Woe to the nation who has forgotten its past injustices, its ancestor’s sin, for it will perpetuate those sins in different forms. It will find new ways to enslave, new ways to shackle, new ways to hold others down while others rise up.
I have a friend who isn’t computer literate, so when I mentioned that he could go on Google Maps and see an aerial view of his house, he didn’t believe me until I showed him a picture of his house on my phone. We zoomed in on his house and it showed him in his driveway washing his car. He’s also kind of paranoid, so I told him the government was spying on him.
Do you remember looking up your house when Google Maps came out? The image of our house showed a pile of lumber in the side yard from when Spencer was building our screen house, and our old pick-up truck I sold last fall, and Joan mowing the yard. Then I entered the address for our farmhouse and saw something I had never noticed before. Back in the late 1950’s, Joan’s dad had diverted Young’s Creek that ran behind their house from a meandering creek into a straight channel, and had dumped the soil from the new trench into the old twisty creek bed, the footprint of which was plainly visible from the air. Because water has a memory, after a big rain the old creek bed gets swampy, the fill dirt settles a bit more, and the old waterway becomes a bit more pronounced. A hundred years from now, it might abandon the straightaway altogether and return to its original path.
I know a lady who grew up poor, then came into money and doesn’t want anyone to know her family was poor. But from certain vantage points, hiding our past isn’t possible. We can never quite erase where we’ve been and what we’ve been, and we shouldn’t try.
When I embraced the Christian faith, I was told Jesus would make me a new person and my past would be forgotten. The Apostle Paul said this, and he seemed to speak with great authority. If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away. Behold, the new has come! This was drummed into my head. I was a new person, the old had passed away. But then I kept bumping into people who hadn’t been informed the old had passed away, people who knew my history. Now it wasn’t a terrible history. There are certainly worse histories. But it was still possible to see where the old waters had ran, despite my best efforts to straighten the path.
I’ve been thinking about this, and I believe Paul was mistaken. Or maybe didn’t want to be reminded of his past, which according to the book of Acts was somewhat checkered. If I had done what Paul had done, I’d want my old life to fade into the mist, too. But our old lives don’t do that. We can almost always tell where the water used to run. We can never quite erase where we’ve been and we shouldn’t try, because it’s the story of where we’ve been that gives the gospel its power.
This is why when the Bible tells a story of transformation, it never pretends the past didn’t matter.
David’s faithfulness to God is measured against his duplicity with Bathsheba and his conspiracy to murder her husband Uriah. Had we not known his past, we could never appreciate the transformation he experienced later.
What would the story of Zacchaeus’s generosity to the poor mean to us, if we hadn’t first known he’d made his living cheating the poor?
How can we appreciate the reconciliation of Paul and Barnabas, if we first don’t know about their bitter division?
And do you remember the Samaritan woman at the well? She wanted to talk about everything but her past. Though Jesus knew it, and raised the subject. “You’ve had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband.”
We’ve been taught that the wonder of the gospel is that it erases where we’ve been and what we’ve done. But that isn’t so. Rather, the wonder of the gospel is its full awareness of where we’ve been and what we’ve done, yet still insists on our potential, is still optimistic, is still eager to be present with us. Our past is never forgotten, nor hidden. It remains as evidence of what God has done in our lives, despite our resistance, despite our failures, despite our opposition.
That’s why it’s good news.
Jesus didn’t say to the woman at the well, “You’ve had five husbands, and the man you’re with now isn’t your husband, get away from me.” He said, “Draw me some water and let’s talk.”
Jesus didn’t say to Zacchaeus, “I can’t be seen with you. You’re a liar, a cheat, and a thief.” He said, “Tonight I’m going to eat at your house.”
God didn’t say to David, “I want nothing to do with you. You slept with another man’s wife and had him killed.” God said, “I have a great task for you.”
God didn’t say to me when I was seventeen, “I can’t use you. You’re racist, you make fun of gay people, and you diminish women.” I mean, geez o’ Pete, I was a boy in Indiana in the 1970s’, I was all of those things. But God filled my life with people who were different from me and taught me to treasure them.
God never forgets our past. God uses our past, illuminates our past, reminds us of our past, so we recognize our need to change, and acknowledge who can change us, so we are aware of the gifts others have brought into our lives, aware of the blessings we’ve experienced, so we don’t suffer spiritual and moral amnesia. God not only does this with people, God does this with nations, when those nations listen. Woe to the nation who has forgotten its past injustices, its ancestor’s sin, for it will perpetuate those sins in different forms. It will find new ways to enslave, new ways to shackle, new ways to hold others down while others rise up.
On the sidewalks of Germany are bronze bricks in the sidewalks in front of the homes of the Jews killed in the Holocaust, naming their names. We can never erase where we’ve been and what we’ve done, and we shouldn’t try.
In Marion, Indiana, the county seat of Grant County, there should be a plaque describing how two black teenagers were dragged from the jail by a mob and lynched from a tree on the courthouse lawn in 1930, but no such plaque exists.
At Standing Rock Reservation, there should be a plaque describing how land promised and given to Native Americans has been taken for a pipeline.
There should be a plaque in Dahlonega, Georgia, where in 1830 in America’s first gold rush, 16,543 Cherokees were removed from their land and forced to march to Oklahoma. 6,000 men, women, and children died of disease, exhaustion, and starvation along the trail of tears. I’ve been to Daholonega. There’s a plaque about the gold, but not about the Cherokees. Four miles southwest of the town is a plaque applauding General Winfield Scott, who led the removal, for “protecting” the Indians.
Woe to the people, woe to the nations, who have forgotten their past, who have forgotten where their waters once ran, and therefore risk returning to it.