Critiquing Our History
by Jacob Hudgins
“If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets”(Matt 23:30).
As Jesus rails against the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees, he brings up the monuments they build to commemorate past prophets. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets’”(Matt 23:29-30). They acknowledge—and even celebrate—their history without taking appropriate lessons from it. The essential lessons are directly in front of them, yet they are unable to learn and change. The Pharisees show us our deep need to critique our history.
Critique sees good and bad. They build tombs because these prophets were murdered. And the scribes and Pharisees rightly distance themselves from the actions of their fathers—“If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets”(Matt 23:30). Jesus will take issue with their assertion, but they correctly see that just because these people are related to them doesn’t mean they are right. We often struggle with romanticizing the past—the “good ol’ days” syndrome that glosses over failures and evil from the past. Likewise we often struggle with demonizing the past—making the failures of past history the headline of the story. Proper critique reminds us that historical figures are people just like us—good and bad—and that we can learn from them in both directions.
Critique remains humble about self. The Pharisees see their fathers’ evil and condemn it, but then they immediately brush it aside as if they would never do anything similar. “If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets”(Matt 23:30). I would never do that! Yet Jesus insists that they have done—and are currently doing—the very thing they decry in their history. “Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar”(Matt 23:34-35). Jesus makes no distinction between what their fathers did and what they are doing (“whom you murdered”). If we learn nothing else from history, we must learn that ordinary people like you and me are capable of really awful mistakes.
Critique looks for parallels to modern situations. Jesus points them not only to the historical record, but also to the current situation: “some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog”(Matt 233:34). One of the dangers of historical study is assuming that past eras were entirely different from our own. We have not effectively learned from history until we see how it is applied now.
We need this type of honest critique about our nation—seeing the good and bad, remaining humble, and applying to today. We need this type of critique about our religious tradition—the Restoration Movement, American Christianity, and life in the American South. We need this type of critique about our personal failures, about our families, and about our local church. How tragic would it be for the lessons to be right there in front of us, yet we are unable to learn and change!