Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.


Those were the Days…or were they?


Vincent Bacote

02-17-2012


By Vincent Bacote

Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper was labeled a neocalvinist because he not only looked at the tradition behind him, but also at the present and toward the future. I have learned to appreciate this part of Kuyper’s legacy when thinking about how we, as Christians, should participate in the political world. 

We all come from somewhere; no one materialized ex nihilo without some connection to history. Our individual and cultural histories beckon us to look back at the successes and failures of leaders, communities and nations. One common form of political rhetoric is to hearken back to a notable person who accomplished great things or to a “golden era” when it seemed like the nation was in proper resonance with its greatest ideals and aspirations.  The past is certainly important, but what is proper continuity with the past while giving proper attention to the present and wise preparation for the future?  The phrase, “Those were the days,” may be anchored in truth, but attention to the complexity of human history reveals to us that no past was truly pristine. 

Two examples will suffice. When I was growing up in the 1970s, I heard some of my relatives say something that I could not comprehend: They would say that when it came to the overall experience of African-Americans, the days of segregation seemed better to them than the present. This made no sense to me because I knew that there were laws on the books that had made racial discrimination and segregation illegal, and that minorities  had many new opportunities  that were not available to them prior to the 1960s. 

What were my relatives saying? Certainly not that they desired the “good old days of separate-but-equal.”  I think they were recalling the ways that African-Americans took care of each other, as well as a way that life was less complex in some ways because the messy business of living in an integrated society was not a problem (and it is still a messy business).  My relatives seriously questioned if we were taking the right path to remedy the scandal of racial discrimination and wondered out loud if the earlier times were actually better.

The second example is more generic: Whenever we face political or social crisis, spokespersons for either side of the aisle often invoke a figure or set of ideas as key to addressing our current woes. As the 2012 Presidential election draws near, for example, some candidates frequently reference the legacy of Ronald Reagan, because they believe that Republican voters are searching for the candidate who can be like Reagan during his Presidency. 

But there is a problem here. The domestic and global landscape has changed dramatically in the 24 years since Reagan left office. So, even if there are elements of his legacy that might be helpful in addressing our current challenges with the economy and foreign policy, are we sure that the best approach for our 21st-century complexities primarily rests with revival of Reagan’s legacy? 

Continuity with past social and political traditions are very important, but we must ask ourselves how we should face the present moment and develop a vision for the future.  Whether we are talking about how to guide society toward a future where we achieve flourishing and harmony among our ethnically diverse society or how we creatively address the shifting security challenges in an age of terrorism and burgeoning democracies—whatever the issue—we must have a forward-looking rhetoric that presents a vision of where we can go, even as we recall the positives from a complicated history. 

Abraham Kuyper did not do this perfectly and neither will we, but the time is ripe for us to consider how to present our big dreams for the future.

—Vincent Bacote is an Associate Professor of Theology and Director of the Center for Applied Christian Ethics at Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL. He is also a Trustee of the Center for Public Justice.



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