Learning from History

The best learning from history allows us to make decisions and live more positively in the present because we can see the outcome of whatever the issue was in the past.  And, with reflection, hindsight is always 20/20.  I was thinking about this after reading an article in this month’s Smithsonian Magazine titled Unmasking Thomas Jefferson by Henry Wiencek.  Wiencek states that while we credit Jefferson with the noble ideals that founded our country – such as “all men are created equal,” Jefferson himself did not live his life true to that belief.  There has been much documentation of Jefferson’s slave holdings.  Now there is new evidence that was buried during research in the 1950’s that documents Jefferson’s harsh treatment of his slaves.  Jefferson himself didn’t do the punishing but certainly allowed, if not encouraged it, to take place through hired overseers who kept production lucrative at Monticello with slave labor.

Quoted in the article is the statement of a Virginia abolitionist, Moncure Conway, who said “Never did a man achieve more fame for what he did not do.”

Not to discredit the great contributions of Thomas Jefferson, as he lived in an era I can hardly imagine, but the words that stay with me are  “. . . what he did not do.”  Obviously, others in his time believed in equality enough to actually make changes in their lives and workplaces to see that their actions were consistent with what they believed.  Take for instance George Washington.  He made provisions in his will to free all his slaves, where Jefferson did nothing of the kind.  I’m sure Jefferson’s beliefs were strong – they have been the building blocks of this great nation.  But, how could he have lived his personal life inconsistent with such noble beliefs?

As I reflect on this my mind wanders to our time and the issues we face today in the Church.  How can so many believe in equality of genders while so few are willing to make whatever changes they can to see that actually come to fruition?  Obviously, we still have a very difficult time learning from history.  For any progress to occur many things need to change, and we need to do much more than merely talk or write about those changes.  We might actually need to accept the gift of grace and make our actions consistent with our beliefs.  Or else history may look upon us in our time as having achieved some kind of fame for what we did not do.

The old adage, “Actions speak louder than words,” is pertinent here.  Jesus was not afraid to act on what he believed.  As his disciples, why are we?

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