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Is the Past just the Past?

08-21-2016Fr. John LettersFr. John Bonavitacola

Dear Friends,

You might not be living in the past but the past might be living in you.

A current example of this is Germany. As much as Germany tries to not repeat the mistakes of its 20th century past by being hyper vigilant with anything that smacks of Aryan racism, anti-Semitism or xenophobia it also makes it difficult to deal with current refugee challenges. Case in point: Bavaria’s intelligence gathering agency, announced “ISIS ‘hit squads’ had entered Europe with the flood of migrants that came across the borders over the last year and a half and irrefutable evidence that there is an IS command structure in place that will likely launch a coordinated attack on Germany.” Even with such evidence the German Chancellor still insists, “We can make this work”. At all costs Chancellor Merkel does not want to be seen in anyway as racist or xenophobic. If it wasn't for her country’s past she might be more sensitive to the dangers that the tidal wave of refugees pose to her country.

To be fair the US has its own past to contend with as well. The history of slavery has left a legacy of racism that we just can’t seem to shake off no matter how hard we try or how noble our efforts are at repairing the damage. We hear accusations of racism all the time and whether real or perceived they cause our country to be continually divided and our self-perception sags. But countries aren’t the only ones whose past can continue to affect its present. Families too are often plagued by things like alcoholism, suicide, mental illness and sexual abuse. While some of it may have a genetic component the sins of the fathers are often visited upon the children and grandchildren. How many times I have heard people declare: “I will not be like my father” only to turn out to be just like him.

Of course everyone who is old enough has his or her own past to contend with that often dictates how the present is lived out. Most of us can effectively deal with the past, make amends for harm done, find forgiveness for harms received and learn to leave the past in the past. But sometimes the past has consequences that live on beyond all of that. The fact is when we take the wrong action we don’t get to pick what the consequences will be. Simply put we can’t choose our dues.

I think of one young man convicted of statutory rape. He was 18yrs old and she was 17. He spent ten years in prison and now for the rest of his life will be a registered sex offender. He has had to learn to live under that and deal with the limitations it imposes on his life. Still while he is a different man today and is not repeating the mistakes of the past, the past is very much alive for him everyday. It’s now a choice for him as to how to live in the present without letting the past control his entire life. Of course the lesson for us is not to do things that create a past that we don't want to live with.

If you read the Bible you will see the same dynamic at work. After King David commits adultery and murder the prophet Nathan tells him: “the sword shall never depart from your house”. In other words the monarchy in Israel will increase in its dysfunction and eventually collapse. But the ultimate way the past lives in us is through Adam and Eve. Original sin as we call it has been passed on to each and affects the world at large. As the great English writer G.K. Chesterton often quipped: “Original sin is the only empirically verifiable theological doctrine.”

A sin-sick world populated by people who bear the effects of that sin, as well as their own, needs to be set right again. That of course is what Jesus came to do. His death forgives our past and rights our future. Despite the continuing effects of sin on our world it will not have the final word. Neither does your past need to have the final word on your present or your future.

So while you might be done with the past, the past might not be done with you. But that’s ok because we who believe have the promise of a better future.

Love,
Fr. John B.

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