Learning Nothing from the Past in Three Beautiful Ways


I will be teaching “History of Missions” again this coming term at Philippine Baptist Theological Seminary (www.pbts.net.ph). It is one of my favorite classes. I have yet to figure out how to get my students to share that interest. I don’t really want to fall into the “just show another video” mode.

This uninteresting fact was compounded by an article recommended to me by Warren Throckmorton.  The title is

Mormons and the Nazis: More about Glenn Beck’s Purple Triangle Story at Liberty University

Just to make it official… This is not a “Mormon (in this case, LDS)-Bashing” thing. At least for today, that’s not really the point.

The article was reflections on Glenn Beck speaking to students at Liberty University. Liberty is a conservative Baptist institution, while Beck is a Mormon political type. Obviously, the similarity of politics brought this person and this institution together, since obviously their theology wouldn’t.

Beck was talking about the use of the Purple Triangle by the National Socialists (“Nazis”). Beck said that the purple triangle was used as identification of “Biblical Scholars.”

In Throckmorton’s review he noted some issues with the historical inaccuracies here. But, a major point he made was that there was a bit of religious revisionism here. Why? Because Beck’s own group, the LDS, were accommodationists when it came to the Nazis. As an afterthought, Throckmorton also noted that Baptists as a whole were also accommodationists. The point being, Beck’s statement was inconsistent with the history of both his group and that of the majority audience.

Okay… So What? My interest was in the response to this article. The responses were typically by LDS folk and were generally different ways to learn nothing from the past. <Honestly, Baptists tend to be about as bad in this area.>

One method to not learn from the past is to be ignorant of the past. This can be effective… but it starts to fall apart when faced with historical facts (or historical fiction). Since, facts were presented in the article, the following methods were used to learn nothing.

!. Minimization. Some responded in trying to minimize the negative facts. For example, one suggested the fact that people back then did not fully understand how bad the Nazis were, made their response more appropriate. That makes no sense since the article referred to activity and beliefs commonly known… not to later attrocities.

It is always tempting to minimize the mistakes of one’s denominational history. It helps one feel good and learn little.

2.  Relativization. Some felt that the fact that many religious groups were accommodationist meant that they all should be equally identified– diluting the data. That would have been deceptive, however. The article was about an event at Liberty University. Beck described “Biblical Scholars.” It would have to be presumed that he considered some members of his own religion to be among the Biblical Scholars. His speech would be pretty confusing if he did not. It might also be presumed that conservative Baptists would also be among the Biblical Scholars intimated at by Beck. If not, the term would be extremely misleading. Based on the speech, one has to focus on LDS… and perhaps to a lesser extent, Baptists. Bringing in other groups would be inappropriate unless one knew for sure that Beck was referring to other groups. That is something that cannot be ascertained at this time.

Relativization is useful because it can hide unpleasantness in a sea of data. It can also lead to statements such as “we are not as bad as…” or “they are no better than us…” As long as others are as bad as us, we don’t really have a whole lot to learn.

3.  Obfuscation. Several respondents used this. For example, one mentioned American LDS individuals who fought Nazis during WWII. This clearly has no bearing whatsoever on the discussion. Let’s take my dad’s case for example. A lot of Baptists in Germany were accommodationists… and many Baptists in America did not want to go to war against anyone (Germany, Japan, or anyone else). I could seek to obfuscate this by saying that my dad (and many other Baptists) fought bravely on the American side during WWII. However, my dad served because he was the age where he would pretty much have to. His fighting in the Philippines against Japanese forces really had nothing to do with his own theological reflection with regards to Imperial Japanese beliefs and policies. His actions would have even less relevance with regards to denominational reflection on said beliefs and policies.

Confusing the issues or twisting the topic may help one win a discussion, but it also helps one to learn little.

But let me suggest a better way. Instead of minimizing unpleasant facts— instead of diluting unpleasant facts with actions of other groups to seek to relativize the situation– instead of obfuscating the issues with irrelevant discussions and facts— let’s just face the unpleasant the truth. We all are human. We all make mistakes. To err is human… but to learn is… divine.  When we don’t reflect and learn… we won’t learn… and eventually, others will notice.

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