Solid History and Porous Memories: A Lecture Ignites a Debate on Ethics

One of the most common requests Spectrum gets is to publish pro/con debate articles. Unfortunately, they are very hard to produce, in part due to the difficulty in matching topics, qualifications, and convivial combatants. Thanks to the help of the Southern Adventist University history faculty, and the graciousness of the McArthur family, here Spectrum presents a debate in five parts. Part I is a student report on a lecture by historian Eric Anderson written by Theodore Rogers. Part II provides two voices of critique by historians Kevin Burton and Phillip Warfield. Part III is a general rebuttal by Anderson. Part IV is the text of Anderson’s lecture. Part V is the recent Adventist Pilgrimage podcast discussion on this topic. Spectrum hopes that this approach honors the legacy of Ben McArthur, in whose memory the lecture was given, and provides the wider Adventist community an opportunity to constructively reflect and act on the important issues raised below. —Alexander Carpenter

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

In both, politics and religion, there are only two social constructs - collectivism and individualism. Collectivism sounds appealing to a religious minded people - what is more Christian than working for others while promoting equality. The opposite of collectivism is individualism, which promotes, yes - the individual; and that sounds self-centered to a superficial reading of Christianity.

The current social climate is very focused on collectivism - identity politics. The individual has value only through what group they belong to, and under what “manifesto” they fly their flag. Individual definitions and even thoughts are not acceptable. This applies to religions as well as political groups, which makes political ideologies religious declarations.

When it comes to placing value on historical movements and the individuals within them, we need to look at them within the context that produced them. To judge the past by current norms is unfair; and, to vilify individuals for being part of their contemporary value system is also unfair.

Currently, the SDA religious atmosphere can be described as being multi-leveled, without any cohesion. The official church, as it sits in “Silver Springs”, focuses on preservation of its founding ideals. The collegiate group is focused on exegeses. In the mean time, the individual parishioner finds security within the church collective - (unless he/she doesn’t).

The current climate of collectivism has the opposite influence when religions and politics are considered. The current atmosphere, even on this forum, focuses on contemporary understandings of scripture that comes from study and change of perspective (like women’s ordination etc); but, the current politics is a hearkening back to the sixties, and the socio-political turmoil when the Black Panthers were creating havoc. They, in turn, were influenced by the socialist movement in the West. Some of the main characters of yesteryear, are now teaching in the country’s universities, producing a “marxists” focus on education and culture - where the collective is more important than the individual.
This ideology looks to create separation rather than union of the American people. It is in direct opposition to Martin Luther King, it is marxism, re-named CRT. This reaches into all area of life, even something universal as mathematics. To demonstrate - the simple question is raised - what is 1+1? The answer 2 is declared to be wrong. The explanation- when you add one drop of water to another, you don’t get two drops of water - just a larger drop of water. The individual is of value only in the “collective”. We are not considered of value to God based on what group we belong to. This goes for political unions as well.


Marxism=CRT…How about some accuracy rather than a repeat of what others claim. A google search will bring up both sides of the issue and makes it rather difficult to find real documentation rather than opinions. Here is one article that attempts to part the waters, others can be found also. Making the concepts equal is simply trying to disparage concepts that may a part of the other. In other words, one can find nothing good in one concept so anything borrowed from it is not good either.,,

From a religious perspective; Is Critical Race Theory Marxist?

We are already drifting from the focus of the debate in the article. This conversation might benefit from reflections such as:

What is the difference between intellectually engaging complex figures (reading, citing them as authorities) from the past vs. naming public structures after them?

In your own moral calculus, how do you decide when a person’s political or public actions obviate their value for you?


After reading the reviews Of Dr Anderson’s lecture, reading the lecture, and listening to the podcast about the lecture, I am struck that Dr. Anderson accomplished exactly what he set out to accomplish. He got people talking about the things they need to talk about. The historians in the podcast kept repeating what Dr Anderson was communicating, that as we learn more and more about our history, we don’t want to and can’t erase that history, but we need to recognize the flaws in all the characters of our history, just as we recognize the flaws in some of our biblical heroes. I think the important thing he said that was minimized was that we need to not only be honest with the flaws, but be honest with the strengths as well. I think by being iconoclastic he forced an important conversation. The late Howard Zinn wrote an excellent history titled *A Peoples History of the United States that discusses many of the issues raised in the discussion of our shared history. If we do not learn from history, we all suffer and are very likely to find ourselves living the same trials and tribulations of our forefathers. I would use, for example, all the current denial of the Holocaust, and the move in this country and internationally towards Fascist and Authoritarian Regimes. I think it is important to have these kinds of discussions both in the Church and outside the Church. Thank you for posting this.


