Order. Discipline. Brotherhood. Greatness.

COMMENTARY: Studying our history

The book, “We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families,” is at once both stunning and horrifying.

Searching for something to read, I picked up this 1998 bestseller at my daughter’s house. But I paused. Was the story of Rwandan genocide relevant or was it ancient history?

Then I remembered William Faulkner’s famous statement, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

As the teaching of history in schools has become a political football, it’s good to remember that history is always relevant, complex and very messy.

Philip Gourevitch’s book recounts Rwanda’s bloodbath, which killed 800,000 Tutsis in the course of three months.

The murder of Tutsis by their fellow countrymen the Hutus didn’t spring forth spontaneously. It had long festered, the result of inequality and class prejudice often fed by the forces of colonialism.

Unfortunately, when Europeans subjugated Africa, mostly for economic gain, they often brought a Christian religion that was part of the structure of dominance. There were, sadly, priests and other clerics involved in the genocide.

History should never be whitewashed simply to make a people, a country or a religion look good.

“Faith,” as the Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin wrote, “has need of the whole truth.”

Remember the Protestant Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, the Inquisition, and the ensuing Thirty Years’ War, torture and violence fought for religious and political domination.

Possibly 8 million people died in that 17th-century conflict, perhaps 40% of Germany’s population, over the course of 30 years.

We must be careful not to judge history’s figures by today’s standards, and yet we have to evaluate them honestly. One of my heroes is Winston Churchill, whose courage and eloquence led Britain through her darkest days. Yet Churchill was a colonialist at heart who saw the empire’s dark-skinned subjects as inferior.

The great 17th-century Jesuit, St. Peter Claver, is renowned for his work in Cartagena, the Caribbean port city infamous for its brutal slave trade. St. Claver entered the holds of slave ships to minister to the terrified occupants and spent his life working against the trade. But how to reconcile his heroism with the fact that he and his brother Jesuits also held people enslaved?

I think of my own family history. Those who weren’t Irish Catholic migrated in Colonial days to escape the persecution of Anabaptists in Europe. Unfortunately, they prospered in America by owning enslaved people. My grandmother’s grandfather fought for the Confederacy, defending a culture that subjugated other human beings.

So should my Irish forebears, fleeing the famine, escape history’s judgment? After all, in my family it’s easy to point the finger at the English and their merciless landlords. But then I recall the wagon trains that carried my great-grandparents to the Midwest.

There’s the story of my grandpa hiding under a shed while a group of Indian scouts rode past. No doubt, my ancestors thought of these people as savage, as perhaps the enemy on this rugged, hostile prairie.

Today, we see that inexorable march of white people claiming new territory as the harbinger of genocide for many Native American populations.

But how could my great-grandparents, fighting for survival, have seen that big picture?

Yes, history is complex, and to study it helps us examine our own blind spots.

The Jesuits have launched a Slavery, History, Memory and Reconciliation Project to confront their history, which in the U.S. involved using forced labor well into the 19th century.

We should never be afraid to confront the complexity of history. We should only fear those who want to cover it up.


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