I was tired at work last night. So tired that I had to resort to the Stay Awake playlist on my phone. This is a no-ballads collection of songs that are fast and loud. Lots of Ramones and mosh-pit standards, but also toe-tappers, barn-burners, and cheesy arena-rock sing-alongs. Anything to get the heart pumping a bit.
And since I was bouncing around the Big Box at four in the morning, singing along with Joan Jett, when I woke up today I still had “Bad Reputation” bouncing around in my head. And that, in turn, prompted me to recall having written something or other here once that invoked that song.
I looked it up and here it is: “Bad Reputation: The right subject, the wrong question.”
That’s a February 2019 post discussing Jonathan Edwards and slavery. Specifically, it’s about the grave danger of getting distracted by considerations of Edwards’ “reputation” instead of addressing the urgent matter of how this massively influential theologian being Very Very Wrong without even seeming to know it likely means that those of us influenced by him may be Very Very Wrong as well.
And so that 2019 post includes this analogy:
Think of it this way: You’ve just spent several hours in a small room with someone who you later learn is carrying a particularly nasty and contagious strain of the flu. I suppose one reaction you might have would be to ponder how this influences your perception of that person’s “reputation,” or to muse about how you might therefore recalibrate your sense of how best to commemorate that person.
A more urgent, wiser and far more constructive response would be to think about when you had your last flu shot and whether or not you’ve just contracted the disease or if you’ve since passed it on to others.
That analogy lands a little differently today than it did in 2019, before the pandemic and before the organized whitelash to the Black Lives Matter protests turned “critical race theory” and the 1619 Project into the bogeymen of a Red Scare revival.
What do we do when realizing that the theologians who shaped us were defenders of and participants in atrocities? What do we do with the realization that our nation’s history is, from the very start, intertwined with the accommodation and defense and promotion of monstrous injustices?
The first thing we should do is make sure we haven’t caught their soul-killing disease and we aren’t passing it on to others. We need to get tested, get treated, get vaccinated, mask-up, and wash our hands. If we discover that we’ve potentially been exposed to something deadly, we need to isolate ourselves until the test results come back indicating whether or not we’ve been infected. Lives are at stake. Love and justice and prudence and self-preservation all pull in the same direction here, urging us to protect ourselves and thereby to protect those close to us and everyone we may encounter.
When I wrote that two years ago, I knew that many people would be vehemently opposed to such steps metaphorically. I wouldn’t have guessed at the time that so many people would also turn out to be opposed to such steps literally. And it has been revealing to realize that it’s largely the same group of people who are opposed to both.