Berkley Forum

Wrestling with “Charlottesville” in the Classroom

Responding to Firsthand Reflections on Charlottesville

Why study the history of Christianity? Why study history at all?

These questions have weighed heavily on my mind over the last two weeks. This is a time of year when I’m normally buzzing with energy, getting myself ready for the first days of classes. I love teaching The Rise of Christianity every fall semester. It’s a thrill and a challenge to lead a group of students through the first millennium of Christianity’s history in a mere 15 weeks. But this year, the excitement and the anticipation in the weeks before the semester weren’t there.

Instead, I found myself struggling with apathy. Finalizing the syllabus and getting the course materials together felt like a chore. It all just felt a little irrelevant.

About a week and a half ago, I watched as 300 white supremacists marched across our university grounds. They surrounded and menaced a small group of brave undergraduate protestors, with nary a police officer in sight. The next day, they shattered the peace of our quiet town, marching through our streets with guns, clubs, and Nazi regalia. They maimed and even killed.

The days that followed now feel like a blur. With the university administration refusing to give an adequate response, it fell to us—faculty, staff, and even graduate students—to protect our students and address the aftermath. It was a week of vigils and ad hoc meetings, as we processed events, symbolically took back our university, and took further training in anticipation of more events like those of August 11 and 12.

With such deep-seated racial tensions bubbling up to the surface, and many in our town still suffering the after-effects of such a violent weekend, teaching a course about events from millennia ago seemed trivial. Didn’t we have much bigger fish to fry?

But as I watched our campus come alive on Monday, the fog began to clear, if only a little. I sat outside and reflected on just how many conversations I had engaged in about “history” over the past week. In fact, these are conversations that our town has been having since 2015, when we began to consider in earnest taking down the statue of Robert E. Lee from a downtown park. And now, in the aftermath of “Charlottesville,” it seems we’ll be talking in earnest about this as a country.

So, it seems worth seriously considering what value history holds for us.

Many of us value historical study because it tells us something about who we are in the present. It provides us with examples and lessons both positive and negative. Although not all of us have heard of philosopher George Santayana, we probably could repeat his assertion that “those who do not remember their past are condemned to repeat their mistakes.”

I don’t want to discount how important this perspective is. Part of the reason that so many counter-demonstrators turned out in Charlottesville on Saturday, and again in Boston this past weekend, is precisely because we know what can happen when we give this kind of hatred a foothold.

But for all the value of this approach to history, it is not without its problems. The problem with the idea of learning the lessons of the past so as not to repeat them is that it treats the past as something singular—as something that you can watch back from a single vantage point. It’s like we’re a basketball team in the locker room reviewing old game footage. Here’s what worked, and here’s what didn’t. It lets us treat history as the study of something stable and unchanging. Step one: Check what happened. Step two: If it’s bad, don’t do that.

Yes, the past can shape the present. But we must never ignore how the present shapes the past.

I’ve had more than a few conversations with Charlottesville residents where someone will object to removing the Lee statues because “you can’t change history.” To remove the statues would be an erasure of history.

They don’t see history as the negotiation in the present of a series of events that happened in the past, but as something simple, pure, unchanging. Something that exists objectively for everyone to see. Something that just is.

Now I am most certainly not saying that there isn’t responsible history and irresponsible history. There are good and bad ways of reconstructing the past. But no picture is ever complete; no one can ever tell the whole story. Even when we carefully interpret the sources, we have to choose what to include and what to exclude from our narrative; what to highlight and what to skim over.

This is a lesson my students and I are going to struggle with this semester. How can we possibly hope to cover 1,000 years of the history of a religion that spread over three continents and claimed millions of adherents? We will read fewer than .01 percent of the surviving texts from this period. And if that sounds inadequate, consider the lost voices of the millions who never put pen to parchment. What will our story look like? It goes without saying that I have had to make severe editorial decisions—decisions we will talk about and interrogate.

If someone were to have taken this class three or four decades ago, chances are they wouldn’t have heard a single woman’s name. They wouldn’t have explored the complex ways in which Christians thought about ethnicity. They’d learn a lot about “orthodox” Christians successfully defeating “heretics.”

This semester, my students and I going to spend a lot of time thinking about gender and ethnicity. We’ll talk about “identity.” We’ll talk about “orthodoxy” and “heresy” as social constructs. We’ll use social scientific methods to think about how and why Christianity spread so far. We’ll look at artistic and inscriptional evidence to see how more “ordinary” Christians—rather than the priestly elite—understood their religion.

The course will look very different not because our evidence has significantly changed. With a few notable exceptions, we have access to all the same texts and much of the same material culture that scholars working half a century ago did. But our concerns are different from theirs, and so our story naturally looks quite different, too.

My course's subject this semester might not appear directly relevant to the events that are taking place in Charlottesville. But I want everyone taking the class to be mindful that we are studying this material here, in Charlottesville, in 2017. I want us to consider how this present informs the past we are exploring. And I hope that in looking far into the past, we might be stirred to new visions of a different future.

EDITOR'S NOTE: These are slightly adapted remarks that the author wrote to be delivered on Wednesday, August 23, during the first meeting of his The Rise of Christianity lecture course.

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