- Diana Bass
Here is an excerpt from Militant Nostalgia, a recent article that Diana Butler Bass has posted on her blog, The Cottage:
Religious communities are too often purveyors of nostalgia rather than history. This happens in overt ways — such as romanticized or divinized versions of church history — and more subtle ones. The overt ones are also obviously dangerous, like teaching that America was founded as a Christian nation or that God directed manifest destiny. Even if insiders hold to such beliefs, most outsiders see what is obvious and call it for what it is.
…Whenever the words, “the Church teaches” “the Tradition insists,” “Scripture is clear,” or “the Christian consensus is. . .” are uttered, I suggest a spiritual practice for discernment: ask questions. Because phrases like that indicate there’s probably something you aren’t being told — a richer, more diverse, and complex story, one that typically includes power and sin. Such veiled nostalgia is usually the product of someone else’s hankering for an old order, one that probably never existed in the first place.
I’m not being a debunker here. Nor a cynic. I’m pleading that we all learn to recognize the difference between nostalgia and history. Because nostalgia, even friendly-seeming nostalgia, isn’t really benign right now in either our politics or our religious communities. Gentle nostalgias give way under the stress of conflict and chaos. Indeed, nostalgia is radicalized fear. It is pushing history out of the public square, replacing it with demagogic nationalism. Some say we’re whitewashing history. I worry we’re painting it over with rosy hues.
Not only evangelical Christians, but also liberal Quakers are guilty of a nostalgia that falsifies history and produces negative effects in the present. We’re rightly proud of Friends’ leadership in the abolition of slavery, but it took over a century for the Society as a whole to condemn the practice. Our perhaps excessive pride in that accomplishment has led some Friends to be overly complacent about today’s anti-racism movement. We sometimes wonder how it’s possible for Quakers in 2022 to be racist, not recognizing that we are caught up in the systemic racism that plagues the country as a whole. And so, we’re sometimes lethargic in opposing the white supremacy that invades our own meetings. (I say that as one who is himself guilty of not working hard enough for social justice.)
Another example of a hurtful nostalgia is our attachment to the testimony of simplicity. Although Friends in the rural America of the past did generally live simple lives, we should remember that there were wealthy Quakers who enjoyed the good life that money can buy. Because we cling to the idea of our praise-worthy simplicity, we sometimes oppose or are slow to adopt technological change. There are meetings (not Old Chatham, I’m glad to say) that have been reluctant to use Zoom and large-screen TV’s to virtually connect with Friends who aren’t geographically close to a meeting, not to mention prospective members who could grow into Quakerism with the help of that technology.
I personally am both a theist and a Christocentric Quaker, but there are (I understand) meetings that have experienced friction between theist and non-theist members because of a nostalgia for our Christian roots. We live in the twenty first century, not the seventeenth! (I myself have only recently overcome—hopefully—the idea that non-theists are a threat to the Religious Society of Friends.)
Certainly, we should honor the past; but we should also be willing to embrace the future.
~ Richard Russell
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