“History is always a matter of trying to think into the minds of people who think differently from ourselves.”     
—N.T. Wright

“For my part, I consider that it will be found much better by all parties to leave the past to history, especially as I propose to write that history.”  —Winston Churchill

Dear Friends in Christ,

I believe it was Winston Churchill who also said, “History is written by the victors.” Generally speaking, Americans tend to have a short memory when it comes to history. This might be fueled by an assumption that we are always the ones writing history. Of course, without pausing to look back and reflect, we increase the likelihood of repeating the past.  

During my college years, I was eager to learn history – American history in particular. I have a very strong memory of sitting in class the first day of a U.S. History course and thinking to myself, “Uh oh. This isn’t what I thought it would be.” The professor was dispensing names, dates, and places within an outline that anticipated the conclusion we were meant to reach. It wasn’t until seminary that I found history engaging. This was likely owing to my Early Christianity Professor who brought alive names, dates, and places through stories about the people in these historical events. She invited us to question how it was that we had the historical accounts that we were studying. We were reading the accounts of the winners.

February is Black History Month. Scholars may scoff at any attempt to compress a people’s history into one month. Critics may shrug it off as another effort to be politically correct. But if we engage this month through the lens of the quotes I have previously shared, we will understand that our attention is being turned to a different kind of history – of those who have not been the victors, and whose hope for justice depends on digging deep into our history.

The Christian story is a fascinating study of winners and losers. By those standards, Christianity is, without a doubt, the victor. Through the ages, the church has benefitted from the largess of the wealthy elite, the scholarship of the educated class, and the political power of the ruling class. Yet, at the center of our story is a crucified Messiah – one who lost – only to win through the Resurrection. What does it mean, this victory through the cross? Our faith has us standing in a tension point that challenges our assumptions about winning and losing. Our story is not only about empire; it is about selflessness, hospitality, self-sacrifice, and transformation. We know this not through data points that quantify acts of selflessness, but through the stories of those whose lives have been changed because of a sacrifice made out of compassion and desire for justice.

Shaped by victory through the cross, our faith challenges the term “victor.” As he died on the cross, Jesus’ followers may have assumed he would join the anonymous masses of crucified Jews – one of the thousands who “lost.” It would be the Resurrection that changed everything. It is this real and mysterious truth that overturned the tables on the calculus of winning and losing – the competition over coercive power. Victory through the cross is not a claim of “He won after all!” It is a description of an entirely new way of being human. It is a rejection of the win/lose orientation and a new frame for understanding our human suffering through the lens of faith-filled hope.

When we delve into the history of those who’ve suffered injustice, our attention ought to be on entering into the stories and lives in such a way that we emerge changed from the journey. Learning the history of oppression in our country is deeply painful because it is about human suffering on a scale that is hard to absorb. But we must not oversimplify our history with a win/lose frame. The reason we need to remember the past – to learn history – is to think ourselves into the lives of those different than ourselves. In so doing, we re-humanize each other and see anew how our corporate and intertwined lives can become a sign of a new life in Christ.