As was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether” —Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address
In my final year of university, I worked as a tour leader in Europe. Along with two colleagues and twelve students cramped into VW buses, I crisscrossed the continent. We biked the countryside of Holland; kayaked on the Danube; gazed upon Stonehenge and Salisbury Cathedral; were dazzled by London, Paris, Rome, Florence, Munich, Madrid, Vienna, and Salzburg, each in its turn; and even climbed the highest mountain in Austria.
I doubt any of us will forget one day in particular. We set aside time for a visit to Dachau in the now leafy suburbs of Munich. Bare corridors of hell: Grim, spartan, efficient death chambers, cluttered now only with black and white photos telling the horrible story. No one said a word. There it sits untouched, just as it once was, on the outskirts of a booming, elegant metropolis. Since it has been preserved, one imagines it will never be torn down. A stark reminder of the horrors Germans perpetrated, it is maintained by them for just this reason.
Forty years later my wife and I were on research leave in Göttingen, in lower Saxony. The Berlin Wall now dismantled, and the capital city in various states of magnificent reconstruction, there on the border of the former East Germany is preserved a lone “Checkpoint Charlie,” near the village of Duderstadt. It is a carefully maintained monument to the evils of communism, with almost too much information crammed into its halls in an effort not to forget even one tiny bit.
The past is preserved in Europe. People know they are who they are in light of it. Light and dark intermixed—the soaring cathedral and the descent into infernos of war, pogrom, and holocaust.
2020 will be remembered in the U.S. for COVID, our reluctant and resentful flirtation with a disease whose cousins were ever present in past generations, much like the air one breathed. 2020 will also be remembered—if it too isn’t toppled and canceled—for a mentality that believes statues must be felled, complex historical figures eliminated, ideas and people we now judge lesser than ourselves expunged. We are an enlightened age, and from our high moral perch we gaze down upon the past and declare what must go and what can stay.
Where did this mentality come from and why does it stand out in its confident, staggering self-righteousness? Why is it that Angela Merkel—daughter of an East German pastor—shudders when a Silicon Valley mogul with more money than a former DDR economy declares what can and cannot be said?
I teach the Hebrew Bible for a living. Often people have decided way ahead of time that this Old Testament is chronologically deficient, so I am accustomed to this sort of mentality. Chesterton called it “chronological snobbery.” What has always sobered me, after years of studying and teaching the Old Testament, is this question: What kind of people write history in which they are so obviously placed in a bad light, with their faults exposed, sins recorded, errors in full view for all to see and recall—complaining Jonahs and scandalously deficient monarchs? In some ways, the Old Testament is a monument much like a Dachau in a suburb, or a carefully preserved Checkpoint Charlie.
One could say that this is what makes the Old Testament record what it is—because the people loved and chosen stand under the Holy God and are accountable to him, and not to themselves or others. “My sins are ever before me,” says the psalmist. And this same psalmist declares that there is one who forgives, who places sins far away, as far as the east is from the west, so that we might fear him.
Today, we construct standards of morality from whatever enthusiasms are winning the day. We throw the past into the river, topple inconvenient reminders with righteous urgency, and haul away by night statues, language, and customs we have judged less worthy than ourselves. All so that we might forget we too are standing under a higher authority, and that inside of each one of us are monuments to wrongdoing. And there is no place to dump this where a future generation cannot find it. There on our outskirts is the Dachau after all.
Cancel culture is not just a culture that cancels the past. It is a culture that cancels culture itself, that rich paradox of the good and the evil, the enduring and always present past.
Lincoln lived in this frame of mind. It makes him our greatest and wisest president. “As was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said.” And with that, his mind and heart moved effortlessly to the words of the nineteenth psalm of the messy King David: “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.” He was a president mindful of, and standing confidently under, the eternal judgments of a higher authority, which leavened the hard judgments he would himself have to make so as to heal a nation torn asunder.
Christopher Seitz is senior research professor at Wycliffe College in the University of Toronto.
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