There is a great line spoken by the F. Murray Abraham character in White Lotus, season two: “They used to respect the old. Now we’re just reminders of an offensive past everyone wants to forget.”

Theology has been bludgeoned by history, the other human sciences, and the natural sciences, and is currently a bloody mess. SDA theology remains pre-hermeneutical and heuristic. For example, most SDAs have yet to learn from history, contra classical and traditional theological teachings, that we are historically situated, that all knowledge is of a historical character, and that the reality we perceive, such as the texts we read, including the biblical text, is historically conditioned.

The scorecard in this debate is not what it seems. This is not an argument between a conservative lover of white privilege vs. sophisticated opponents of racism and slavery. It’s an argument between one who possesses what the hermeneutics literature refers to as historical consciousness vs. those who (apparently) do not.

What I like about Eric Anderson’s brilliant lecture is his imaginary dialogue with Benjamin McArthur, in which they both make their way around the hermeneutical circle. During this back-and-forth, Anderson acknowledges the sordid climate of opinion that led to the erection of confederate statues between 1890 and 1920. And he acknowledges the inappropriateness of the Nathan Bedford Forrest statue.

We draw lines all of the time, so drawing lines with respect to statues should not be too difficult for us. Relocating an offensive statue from the public square to a museum is not Mao’s cultural revolution but an incremental, conservative, and Burkean improvement of our society. We should be able to differentiate Jefferson and Lincoln from Klansmen and Confederate leaders. And we should be able to perceive the hermeneutical flaw in hairsplitting and caviling with respect to people in the past. Most everyone in the past was a racist, by the way. Even black people believed they were inferior to white people. Ellen White was a racist. She tacitly endorses the Curse of Ham theory in Patriarchs and Prophets and suggests in other writings that black people are the result of the amalgamation of man and beast. But Ellen White, Flannery O’Connor who wrote insightful race-conscious stories, including “The Artificial Nigger,” and similar others should be regarded as the allies that they are. Accordingly, as we draw lines, let’s be careful. Let’s be informed by history and not just our immediate feelings. This shouldn’t be too hard, at least for those us who regard the past, offensive and otherwise, as something we should not forget.


I am not a historian, but think I have read enough American History to distinguish between the “slavery” of our founders which they knew could not endure many more generations (so deferred it), and the reality of a “union” dissolving. When a nation is divided so markedly over an issue of humanity and rights, a war would be the worst resolution to the issue. But when economics and power, along with human dignity and rights are in play, the middle evaporates. A secession of some slave states is a mortal blow to the country’s future. By seceding, the other side feels “forced” to war to preserve the nation… Slave holding founders, culpable in their own ways, are not provoking a war to maintain slavery. That might make a difference in how one treats founders and the major figures of the confederacy, That difference should be negotiated on both sides and not lead to another war.

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That’s a nice thought; but, in the real world, the masses have very little influence to control or change anything. History has shown us there is usually just one, highly motivated, outstanding figure, or a small group, that brings about change. The masses have no means to articulate their wishes even if those wishes have commonality.

From the American experience, individuals had to step up, not without risk, to bring about the American revolution. They did represent the “masses” but not everyone has the ability or the circumstances favourable to initiate change.

In these days when awards are given out just for participation, so as not to offend, individual initiative is being played down. Competition is seen as a bad thing; but, as it applies to our young people, they need to have experience to win with humility, and to lose gracefully. Individual effort needs to appreciated.

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“My main point was to warn against the weaponization of history.”

"The ‘first step in liquidating a people,’ he [Kundera] wrote, is ‘to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history. Then have somebody write new books, manufacture a new culture, invent a new history.’”

“There is a demon named ‘Numbness to Nuance.’ And it can only be cast out with subtlety—and the scholarly equivalent of fasting and prayer.”

"The key question for me is ‘Can we learn from the imperfect dead?’”

I’ve read the material provided and listened to the podcast with interest. There is little I could add to what Burton and Warfield have already said, but I will attempt a few points.

