Nearly 250 people showed up at the John Paul II Center (in Denver, CO) in early May " double the number we expected " for a history lesson. They filled the seats, lined the walls and then spilled out of Rooms 123-125 and jammed the corridor outside.
Why did they show up? They came to hear a talk about the Crusades. But why did they really show up? I think they wanted to recover something they sensed had been stolen from them: their memory.
Anyone who reads George Orwell's dark novel of the future, 1984, will remember the following lines:
"He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future."
Memory is a powerful thing. It helps form who we are, how we think and what we do. By influencing our choices here and now, memory encourages a certain shape to the future " and discourages others. That's why every new ideology and generation of social engineers seeks to rewrite the past. Whoever controls the memory of a culture also has power over its future.
That's why today's European Constitution makes no mention of the continent's profoundly Christian past. By writing Christian faith out of Europe's history, secularists hope to wipe it out of Europe's future. The same applies in our own country. No one can read the founding documents of the United States without seeing the deeply religious " and especially Christian " spirit that informs them. People who deny that do so for a very simple reason. By scrubbing God out of America's history, institutions and public discourse, they hope to scrub Him out of America's future.
We have a duty to prevent that. We have the obligation to keep alive the real facts of real history. When Pope John Paul II called on us during the Great Jubilee to "purify" our memories, he asked us not to forget the hard events of the past, but rather to remember them more humbly and clearly.
Lasting reconciliation between aggrieved parties always begins with an honest, mutual examination of past sins. This requires an accurate historical record. As Christians, we need to repent of our own many sins and acknowledge the sins " sometimes, terrible sins " committed by Christians in the past. We also need to invite, by our example and by our commitment to telling the truth, the repentance of others who have sinned against Christians " sometimes, terribly " over the centuries.
Unfortunately, over the past few decades, the confession of sins has often seemed like a Christian monologue. That isn't just. It isn't honest. And it doesn't serve charity, because charity is always wedded to truth.
Nearly 250 people showed up at the John Paul II Center last week to hear a lecture on the Crusades because, for most of their adult lives, they've heard critics distort and misrepresent Christian history in general and the Crusades in particular. They sense they're too often being short-changed by the movies they see, the "scholarship" they read and the commentators they hear, but they don't know why. They sense that the Crusades " despite their many failures and the grave sins committed on both sides " were nonetheless, in the context of their times, also acts of piety, deep faith, nobility, heroism and self-sacrifice with the purpose of liberating the Holy Land and ending the oppression of brothers and sisters in Christ.
Ridley Scott's has a new major film on the Crusades, "Kingdom of Heaven," which opened this month. Whether it's accurate or inaccurate as history makes a difference. At a minimum, the controversy surrounding it should remind us of the urgent need facing Christians to recover, understand and protect our memory as a believing people who have a decisive role in history. The past shapes the future. We can at least do our best to ensure that the past tells the truth.