Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda

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One of the exercises I have employed over the years in the study of history is the practice of trying to “take sides.” But this requires explanation because there is a sense in which such a practice is incoherent.

All of us are shaped by our culture and upbringing in such a way and to such an extent that mental experiments in time travel are virtually meaningless. In other words, in no meaningful sense could a modern American say that he would have been on the side of Athens instead of Persia at the battle of Salamis. If he had been born an Athenian, he most likely would have fought for Athens, and had he been born in the Persian Empire, he would have fought against Athens. If he had been born as either, then he would not be making the decision as a detached American observer. And if he showed up, inexplicably, as a modern American, he would have stood there befuddled. If we were to step entirely into ancient shoes, then our behavior as individuals would likely have gone in just the way that it went without us. And if we “kind of” step into their position, what do we gain?

Here is the value of the exercise, once the necessary qualifications are made. The Scriptures teach us that history has moral meaning, and that we, the children of our fathers, are required to know and understand that meaning. In a given setting, there was a right thing and a wrong thing to do. Rightly understood, history is to inform us; it is a branch of ethics. These things were written for us as examples, Paul says, speaking of the history of Israel in the wilderness.

This means that, knowing what we know now, what would the ethical decision have been for our fathers? Put yourself in the position of someone back then, who was in a position to choose, and seek to make that decision, knowing what we know now. In the case of the War Between the States, put yourself in the position of someone living in a border state, who has to genuinely work through the decision, and work through the problem honestly and openly, handling all the pros and cons. In the case of Israel in the wilderness, walk away from the temptation to worship the golden calf — knowing what we know now.

Every wise parent goes over hypothetical scenarioes with younger kids. “What would you do if a stranger approaches you with candy?” What a proper study of history does is supply us with a remarkable warehouse of scenarioes, and these scenarioes are not just for little kids. They include a remarkable range of subjects, and a careful reader of history develops an understanding of what a number of things look like in various kinds of human society, things like tyranny, courage, resistance, hatred, sacrifice, slander, authority, rebellion, revolution, and so on.

History is far more than a parade going by the front of our house, which we simply watch and then go back to what we were doing before. If we read history rightly, we will at some level be identifying with some of the individuals we read about, and turning away from others.

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