First, the “weaponization of history” did not begin with those Anderson characterizes as “angry iconoclasts,” “zealots” and “statue topplers.” It began with white people who used their power to shape a national narrative favorable to their ambitions. They were the first “weaponize” American history. Indeed, African Americans know first-hand the “liquidation” of which Kundera speaks They know what it means to have the memory, culture, and history of their people erased and to have new books and a new history written overtop their suffering and accomplishments. “Mint julep” versions of American history books did just that. How could a historian could express alarm over the “erasure” of history and not once mention attempts, both past and present, to do that very thing with BIPOC history? It is stunning, really.

Second, I applaud Spectrum’s choice of a title image for this article, which offers a helpful critique. Anderson seems to hold to an outdated “great man” view of history. I am certain he realizes that history is about more than great men doing great things, but that gets lost in his presentation. To his credit, he does acknowledge that the statues of these “great men” have their own distinct history, apart from the men themselves. I wish he had explored that further. In my view, monuments as a form of memory lack the nuance and subtlety Anderson calls for. They do an injustice to the many “minor” characters and non-dominant narratives that hold up Suh’s monument.

Third, to Anderson’s question, “Can we learn from the imperfect dead?” I would answer unequivocally, yes. However, learning from an imperfect life and memorializing it are not the same thing. Indeed, the idealization involved in the latter may make the former more difficult. Furthermore, there is a pedagogical ethics that must be considered when working with “imperfections.” For instance, those who have experienced racial or sexual trauma in their past may be more affected by interacting with the history of those who have perpetrated these acts. We must be sensitive to that reality. An excellent reading for those who are interested in exploring Anderson’s question further is Karen Guth’s Ethics of Tainted Legacies: Human Flourishing after Traumatic Pasts (Cambridge University Press, 2022).

Finally, Anderson quotes an unnamed editorial: “A society that rummages through history
to hold those of the past to the woke standards of today will soon have no heroes to honor.” Should we really fear the loss of heroes to honor? Perhaps, we should thrill at the prospect of discovering new, unsung heroes. Indeed, If we were to “rummage through history” with “the scholarly equivalent of fasting and prayer” (as Kevin Burton has admirably done in his research), I believe that is exactly what we would find.

P.S. If you wish to read some nuanced historical journalistic prose from another perspective, I highly recommend Clint Smith’s How the Word Is Passed (Little, Brown & Co., 2021)


Donald R. McAdams had difficulty creating an account and requested that Spectrum post this on his behalf.

Eric Anderson’s critics seem to have missed his point. It is not about statues. It is not even
about Thomas Jefferson. It about the complexity of history, the nuances which shape the past
and which we must understand if we hope to understand the past. Tumbling statues are in the
news, so starting with statues and those whom the statues commemorate is a brilliant literary
device. And Jefferson is a good example of a flawed human who nevertheless deserves to be
commemorated, yes, even praised, as one of our essential founding fathers. One can pick away
at Jefferson. One can pick away at every major historical character, and for that matter at every
minor one. One can also pick away at the American experience. But one needs to see the men
and women of the past in their context just as one needs to see the American experience in the
context of the entire human experience. If we cannot do that, we will see the trees but miss the
forest. Eric sees the forest, as did our good friend Ben McArthur. His lecture is not only brilliant;
it is timely. Too many historians are narrowing their vision rather than broadening it, seeking
evidence to confirm a point of view rather than seeking to understand.


What is perhaps most concerning (and telling) is Anderson’s choice of “literary devices.” He chooses to focus on the statue topplers instead of those banning books and courses, for instance. Why is that?


Here are a few snippets from the Introduction to Karen Guth’s book, which I referenced in my earlier post. Looking ahead to the forthcoming chapters, she says:

“Tainted legacies have four constitutive features: First, they offer invaluable resources we need for human flourishing; second, they bear the marks of trauma that continually return; third, they compound this trauma with moral injury or institutional betrayal; and fourth, they pose the question of what to do with ‘remainders’ that not only threaten continuous harm but also produce practices and dispositions that detract from our well-being.” (27)

She then offers a typology of common responses to tainted legacies:

“The typology includes five types: ‘Deniers’ treat tainted legacies as nonissues; ‘Separationists’ posit neat distinctions between thinkers and their works or institutions and their practices; ‘Abolitionists’ reject the authority of thinkers and institutions and ban their ‘remainders’; ‘Revisionists’ reassess and reinterpret the legacy; and ‘Redeemers’ seek to salvage good from the ashes. I then present my preferred type: the ‘Reformer.’ This original constructive position incorporates aspects of some of the others but moves beyond the question of what to do with the material ‘remainders’ of tainted legacies to call for repair of the legacies themselves and the systemic injustices that produce them.” (27-28)

