David Carlson: Seeing the whole picture

History has always fascinated me. Some of my school friends hated memorizing dates, battles and presidents, but I loved all of that. But I also found history to sometimes be confusing.

From my Sunday school experience, I knew that the story of Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt was the most important story in the Hebrew Bible, what we were taught to call the Old Testament. I also knew that Jesus is the most important historical person in my Christian faith. Yet, I never found Moses’ name in the history of the Egyptian Empire, even as I never found Jesus’ name mentioned when we studied the Roman Empire in school.

That disconnect was my first insight into history not being what I thought it was — a record of all the facts. Rather, an historical account is like a photograph. A photograph does not show everything that the photographer was looking at, but what she or he considered most important. In the same way, an historical account does not include everything that happened in an era, but what a historian chose to focus on.

Moses wasn’t mentioned in Egyptian records because a slave rebellion wasn’t thought important enough to mention. The same is true of Jesus not being mentioned by Roman historians of the time. A rabbi who got on the wrong side of Roman authorities and was executed was not worth mentioning. Hundreds were crucified by the Romans.

The absence of Moses and Jesus from historical records of their eras says something else about history. The Israelites in Egypt were slaves, persons who didn’t matter in Egyptian society. The majority of early Christians were poor, either slaves or day laborers; again, people who didn’t matter in Roman society. Moses and Jesus were invisible to the historians of their eras because they came from social classes that didn’t matter.

I have been reminded of this as I work through The 1619 Project, what is a major source for critical race theory. This careful study by historians tells the story of our country from the perspective of Black Americans who were — and in many cases still are — considered people who don’t matter.

The fact that so many people want to prevent critical race theory from being even mentioned in schools proves that seeing our nation’s story from the bottom up, rather than from the top down, is painful. The historical “photo” we’ve been shown our entire lives turns out to not be the whole picture. And heroes we’ve all been taught to admire sometimes become those who intentionally created and perpetuated a system that kept one race on top and other races, especially Blacks, below them.

For ancient Egyptians to have recognized Moses as a divinely-inspired liberator would have demanded a conversion in their thinking. In the same way, for ancient Romans to see Jesus as a divine figure rather than a ragtag criminal would have demanded the same thing — a conversion in their thinking.

That same conversion in thinking is what critical race theory demands of contemporary Americans. And that makes the resistance of many white Christians to critical race theory so ironic. If any segment of American society should step forward and accept the need to repent, to be willing to face the whole picture, should it not be those of us who claim to be Christians?

David Carlson of Franklin is a professor emeritus of philosophy and religion. Send comments to [email protected]