Two things have caused me to think about such carelessness recently. The first has been a reading of historian Tony Judt’s Reappraisals: reflections on the forgotten twentieth century (Vintage 2009), a collection of essays on the people, places and memories of a turbulent past. The other has been helping Tim with his History GCSE where choices made from the syllabus overlooked the opportunity that a study of the great events of the last century might provide in favour of a history of medicine and the crimes of Jack the Ripper. I am struggling with the keyboard now not to imagine how schoolchildren in the early twenty-second century might interpret our lifetime through the distinguished prism of Katie Price and Peter Andre. Then again, perhaps that is all we will deserve.
The perils of new generations not understanding a past which is still obtainable for them through living testimony can be witnessed in Russia and China. A police raid on the headquarters of the Russian Human Rights organisation Memorial last year led to the seizure of its entire archive of testimony about the gulags and upon which British historian Orlando Figes based his remarkable book The Whisperers, telling the stories of how ordinary Russians coped with Stalinist terror. In such incremental ways the Russian authorities are proving able to alter perceptions of its dark twentieth century history. The slow rehabilitation of Stalin began under Vladimir Putin who, by chance, succeeded Boris Yeltsin as Russian President on the last day of the twentieth century, giving a little pointer for us to the continuity between epochs we have carelessly separated.
Meanwhile, China in June 2009 succeeded in quelling any memorial of the Tiananmen Square massacre of civilians by the People’s Liberation Army twenty years previously. The relentless and obsessive repression of what the Chinese government calls either ‘the incident’ or a ‘counter-revolutionary riot’ has succeeded. In a recent survey of students at Beijing University hardly any of the young people knew anything at all about the massacre of previous alumni, though they cannot be blamed for such ignorance. With our inattention to the last century, can we be sure that British children who grow up to deal with China as its business partners will know any more than those Beijing students do even with unlimited access to the truth?
The Christian faith itself is built on living testimony. In the sacrament of bread and wine the Church calls to memory the saving act of Christ himself and by the presence of the Holy Spirit bears witness to God’s goodness in the ordinary lives of its members. All that has been said above about inattention to the secular historical record has resonance for the Church. Lack of basic Bible knowledge among Christian communities and the growing pressure that both law and custom are slowly exerting not to share the faith publicly are unwelcome developments in our generation. The inspiration we can draw on is that testimony is individual: we have it in our power to change our world one word, one deed at a time.