My first weak attempt at spring cleaning has turned up the printed discussion materials from a Lenten covenant group I took part in at my Presbyterian church. This question caught my attention, as it had done the first time I encountered it during Lent:
The Heidelberg Catechism in our Book of Confessions asks, “What is your only comfort, in life and death?” It might ask, where do you find peace in a world of enmity, suffering and death? How would you answer the question of the catechism?
Now, the authors of the Heidelberg Confession didn’t intend the question to be open-ended, but supplied an answer that is a basic statement of Christian faith. Our discussion, however, encouraged us to look beyond dogma and find fitting personal answers. Mine came quickly: history.
Since I first became conscious of it, the grand sweep of history has given me comfort and peace in a world of enmity, suffering and death. I’m not referring to the bromide that knowing history keeps us from repeating it. We do manage, despite what we know, to cycle through old problems again and again. My comfort comes from knowing that human life existed long before my teeny span, and will continue on, unless mine or a subsequent generation mucks it up. All the people who ever have or ever will inhabit the earth bear the same basic longings and frustrations, and knowing that makes mine bearable–and less significant than I might imagine them in fretful moments. Vast dimensions of time and space help us dial back our ego pretensions. Consider the message of the Monty Python song, “The Galaxy.”
I take comfort not only in the long sweep of history, but also in its general direction. I come from a family of Midwestern progressive populists, people who believed that history tends toward the better, and that we inhabitants of the galaxy, within our brief lifespans, can act in thoughtful, deliberate ways that help push the course toward ultimate good. Leaving home for college exposed me to cynicism as an alternate, quite popular outlook on life. The daily news nourishes cynicism by offering plenty of evidence of regression: war, genocide, slavery, domestic violence. Yet I still choose the progressive’s optimism. I believe our tiny actions steadily wear away at injustice and human folly. Some populations experience faster forward motion than others, and they, especially, must guard against smugness, the cynic’s great love.
Recently I’ve been hearing and reading about “historical trauma,” a legacy of past injustice that still carries power to shape the present. Diane Wilson writes, in her book Beloved Child, about several Dakota people who are working to heal the lingering effects of genocide and forced exile. They do so by advancing all that they value in Dakota tradition into the present, allowing it to thrive in their daily lives. The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 is still the most contentious event in Minnesota history, and this year is its 150th anniversary, a milestone that calls for commemoration. Yesterday, I was one of a group of people invited to view the mock-up of an exhibit on the war that will open at the Minnesota Historical Society in June. We were equipped with post-it notes and pens in case we wanted to offer comments and suggestions. The curator, Kate Roberts, is making sure that people of many persuasions will have a say in how this complex history is presented and interpreted. One panel identified the Mdewakanton Dakota leader Taoyateduta as “more commonly known as Little Crow.” Someone had stuck up a post-it note asking, “known by whom?” Perception matters. His own people surely called him by his Dakota name. The use of language tells us a great deal about the direction history might take, if we listen to one another’s experiences of it. The U.S.-Dakota War used to be called the Dakota Uprising, a name suggesting a stereotypical cause: The natives were restless. Before that, it bore an even more accusatory name, the Sioux Massacre.
I’ve witnessed yet another reckoning with historical trauma this week: two performances of Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations,”a dance he created as an artistic expression of African American history. I still carry images from a performance years ago, while Ailey was still alive and leading the company. The staging and costumes made more explicit reference to history back then, suggesting slavery and work in the cottonfields. The current performance seems to stress the emotional universality of the piece, but retains visual allusions to the African American church, which is the source of its music. The trajectory of the dance is progressive, from the mournful “I Been ‘Buked and I Been Scorned” to the jubilant “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham.” Since its creation in 1960, this danced rendition of the up-from-slavery story has become the American dance piece most frequently performed around the world. People who see it now apparently respond more to its emotional progression from despair to joy than to its historical narrative. Affirming the core Americanness of African American experience is a good outcome, and evoking emotional and spiritual resonance in others, both allies and presumed enemies, is even better. History moves forward that way. Yet none of us should forget where we started, lest we lose the measure of our progress and that great source of comfort, the grand sweep of history.