How Could They Do That?

Thinking about Justice and Redemption in History

Alan R. Crippen II and Peter Edman

How could they do that? The question comes up inevitably when we read history. When we encounter people who failed, who oppressed others, especially people who claim motivations we share, we want to dissociate ourselves from them, even to question their contributions to human culture.

How could they do that? The question can also be posed with another emphasis: How were flawed people in their time able to create works of art and technology that inspire and equip us? How did they build institutions in which we have space to pursue justice and flourishing? How can we do the same in our time?

Even on a human level, to read history well is to ask both questions—to learn gratitude for people’s aspirations and contributions even as we recognize their flaws and failures, to treat their stories as we want our own stories to be treated. But the Bible also points us to another way to approach history.

Two solidarities. Historically, the Bible has positively transformed, even revolutionized understandings of human rights with its notion that every human being is made in God’s image (Genesis 1:27; 9:6). But the sacred text has at the same time advanced another idea: All of us have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23). From the beginning of the human story as told in Genesis 3, it is part of the human condition to hide our own flaws and point fingers at others. Perpetrators make victims and victims become perpetrators. It is little exaggeration to say that dignity and depravity are the two common and inescapable themes of our nature.

The Jewish rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, who is presented to us in Scripture as the culmination of God’s plan in history, invites us to a different way. His followers are instructed not to hide, but to ask God’s forgiveness for our sins. “Forgive us the wrongs we have done, as we forgive the wrongs that others have done to us” (Matthew 6:12). We are not to place blame, but to pass on forgiveness to others—to love others, even our enemies, as God loves us. We have the opportunity to escape being defined by our history, our family identity, our trauma, our brokenness. A new kingdom has come, and it is open to all. That is his teaching.

Hope in history. The followers of Jesus have, imperfectly but powerfully, demonstrated how a new life, and collectively, a new humanity, becomes possible because of Jesus’s words and actions. People who claim to be changed and empowered by God’s Spirit—members of the Christian churches—have introduced something new to history: hope. An interruption to cycles of violence, a restoration of relationships—even between victim and perpetrator, slave and free. A vision, not of mere justice, but of restoration, of wholeness. A vision of the gathering of all peoples and tribes and languages and nations.

The American experiment. The American experiment in government should never be confused with the church, but its form and its aspirations were shaped significantly by these biblical teachings, including the recognition that the Bible calls all nations to justice. The United States is famously founded on the premise that all people are created equal and endowed by God with dignity and thus with rights. Generations of immigrants have come to take part in the promise of such equality—especially equal justice under law. As a people, we have come to experience the liberty to try for new beginnings.

American history is marked by real struggles and setbacks in making these promises and liberties more evident to all, in a litany of injustice that too often seems ignored or even hidden. The sinful nature common to humanity is made more bitter in American culture by contrast with the high ideals for liberty and justice that we have inherited and profess. But our history also demonstrates achievements in realizing our hopeful vision of equality under law, and these achievements are no less real.

The freedom to believe, to gather together, and to express ideas are now being exercised by people from all cultures and faiths, by people still seeking faith, and by people who profess no faith at all. For nearly a quarter of a millennium, many have come to America in goodwill to raise families, form communities, build arts and industries, and make a nation together—each to pursue and perhaps find peace under our “own vine and fig tree,” in George Washington’s favorite biblical phrase from Micah 4:4. And within the limits of human frailty and the persistent temptations to sin, the people of the United States have unleashed significant, even unparalleled, good in the world.

The Bible’s heroic rogue’s gallery. We can and should raise questions about figures and trajectories in American history. As an epic story that addresses a divine encounter that shapes human history, the Bible can offer insight here as well. The Bible is uniquely honest about the ways we all sin and hurt each other, and the individual, familial, national, generational consequences of falling short of God’s glory, justice, and love. At the same time, the Bible insists that God is acting in human history for God’s own purposes, that God uses flawed individuals and corrupt empires, that God redeems sin and suffering, that God offers second chances—and gives new names.

The people whose stories are recorded in the Bible are sinners like us—even the heroes, the people who played significant roles in God’s plan. The biblical writers are careful to record, in embarrassing and often ironic detail, just how flawed they are. Moses, the great lawgiver, was a murderer. Aaron the first priest made a false god. David, the writer of poetry that has comforted billions of people, abused state power to cover up his adultery and his murder of his loyal rival. Solomon, the epitome of wisdom, distracted himself from his responsibilities with a harem of wives and concubines.

Jesus himself counted among his friends slave owners, thieves, bigots, swindlers, drunkards, prostitutes, cowards, traitors, nationalist rebels, and imperial collaborators. Peter, his foremost disciple, denied him. Paul was an accessory to murder and mob violence. All of these, and many others—outcast, ordinary, and even the occasional elite—found new life and new identities as his followers.

What we honor. These biblical characters are the people whose story we are invited to join. These are people God loved and redeemed. They are no different in kind from people in any historical period. They are no different from us either—except in accomplishment. Do their failures mean that they have nothing to teach us, nothing for which they are to be remembered, perhaps even honored? At what point would we let the consequences of our own sins obscure our love for our families, taint our public service, cancel the fruits of our creativity?

When the self-righteous political elite of the day wanted to eradicate the life an adulteress, Jesus intervened and said, “Whichever one of you has committed no sin may throw the first stone” (John 8:7). None did. Why is it that we still itch to throw? All hearts are mixed. Moral failure is part of the human condition. Forgiveness and redemption are qualities of the Divine, who alone has sufficient knowledge and love to judge well. And until the final judgment, Jesus not only offers us ongoing opportunities for repentance, new beginnings, and restored relationships, he teaches that we are to extend forgiveness, repeatedly. It is a condition of our own forgiveness (Matthew 6:12, 18:21–22).

When thinking of biblical heroes and historic predecessors, we can and should honor their faith and their feats. We can and should learn from their failures and foibles. We have the capacity to distinguish between such things, and we can ask God for the wisdom to do so. We can also learn to recognize the stories of which historical figures are a part—which also ground and shape our own stories and identities.

American Bible Society and the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center affirm the biblical principles of forgiveness and discernment. No person, nor even the social institutions and cultures people create, is beyond redemption. Our history is a reality that should not be erased, but rather faced without fear. We do not need to repeat past patterns. We can accept and engage with history in honesty, integrity, humbleness of mind—and gratitude. We have much to learn from history’s bright vistas, its dark valleys, and every place in between, as we cultivate the courage and character in our own time to be agents of justice who are animated by love.

The Rev. Alan R. Crippen II and Peter L. Edman edited the Faith and Liberty Bible (American Bible Society, 2021), from which this essay is reprinted by permission. Rev. Crippen currently serves as a member of the FLDC Scholar Advisory Council. Mr. Edman is director of content for American Bible Society.