Winston Churchill is reputed to have said, “History is written by the victors.” If that is true, it may be because the losers are not around to write it, or it may simply be that they were outvoted. Churchill’s statement implies that, whether written by the winners or the losers, history is written with a particular perspective. Neither victor nor vanquished has a corner on the market of accuracy. Each would tell the story differently.
I wonder what the Philistine side of the story might have been had they had the opportunity to record their experience of being overrun by Joshua and the Israelites. As Americans observe Columbus Day, we are occasionally reminded that the Native Americans could offer a minority report on the “settlement” of this land. And I suspect that the Brits have a different take on the Fourth of July from that of the Americans.
Even from a theological point-of-view, the story is told from the perspective of the winners. For example, in 664 at the Synod of Whitby it was decided that, among other things, the Augustinian understanding of human sinfulness would prevail in western theology over against the Celtic (and Pelagian) view of human goodness. Only in recent years has the Celtic view begun to re-emerge. Among other writings, J. Philip Newell’s Listening for the Heartbeat of God (1997) attempts to integrate the virtues of both perspectives into one.
Most church histories and most histories of churches are not written from the point-of-view of winners and losers, of victors and vanquished. Most are written in an attempt to record, faithfully, the witness of past generations to the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and to show how that witness has contributed to who we are and why we are where we are, “warts and all.”
Nevertheless, in trying to record some aspect of the church’s past, the writer must make decisions about what to include and what to exclude. Deciding what to leave out can be as important as deciding what to include. Even in the Gospels we don’t have the whole story of Jesus’ life (cf. John 20:30).
One of the fascinating aspects of Scripture is that it is the story of God’s faithfulness to God’s creation and God’s people. Its focus is on a small group of people in an out-of-the-way part of the world that had no political or military power and lived, for the most part, at the whim of world powers that rose and fell over the centuries.
The central figure of the faith was born in a small town to two peasants. He never wrote a book or traveled more than a couple hundred miles from his home. He cultivated a group of followers who did not fully understand what he was about and one of whom betrayed him to the authorities who then conspired to execute him for sedition and blasphemy. In their eyes he was a loser. And yet, your life and my life are far different because of this one who “overcame the world.”
As we make history today, may we do so with a keen awareness of our limited perspective and of the fact that someone else might tell the story quite differently. We might not be wrong, but the larger picture might need the contributions of others as well.