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Truth-Telling and Religious History: How Religious Historians Can Foster Reconciliation in a Divided Society

by Susan Fletcher, Historian and Archivist, The Navigators on

Regent University campus on the day of the rally.

In late October 2016 I attended the 30th Biennial Conference on Faith and History held at Regent University. Our theme this year was “Historians and the Challenges of Race, Gender, and Identity.” Talking about these subjects only a few weeks before the general election in November made the atmosphere crackle with urgency. I prepared a paper on how I interpret ethnicity at the parachurch ministry in which I serve as the Historian/Archivist and the practical steps that the ministry is taking to foster racial reconciliation within our ministry.

As I was getting ready to board my plane, I learned from my colleague (and guest AASLH blogger) John Fea that Donald Trump was going to “crash” our conference.  Surprise! At the last minute Trump decided to hold a campaign rally at Regent on the steps of the academic buildings where we had intended to hold our conference, so we had been displaced.  Regardless of our personal political views, I think that every historian at the conference was a little perturbed about this turn of events. Furthermore, this surprise rally was scheduled at the exact same time as my own panel session. (So much for hoping for a late-afternoon audience!)

On the big day, my fellow panelists and I sat on a park bench before our session, watching the rally supporters streaming in and philosophizing about the surreal nature of the day. With our conference papers in hand, we geared up to talk about racial reconciliation, religion, and empathy at the same time as a certain then-candidate was likely to deliver a different message a few hundred yards away.

 

Regent University campus on the day of the rally

After this experience, I have been thinking about what a religious historian’s duty is to historical truth in our current political climate. First of all, I think that as religious historians we may have more practice thinking and writing about the big concept of Truth than our colleagues of other sub-disciplines. Spiritual teachings are all very different across the spectrum of religions and cosmologies that we study, but there is something hardwired into most religions about the existence of some form of truth and humanity’s ability to know that. Truth at large was important to the historical figures that we study. Therefore, I think that religious historians are in a unique position to advocate for why truth is important in our own era too.

Secondly, it is vital that religious historians examine the concept of historical validity and how we can know what happened in the past. I hope that you will examine your own personal and professional commitment to historical validity.

Third, as a religious historian, you should consider which historical truths need to be told in your local context. As historians of religion, we have a duty to take seriously human beings’ spiritual frameworks and to examine how all kinds of religious groups are part of the fabric of history. Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus—every religious group deserves public historians who will take their life experiences seriously and who will do their best to present these experiences accurately, with empathy. What truths do you need to tell at your site of Jewish heritage or your African American church? What are some of the ways in which you can tell the truth about the religious group that you interpret in order to defend the vulnerable against the oppressor?

Lastly, what tools do you have in your religious-historian’s toolkit that will help foster reconciliation in our divided society? What are some of the ways that you can use your skills in analysis and interpretation to bring to light historical validity? Do you have a unique spiritual perspective that promotes forgiveness and love? How can you use leadership, cooperation, and concern for others to heal deep wounds within your organization or city?

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