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Choosing Our History

One of the remarks I found most interesting in Barack Obama’s inaugural speech the other day was his claim that “The time has come to . . . choose our better history.” Now on one level this could be taken as an innocuous statement that we should in some sense prefer to affirm the noble aspects of our national history rather than those of a more ignominious nature.

However, It seems to me that there is more to this statement, in the context of the entire speech than simply that. Rather it reflects a perennial problem of popular American historical self-narration. Namely the notion that we are able to narrate our history in a way that is selective. Why does it even make sense for us to be able to think that we are able to choose for ourselves our own “better” history?

The problem with this is that our “better history” is not true apart from our less-than-better history which lies all around it. The moments of nobility and within American history cannot be isolated from the totality of its story. The whole idea of America choosing its better history reflects the fact that ultimately America as a nation is not able to truthfully narrate its own history. Perhaps the most fundamental initiatives that made our country possible are the genocide of the native peoples and the enslavement of Africans. Could Obama have said that and got away with it? Doubtful.

At the end of the day the main point is that whatever our “better history” might be it is pretty small in comparison to our whole history. More importantly, the fact is that any “better history” we might isolate and point to as “our story” is ultimately a false history. And, as Bonhoeffer has rightly pointed out it is impossible for a community of peace to exist unless it is founded on the truth.

13 Comments

  1. John Santic wrote:

    Fantastic! In one sense if the scriptures were not founded on the truth (good and bad history) then all the embarrassments of Israel and the church would have been omitted. The foolishness of our story in light of the graciousness of God is what makes the scriptures trustworthy and suitable for building a future upon…

    great reflection

    Thursday, January 22, 2009 at 1:08 pm | Permalink
  2. Austin Eisele wrote:

    Perhaps “history” is really a metonym for “principles” in his rhetorical structure. “Choosing our better history” would then mean choosing our better principles. The brilliance in my mind to this rhetorical strategy is that he does indeed point out our faults – he mentions that his father couldn’t of eaten at a local restaurant 60 years ago, for instance – but instead of using a generic plea for “principles”, he concretizes this plea in specific narratives, whether it is revolution or civil rights. This adds depth and figure to a generic words like “principles,” which are too often construed as eternal truths come down without a narrative and without a history. If viewed in this way, I think Obama’s plea has quite the opposite intent from ignoring our past mistakes, because it requires looking at our principles in the context of periods where those principles have been abandoned, and struggle is needed to bring us back into line with them. Native American genocide and African enslavements are then perfect cases in point.

    Thursday, January 22, 2009 at 2:08 pm | Permalink
  3. Skip wrote:

    “Better” is very subjective. Better than what?

    The historical foibles of men attempting to bring about a heaven (as they define it) on earth?
    We must be wary of anyone or anything that promises that.

    The only government, the Kingdom of our Father, and the only President, our Father, are the only ones that we can put our trust or hope in.

    Skip.

    Thursday, January 22, 2009 at 3:27 pm | Permalink
  4. Ben Myers wrote:

    Yeah, I also thought that “the time has come to choose our better history” was one of the most interesting and revealing moments in the speech. And the violent flipside of this sentiment was expressed later, with his chilling remark to “dissenters” from the truth: “You are on the wrong side of history”.

    Thursday, January 22, 2009 at 4:29 pm | Permalink
  5. Roger Flyer wrote:

    Ben-
    I didn’t find that remark chilling. I remember it (I think in context) as a warning to tyrants and fundamentalist ideologues. Can it not be argued that they are on the ‘wrong’ side of history?

    Thursday, January 22, 2009 at 4:50 pm | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    I think the danger, Roger is the assumption that history can be so easily divided into sides at all. And the always-obvious assumption of Obama that the American ‘we’ is on the right side of history.

