My ethics professor at Duke, Stanley Hauerwas, had a sound bite. I can’t find the words in any of his books, but I remember him saying something to this effect: “The past is not the past until it’s been redeemed.” Those words have bounced around in my head like a pinball machine for years.
Here’s what I think he meant. If our past experiences haunt us in a way that still affect the way we live, they are not the past. Those experiences are very much part of the present. I have wrestled with this notion on both larger cultural issues and more personal ones.
For instance, I have wrestled with how slavery in the United States still impacts us today. It’s the original sin of our great country. Is slavery in the past? Yes. But it still affects much of our present situation. We have made huge strides, but we cannot say it’s been fully redeemed. Just the other day, I heard from an African American clergy friend who said, “My congregation won’t send their kids to Camp Glisson.” (Camp Glisson is a jewel of a camping ministry for kids sponsored by the United Methodist Church in Dahlonega, Georgia). I said, “Really? That never crossed my mind. Camp Glisson is one of the most amazing camps I’ve ever seen.” He said, “It’s not because of the camp. It’s a wonderful camp. Our families don’t won’t to send their kids into Lumpkin County because of all the racist history there.”
I don’t want to come across as judgmental to the folks in North Georgia. Part of the hardships of addressing sensitive issues is we pick sides and hold our ground. I’m not here to judge anyone except simply to describe peoples’ experiences and to take those experiences seriously. My hope would be for us to make strides in bringing about peace.
I do think it’s extremely important (if we are to make progress) to hear how the past affects the consciousness of the people in the present. And in this case, it’s my clergy friend speaking up for his congregation members. I believe in my heart God’s not done redeeming us! God has work to do. God can break the chains of our past if we acknowledge that the past still is not quite the past.
I imagine all of us struggle with our past. Some of you have wrestled with the oppressing guilt you have experienced over sins you have committed in your youth. (I often describe my years at UGA as the Egypt years). Or maybe there were circumstances you had no control over that have damaged you. It could be your parents’ divorce, a chronic sickness, an unexpected move to a new town. The past chains you down and keeps you from living into the future God wants to redeem.
Our hope for the world is peace. Peace may be the most elusive reality in the world. To be a people of peace, we have to overcome the obstacles the past uses to trip us up. In this season of Advent I recall the words of the temple priests Zechariah who prophesied about the role of his son John the baptist.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon[b] us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1:76-79).
John’s role would be to prepare people for a savior who would forgive their past and guide their feet into the way of peace. The reason we Christians make such a big deal out of Christmas is we truly believe the hope for peace in this world and within ourselves has come. God is here to redeem our past and give us a future.
I sympathize with how hard it is to let go of the past. I sympathize with how we are impacted by the past we had no hand in creating (like slavery). Do you have parts of your past you wish you could change? I certainly do. I bet you do as well. The reality is we can’t. We can’t hit the “edit undo” button. But God is in the business of redeeming the past. Paul remind us 2 Corinthians 5:17, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.”
The past doesn’t have to have the last word. Our past doesn’t have to hold us in its grip. God has a plan for a new creation. A dawn from heaven is lighting the path that leads into God’s preferred future. What steps out of the past might we take this Advent season?