birth, life, death, and resurrection did indeed all take place within the framework of human time and because they did, history matters. Together they are I believe God’s grand affirmation that this stretch between eternity past and eternity future that we humans call history really does count for something. In fact they tell us that everything depends on what actually happened in Palestine in the first century. Those events were not the end of the story but they have made all the difference for where the story is going.

Here, then, is the weight of history. On the one side, its heaviness as it lays upon us the pain of the past. And on the other side, its weightiness as it lays open for us the very purposes of our being and of all creation. In the end, we Christians see this heaviness and this weightiness as intimately linked, for it was that very pain and brokenness that prompted God to break into history in a whole new way and make possible the work of redemption. When that work is finally complete, then history’s work will be complete. History itself will be able to lay down its burden and take a permanent rest. But until that day and for that day, we wait. Here again is that big wait of which I spoke earlier. We wait upon the Lord. I wait upon the Lord. I wait with patience, I wait by doing justice, I wait with a deep sense of the world’s pain, I wait with eyes and ears open for grace, and I wait with utter hope and confidence that he who has begun a good work in this world will bring it to completion in the day of Christ Jesus.

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