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"History Teaches Us to Hope"

The long view of history eschews black and white thinking and the easy resort to despair. Both can be seen in the life of Robert E. Lee. Lee is a controversial historical figure in our current woke ethos. Few remember his significant contributions healing the deep scars of the Civil War. After his surrender at Appomattox, Robert E. Lee lived only another five years. These were his finest hours, when he did more than any other American to heal the wounds between North and South. If ever there was a man who could nurse a sense of personal loss and historical despair, it was Robert E. Lee. Two weeks prior to his death, Lee wrote these words to his military aide-de-camp who questioned the meaning of all that they had gone through together,

“My experience of men has neither disposed me to think worse of them nor indisposed me to serve them. Nor despite failures which I lament, of errors which I now see and acknowledge, or of the present aspects of affairs do I despair of the future. The truth is this, the march of providence is so slow and our desires so impatient, the work of progress so immense, and our means of aiding it so feeble, the life of humanity is so long, that of the individual so brief that we often see only the ebb of the advancing wave and are thus discouraged. It is history that teaches us to hope.”

There are lessons here for those who are grieving over the tragic surrender of Afghanistan. We need to keep a historical view, a view that is not well served by the constant “News Alerts” on cable channels.

The Afghanistan story has not ended despite our tendency to change the subject. Os Guinness reminds us that for any society that wants to be free it must accomplish three tasks: win its freedom, order its freedom, and sustain its freedom.

It is highly unlikely that the Taliban will be able to order its freedom. It will today face chronic resistance to Sharia law and draconian authoritarianism borne of a generation of young people who have experienced a modicum of Western-based freedom and aspiration. Feminist protests are already happening. While in 410 the Visigoth King Alaric successfully sacked the city of Rome and again in 455, the various Germanic tribes were never able to order the crumbling Roman Empire. What followed was 400 years known historically as the Dark Ages. A similar story is possible in Afghanistan. Even with the enormous lethality of the weaponry we left in Taliban hands, the most likely scenario is that the tribes will turn this potential violence on one another.

But another part of this story is closer to home. There remains an open question whether a perceived America in decline can politically sustain its freedom. Can we again affirm with conviction our core beliefs and ideals? Can we again find our footing in the world order? Can we move beyond a culture war political partisanship that inches closer and closer to overt violence? Can we affirm again together what it means to be an American?

If the Taliban has its hands full in ordering freedom, we have our hands full in learning again to sustain it. In both cases, history teaches us the fragility of nations and the slow movement of providence. It is a sense of history and God’s providential movement in it that can provide us with the equanimity that we need for our times. In this Lee was correct.


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