When Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was published in 1902, it was not immediately considered a significant work. Yet today it is a must-read and studied in countless universities and colleges. The subject matter is intensely yet obliquely racist. Perhaps at the time of its writing, few readers felt that colonialism and empire building were detrimental to the conditions of people the world over. Power then, as power now, was at the apex of a great nation’s self-understanding and sense of worth.
In Conrad’s story, which is partly autobiographical, it is barely noted that there is anything wrong with the natives of the Belgian Congo being used as slaves to do the conquering white man’s work. So what if Belgium, France, and the British Empire keep expanding their territory? Power, wealth, and might reign supreme. Such was the cultural and political viewpoint of the early 20th century.
In reviewing history, we have to let history be just that, a time past. We cannot judge it nor cast aspersions on it from the point of view and the moral understanding of the 21st century. We can critique it but we cannot deny it. Nor can we change it on a whim. It is not ours to change. History must be treated as fact and acknowledged as such, whether people like it or not, whether it is shameful or glorious.
At the heart of the work of remembrance, of confronting the past through research and inquiry, is the need to learn lessons for the present and future. History does not change to satisfy our hopes and desires, but our moral sense can and must change as we learn from history. We the people are evolving, and history comes to the aid of that process of evolution. When we discover the positive aspects of our history, we can feel pride in our sense of accomplishment and progress. But the most important lesson of history is that we can learn from our mistakes.
In Conrad’s time of empire building, calling people savages or barbarians was commonly accepted. To this day, right and wrong, good and evil are changeable and conditional standards dependent on our sociological and political backgrounds. Devoid of loftier principles, these standards remain earthbound, firmly planted in this terrestrial existence with all its heady promises commingled with shattered dreams. At least, to our credit, empire building is no longer approved of in the eyes of the world. Modern states instead favor mutual cooperation and respect, though we still have a way to go in this regard.
Today we hear God and religion invoked in the American political arena as never before. Is this because one political party is more religious than another? Is it because Republicans are more aware of God among us than Democrats? I don’t think that is the reason. Religion, and more specifically Christianity, is part of our mainstream discourse today because certain beliefs and practices are associated with the way, according to some citizens, our country ought to be. A significant segment of our society wants things to be the way they were, and religion is very much about the way we were.
We can easily idealize the past. Perhaps it is because an ultra- or pseudo-patriotic temperament often intentionally forgets about the bad things that have happened and is inclined to remember only the good. We may see a particular time in history as utopian, “the best of times,” but the rest of that immortal opening sentence of A Tale of Two Cities also applies to our condition: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity . . .” This is history, and in confronting history we have to accept the entirety of humanity’s wisdom as well as its folly.
Many American Christians today wish to go back to another time when things looked rosier and our country was enviable, a city on a hill, a shining light for lesser powers to admire and emulate. Why can’t we do what we did then, think what we thought then, act as we acted then, hold our heads high as we did then? The answer is simple yet difficult to accept. We cannot relive any other time in our history because times change. The American way—the way of the world, in fact—must necessarily be amended to meet the needs and geopolitical realities of our age.
The majority of white evangelicals are acknowledged to be politically conservative, as people of religion naturally tend to be: religion is associated, and rightly so, with a distinctive timelessness and traditionalism. Evangelicals and others may feel that their beliefs and practices are slipping away from them because of liberal trends in an increasingly godless society. What is actually slipping away is a specific period in history. Like it or not, it is a morally relative society in which we live. Recall how racism and colonialism were viewed in the earliest days of the 20th century. We would like to believe that there are moral absolutes. Right and wrong, good and evil do not undergo radical changes as the centuries advance; they undergo circumstantial and time-honed changes. In every aspect of life, we have had to adjust to the way society is developing and its changing values.
Christianity has always been inclusive, not denying anyone a place at the table. Somehow along the way, some American Christians have come to believe that righteousness is reserved to white, hard-working, God-fearing men and women who belong to the land as the land belongs to them. This may be the way fundamentalist Christians saw their relationship to God and country in the past, but the times have changed, just as Christianity itself has grown and developed over the ages since the time of Jesus. Evangelism taken in the political sense that we know today has little to do with Christianity as the Evangelists of the New Testament saw it and wrote about it.
Have the evangelical conservative types simply fallen in love with a certain period in our own history when a Christian moral sense was dominant and the “little house on the prairie” was the ideal home of a God-fearing people? The white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant is now the Black or Brown believer, the Asian or Latinx Christian, the Pentecostal, Catholic, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, charismatic, and more. I say “is now” and not “has become”: titles can no longer hold and ought not to be the identifying factors. Titles divide and do not unite. Colors and ethnic origins do not make the Christian. An honest, Jesus-like moral sense is what makes a true evangelical—that is, one who is a follower of Christ according to the Gospels and the lifestyle of the early church.
Gene Ciarlo is an ordained Catholic priest no longer in the active ministry. He lives and works in Vermont. He has been writing for Today’s American Catholic since the early days of its publication.