This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Humility and the lessons of history

It’s rare for a religious discussion to remain in our mediaculture for long, but that’s been the case for President Obama’s comments at the annual National Prayer Breakfast on Feb. 5.

Obama gave a speech in which he compared Islamic violence with historic Christian violence. Political opponents expressed outrage. Jim Gilmore, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, called the remarks “the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime.”

In the speech, Obama said that “during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.”

He then brought his historical analogy closer to home: “In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”

From what I’ve seen, historians who’ve responded to the claims don’t take issue with his statements. Others, though, don’t like him criticizing Christianity or America.

This raises a question: Is it valuable to practice self-reflection (and self-criticism) as Christians?

A second question is, Is it fair to even call what was done in the Crusades, the Inquisition and in the American South Christian? Most Muslims would deny that what ISIS is doing reflects Islam.

In a Feb. 10 article at, Jamelle Bouie explores the facts behind Obama’s statement about Jim Crow. He makes two basic points: (1) it was worse than we may have thought, and (2) it was a religious ritual.

“In a recent report,” Bouie writes, “the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative documents nearly 4,000 lynchings of black people in 12 Southern states—Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia—between 1877 and 1950, which the group notes is “at least 700 more lynchings in these states than previously reported.”

He goes on to offer descriptions of a few of these “lynchings” (the word doesn’t capture the brutality of the torture and butchery), which are too horrible to quote here.

Bouie then notes that these lynchings weren’t just vigilante punishments or … “celebratory acts of racial control and domination.”

They were rituals.

He quotes historian Amy Louise Wood, who writes in her book Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890–1940: “Christianity was the primary lens through which most southerners conceptualized and made sense of suffering and death of any sort.”
Another historian, Donald G. Mathews, writes in the Journal of Southern Religion: “Religion permeated communal lynching because the act occurred within the context of a sacred order designed to sustain holiness.”

But why bring this up? What purpose does it serve?

Perhaps it’s a lesson in humility and a warning against self-righteousness. Jesus certainly had plenty to say about the perils of self-righteousness (see Matthew 23).

What ISIS has done is horrible—and comparable to what those “Christian” lynch mobs did. But let’s not judge all Muslims by that group. We don’t want all Christians judged by what other so-called Christians have done.
And let’s do some self-analysis as well. Are we not all prone to acts of domination or violence? Can we learn from our past in order to not practice such violence?

Maybe we need to practice confession and repentance on occasion.

Gordon Houser is editor of The Mennonite.

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