Coming to Grips with the Past
“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you.” Acts 7:51 ESV
Dear Church Family,
In 1984, George Orwell twice says this: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” In the book, this statement refers to the way the government keeps people in subjection. It reinterprets the past in order to justify the future they are trying to create.
The way we perceive history has tremendous influence on the way we live and act. You might have heard me talk about the New York Times’ “1619 Project,” which claims that the history of the United States not only had significant racist elements (which is undeniable), but that the “DNA” of the United States is so inescapably racist that the only way forward is to completely scrap the past and begin from scratch. In other words, they are trying to control the past in order to direct the future, just as Orwell said.
This practice, of course, is nothing new. When I traveled through Turkey and Greece, I saw innumerable ancient Roman-era buildings where you could see how a later ruler had literally chiseled out the names of a previous rival leader in an attempt to erase his influence and memory. It would be like, say, taking Abraham Lincoln’s name off of an elementary school because you wanted people to stop holding him in high esteem—but who would do that?
None of this is to deny that we sometimes need to reevaluate our past—to interpret it, say, more honestly. Something like this is happening, in fact, in the passage in Acts 7, quoted above. Stephen was speaking to the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council, who considered themselves the faithful heirs of the great men of God in the Old Testament. This made them feel better about the way they were leading the Jewish people in the present. Stephen, however, offered another take, and it would cost him his life.
Stephen’s fairly long speech (Acts 7:2-53) takes his audience on a meandering survey of Jewish history. Some scholars have actually scratched their heads, wondering, “What is his point?” To me, however, the point is obvious. Stephen doesn’t just recount the history of the Jews; he recounts the history of Jewish rebellion. The punch line begins in v. 51, quoted above, but it continues in v. 52, “was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute?” As you probably know, this enraged the crowd, and they eventually stoned Stephen.
Now, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with seeking out the good elements in our past to pass on to future generations the things that are praise-worthy. On the other hand, the Jews’ refusal to come to grips with the dark side of their past was largely responsible for their rejection of Jesus as God’s messiah. I challenge you to reflect upon your past honestly, not to make you feel guilty, but to keep you open to hearing the voice of God.