The Limitations of Our Time

I usually like to start the workday with reading the lectionary, which includes readings from the Psalter, the Old Testament or Apocrypha, the New Testament (non-Gospels), and the Gospels. Additionally, on some days, there is a brief account of a saint who is celebrated that day along with a prayer remembering that saint (sometimes more than one saint is commemorated on a given day).

The other day, Edward Demby and Henry Delany were commemorated. Here was the prayer that was offered at their inspiration:

Loving God, we offer thanks for the ministries of Edward Thomas Demby and Henry Beard Delany, bishops of thy Church who, though limited by segregation, served faithfully to thy honor and glory. Assist us, we pray, to break through the limitations of our own time, that we may minister in obedience to Jesus Christ; who with thee and the Holy Spirit livest and reignest, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

I like the phrase “limitations of our own time.” The phrase does not excuse the faults of our time, or of any time for that matter. Indeed, the two men commemorated here can rightly be said to have transcended the limitations of their time.

Nonetheless, whether limited by time or free of such limitations, we are all limited by our fallen humanity. Solzhenitsyn put it this way:

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

It’s this that troubles me with so many efforts I see these days to exorcise the past. No doubt there are people and symbols of the past that need to be deflated. But when I see Princeton students wanting to remove the vestiges of Woodrow Wilson or Oxford students (Rhodes Scholars no less) wanting to remove a statue on campus of Cecil Rhodes, it seems to me that this is arrogance of the present berating limitations of the past.

Wilson and Rhodes had plenty of faults. But they played pivotal roles in the history of the schools where some students are now insisting that their memory be erased. Marxist historians in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union were sometimes forced to rewrite history to suit their party bosses. Erasing history is just as much a rewrite of history, and just as much a lie.

The past is the past. It’s never pretty. But it is what it is, and we do better remembering it than pretending that it didn’t happen.

The same people who want to sanitize history, ensure that universities consist entirely of safe spaces, and police micro-aggressions will, I fully expect, be seen as tomorrow’s bigots, unduly influenced by the limitations of their own time.