    Thursday, January 22, 2009 at 4:52 pm | Permalink
  7. Ben Myers wrote:

    Hi Roger! It’s always chilling when a nation-state assumes for itself the role of arbiter over the direction of history. America can judge the direction of history only insofar as America is, well, God. And when a state occupies God’s vantage-point vis-a-vis history, the state is also quite consistent if it tries to exercise divine judgment against all those who fall on “the wrong side of history”.

    That’s the problem with US foreign policy in a nutshell: America has not made any mistakes in its foreign policy — except for confusing itself with the last judge.

    Thursday, January 22, 2009 at 6:22 pm | Permalink
  8. Steve wrote:

    I don’t know enough about US history to know what its “better history” is that should be chosen, but in South Africa we had bad things, like apartheid, and the “better history” is often the history of those who struggled against it, because that too is part of history.

    Thursday, January 22, 2009 at 8:55 pm | Permalink
  9. Steve Martin wrote:

    I dunno, guys. As a Christian living in Canada I’ve got a double sense of distance from the empire, as some of us call it. And quite frankly I don’t trust Americans (or Canadians) to have the wisdom to elect someone as steward of that little red button. I doubt there’s a human being alive with the virtues needed to handle faithfully a thousandth of the power that Obama has as Commander in Chief. That said… Obama’s first act on taking office was to suspend trials of Guantanamo prisoners, then to order the closure of the base altogether. While these things take place within the time we call secular, they’re not insignificant–especially to a 22 year Canadian named Omar Khadr, who was arrested in Afghanistan at the age of 15 and has been subjected to brutal torture at the hands of the US military. While Christians can’t talk about Obama bringing the kingdom, and so will have to dissent from the popular majority, surely we can talk about–and pray for– a “better” government than one that detains and abuses children?

    Thursday, January 22, 2009 at 11:01 pm | Permalink
  10. kim fabricius wrote:

    Oh dear. Protesting too much (after all, Obama is hardly in denial of the underside of American history), no one seems to recognise the allusion – to the conclusion of Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address (March 4th, 1861) where, with the Civil War just months away, Obama’s hero expressed his earnest hope that “The mystic chords of memory” will yet be “touched … by the better angels of our nature.” So plagiarism, perhaps; but hubris or selective and distorted narration – that’s a stretch.

    Saturday, January 24, 2009 at 6:38 am | Permalink
  11. Roger Flyer wrote:

    Ben said: That’s the problem with US foreign policy in a nutshell: America has not made any mistakes in its foreign policy — except for confusing itself with the last judge.

    mmmmm…really? This must be an Aussie view. See Kim’s response directly above. I think Obama is keenly aware of our foreign policy underbelly. If Obama is not Lincolnesque in his stature yet, I think he will be. (And I, as an American, see that as the ‘good’ side of history.)

    and Steve-Amen, and even a couple props for the devilish empire!?

    Sunday, January 25, 2009 at 8:17 am | Permalink
  12. Ben Myers wrote:

    Hi Roger. I didn’t mean that statement as a general “Aussie view” of American foreign policy (after all, Aussie foreign policy has only one principle: do whatever America does!). Instead, I meant this as a description of a particular philosophy of history: the idea that any nation-state can reserve to itself the right to judge the direction of history. This is the right which Obama invokes when he condemns some world-leaders as standing on “the wrong side of history”.

    Sunday, January 25, 2009 at 5:49 pm | Permalink
  13. Philip wrote:

    Great reflection! I really enjoy the refreshing thoughtfulness of your blog and the seriousness you afford ideas and events which are truly becoming to a Christian.

    But I am afraid in this particular instance you read too much into Obama’s words. Having listened to the speech, I believe what he means by “better history” is simply that we must learn the lessons from “better” moments in the past. And is that not the end of studying history? To learn from gross mistakes and to continue in the path of what is good?

    The general point I will take the time to make here is that as Christians we must not shy away from being critical of Obama in an age of general optimism and infatuation with personality (which is not a strange thing to Americans). But I believe Christians lose credibility when they are too eager to criticize him.

    Tuesday, March 10, 2009 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

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