To Be a Historian Is To Practice Resurrection

Yesterday would have been a special day for my friend and colleague Stacey Hunter Hecht: both Mother’s Day and her birthday. But Stacey lost her battle with cancer in December 2015, and so instead her many friends marked the occasion by reading a poignant poem newly written by her beloved daughter, Rosie.

It reminded me that a year ago this spring, the experience of eulogizing first Stacey and then another dear friend and colleague, G.W. Carlson (who died of a stroke two months later), moved me to reflect here on the relationship between death and my discipline:

In a figurative sense, I stand by gravesides most of the time I teach classes, write articles and blog posts, and otherwise interpret the past with and for other people…. twice in recent months I’ve had to speak a bit nearer to literal gravesides, about the lives of people with whom I already had relationships.

While it was what I needed to write at that point in my grieving, I’m not sure I went far enough. For if we follow Jesus Christ, then historians like me need to do more than stand by gravesides. That sounds too passive.

Instead, we need to get in the way of death and practice resurrection.

(Here too, as last spring, “The title of this post has been running through mind for several months now. I’m still not sure I know what to do with that idea, but I’ve been sitting on it long enough. Time to think out loud and see if anything sticks.”)

Those phrases hit me last month, while I listened to author and activist Shane Claiborne preach in Chapel at Bethel University. “We’re called to cultivate life,” he said at one point, “we are Easter people.”

That was a few days after Easter itself, when Crucifixion’s laments and Resurrection’s alleluias still echoed in our ears. But this many weeks into Eastertide, I suspect that most of us have resumed routines that serve to distract us from thoughts of death and new life alike.

So maybe we need to practice resurrection. Just as Advent trains us for expectation and Lent for repentance, maybe Easter needs its own disciplines to train us for hope and renewal.

If so, then I’d suggest that history can serve as both an academic and spiritual discipline, a way of getting in the way of death and practicing resurrection.

Claiborne, Executing Grace
Claiborne’s current way of getting in the way of death is to oppose capital punishment — indeed, he spoke at Bethel just hours after Arkansas executed Ledell Lee

First, history gets in the way of death.

Not that history stops people from dying — neither its subjects nor its practitioners — but it resists the power of death. For if Paul is right that death is the “last enemy to be destroyed,” then death is more than an event: it is an active force, one among the rulers, authorities, and powers that oppose God. Death doesn’t merely snuff out the spark of life; it seeks to strip humanity of the dignity inherent to being made of the image of God. Resurrection may bring change “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye,” but in the meantime, death lingers: slowly, methodically seeking to erase the meaning of mortal existence from our memory.

So if we practice the discipline of history, we act as a counter-force to death. We are not standing passively by the grave, but actively protecting against the decay of forgetting. For not only do we help preserve the evidence the dead leave behind, but we make meaning of lives that death seeks to render meaningless.

In the process, we practice resurrection. As historian Tracy McKenzie explains:

Because we cannot observe the past directly, we must puzzle instead over vestiges of that vanished reality, traces that endure in what historians call primary sources… Complicating our task is the reality that these echoes are always woefully incomplete…. What is more, those facts that remain never speak for themselves. They lie silent and inert until the historian breathes life into them and literally resurrects them by fashioning them into a persuasive interpretation” (The First Thanksgiving, p. 26)

In fact, the other textbook I use in Bethel’s Intro to History course makes a similarly extravagant claim. In his introduction to Why Study History?John Fea quotes John Tosh: “All the resources of scholarship and all the historian’s powers of imagination must be harnessed to the task of bringing the past to life—or resurrecting it.”

I don’t mean to claim too much with that phrase: we are not emptying tombs. Nor do we do the practical good that Claiborne and other neo-monastics have done when they “practice resurrection” by working to revive urban neighborhoods left for dead.

But I also don’t want to claim too little. It is no small thing to breathe life into what remains of the past by teaching, speaking, and writing about it. History is harder than most will ever know; it must be fueled by passion and compassion. Indeed, such “resurrection” is one of the most common ways that Christian historians fulfill Christ’s command to love our (temporal) neighbors: dedicating our time, energy, and gifts to bringing them — however briefly and figuratively — back to life, in all their messy complexity. We read historical texts, argues Fea, “for the purpose of learning how to love people who are not like us, perhaps even people who, if we were living at the same time, may have been our enemies” (Why Study History?, p. 131).

In the process, perhaps we might even bring some life back to our students and ourselves. Long before our physical demise, we suffer the creeping spiritual death of sin. Perhaps history can serve as a means of grace, reviving in us the ability to love God with our minds and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

“God,” preached Claiborne, “wants to the love world back to life through us.” May it be so, historians included.