She then introduces the four case studies to which she applies her “reformer” approach (28-29):

  1. The tainted artistic legacies of Bill Cosby, R. Kelly, and others in light of the #MeToo movement
  2. The tainted public remainders highlighted in the Confederate monuments debate
  3. The tainted institutional legacies of institutions like Georgetown University
  4. The tainted individual and institutional legacies left by peace theologian John Yoder

She concludes:

“My overall aim in this book is threefold: (1) to identify tainted legacies as a distinct moral problem; (2) to demonstrate the invaluable contributions of Christian theological reflection and practice to public debate; and (3) to provide concrete guidance on practices to promote human flourishing. I argue for the importance of both repair in the wake of tainted legacies and the creation of structures of justice for future flourishing, showing how religious resources can contribute to these tasks in various cases prominent in American public life… It is my hope that this reflection will be helpful to anyone navigating painful pasts and their bearing on the future.” (30)

My initial conclusion is that the issues raised by Anderson require more than an historical lens. Historians like Anderson should work in an interdisciplinary fashion in order to provide a more robust response that encompasses the contributions of those who study trauma, moral injury, theology, and ethics in order to provide “thicker” descriptions of the problem and proposed solutions. His central question: “Can we learn from the imperfect dead?” is an important one. However, for me, his response falls flat and requires the nuance and insights of additional disciplinary perspectives.


And the Americans were not the first to weaponise history. The ancient Hebrews constructed an entire corpus of writings complete with a deity, elaborate rituals and a professional priesthood to elevate themselves to the status of “chosen people” and to justify the dispossession and genocide of the “heathen” nations.

Dr. Anderson noted the “weaponization of history” a few years ago, with discussions about removing statues. He’s a hundred years off. Those statues themselves represent a weaponization of history–they were erected specifically to erase history and to propagate a false version. And they were erected, not at the time of the Civil War, but later, specifically to remind Black citizens that power had been wielded by white enslavers, and continued to be held by the white racist power structure. And continues in some degree to this day–the bust of KKK founder Forrest was placed in the Tennessee Capitol in 1978. It wasn’t put there to remember history, but to send a message. And required decades of protest to get it moved.

Also I was amused by the observation that Jefferson proved Marx wrong, by writing words that were not economically motivated. Maybe so, but every single action of Jeffersons–remember? those things which speak louder than words?–was based on economics–all about maintaining his wealth and the power and privilege that went with it.


Hear! Hear! Well said.

Re:Jefferson, I recommend readers spend four minutes of their time listening to Clint Smith’s thoughts about Jefferson, Monticello, and the enslaved persons forced to live and work there. Jefferson’s legacy does not exist “in spite of” these enslaved persons but is very much entwined with and dependent upon them. We must never forget that. They are the ones at the base of Suh’s pedestal, and–if I had my way–would be the ones now in bronze atop it.

Anderson says that, “accurate history must recognize both Jefferson’s powerful principles as well as his imperfect practice.” However, in the interest of accuracy, what Smith and others would want us to recognize is that we cannot simply separate out the “good” from the “bad” in stories like Jefferson’s. Those “powerful principles” were, in many ways, a byproduct of the “imperfect practice” of Jefferson enslaving people to do the work that granted him the wealth and opportunity to accomplish what he did. This is what Smith says:

“It is the black enslaved families who lived on this land over course of generations—who built that land, cultivated that land, who made it what it was—who made everything that Jefferson did possible. It’s not even so much as, “This is the bad part of Jefferson, and this is the good part of Jefferson. We can recognize that these are two separate things.” They’re fundamentally entangled with one another. Jefferson doesn’t do the things that he does unless he has enslaved labor on his plantation, making it possible for him to write, think, and engage in politics, and do all these things while maintaining his home.”

Jefferson’s ideals did not transcend his “imperfect practice” in a disembodied way. Jefferson enslaved the bodies of black persons, which gave him the time to think and write about freedom. He did this rather than granting the enslaved persons at Monticello their freedom, which would have jeopardized his privileged way of life. Jefferson perhaps foreshadows today’s white liberal who may be more in love with the idea of justice (for personal, emotional, or political reasons) than doing anything practically about it. Therefore, Jefferson’s words are not merely a “promissory note” for the future, they are also a “permission slip” that white people continue take for themselves even today.


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