The Complexity of the Distant Past

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The past is a complicated place to travel. As a straight, white, Christian, USAmerican man, I reap the benefits of privileges which I didn’t earn every day. I try to be cognizant often that among the giants on whose shoulders I stand are not only the great founders of our nation, but the slaughtered and oppressed First Nations people they conquered and the peoples of African descent they enslaved. Yet here I sit, not only enjoying the privileges which come from being part of this country but, for all her flaws, deeply convinced that the impact on humanity of that country and her ideals has been deeply, deeply positive. I’m not sure how to name the emotion I experience when calling to mind her victims–guilt doesn’t seem quite right because, even though I am indeed the descendant of slave owners and Confederate soldiers, only a second-generation Northerner, it doesn’t seem meaningful to experience guilt over things done well before my time. So let’s say discomfort, coupled with a conviction that I at least owe it to the dead from whose oppression I benefit to stand consciously in the tension of that discomfort for all my life.

Henry Karlson shares a piece today called “The Interfaith Significance of Alexander the Great.” Standards have changed sufficiently since ancient times such that a conqueror like Alexander would no longer be hailed as great but as a madman. Without seeking to impose the ethical standards of the present on a figure of the distant past–always a losing proposition–inflicting massive loss of life in order to gain control of territory for oneself is either evil or nothing is. Yet the fascinating meeting of cultures sparked by Alexander’s conquest, surveyed especially in their philosophical and religious traditions by Karlson, shaped the world the world we know. Without that Alexandrian intercultural exchange, the category of mystery cult seems inconceivable, and the mystery cult, when transplanted into a Judaic setting, is, well, about as good a working definition of the dawn of Christianity as I’ve encountered.

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