Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Voices that Have Not Been Heard

When you read through ancient histories, you notice that you rarely hear the stories of the common people, the peasants and shepherds.   Most history is written “from above.”  This means the winning general, the king whose coup succeeded, or the merchant who cornered the market and reaped a fortune, writes the story.    It is written by the powerful and the wealthy.  The British historian J.H. Plumb, in his book The Death of the Past, observes that history is written to give sanction to the existing social institutions, government, and morality.  The writers seek to establish that the right people won and things are just the way they should be; they want to justify the status quo.

The Bible is different.  Those with power and status do not get to write all the stories. Here we find many stories written “from below.”  Peasants, fishermen, women, exiles, and slaves are prominent in many of the stories and are the ones who pass them on from generation to generation..  We get material that challenges the status quo, rails against the rich and powerful, and praises the common folk.  Jesus and Jeremiah were particularly pointed in exposing the flimsy claim of the status quo to legitimacy.  We do hear from kings and generals and landowners, but we also hear about the lives of their subjects, the victims of their conquest, and tenant farmers crushed by debt.  In the scriptures a voice is given to people who have no voice in other ancient texts.

Modern history is often written “from above” as well.  The majority dominant class gets to choose which stories are told and which stories are buried in obscurity.  This is the rational for Black History Month.  It is an effort to make sure that all the important stories of our nation get told.  Did you know that M. B. Rhodes, a black American, patented the first water closet that paved the way for the introduction of flush toilets?  Having spent time in places where flush toilets are not available, I appreciate Mr. Rhodes’ ingenuity. Did you know that Lloyd Hall, another black American, patented the process that cut the curing time for bacon from several weeks to a few hours?  (Too bad he didn’t invent the angioplasty at the same time.)  Did you know that Granville Woods, a black American, invented the third rail, a series of conductors that allow trains to move?  He also collaborated with Alexander Graham Bell so often that Bell frequently sent him to court to testify in patent cases.  (The Italians tell us that Antonio Santi Giuseppe Meucci invented the telephone, but he was too poor to challenge Bell’s patents; but I do digress.)  Matthew Henson and Admiral Robert E. Perry set out in March of 1907 to reach the North Pole.  They had tried twice before and failed.  On this third try, Perry fell ill a few miles from their goal.  Henson, a black American, continued to the Pole and planted the American flag.

During Black history month, we remember that some of the important stories of our history must sought out and recovered from obscurity.  We believe that all of us are made in the image God, gifted and precious in God’s eyes.  All of us deserve to have our stories told and our achievements celebrated..

Jim Kelsey

Executive Minister